Fleet Street, the supposed home of the dreaded barber, has long been associated with newspapers, booksellers and the printing industry. Most English people could neither read nor write at the beginning of the 18th century, though literacy grew as printed materials became more readily available. The first newspaper, or "one-sheet," to be published in London was the Daily Courant, which ran from 1702 to 1735. Mass publications like the Courant found an increasing audience, and London had upwards of eight daily newspapers in publication at the century's close.
Books in the 1700s were terribly expensive, being printed and bound by hand, and sold in very limited editions. Few people could afford them, so they were available to the mass market only in serial form or in cheap pirated copies. Episodic stories, which eventually evolved into the English novel, were distributed to the public through newspapers and other printed entertainments. The novel as we know it actually materialized between 1715 and 1750, and was largely the achievement of four professional writers, all of them Londoners. These pioneering works include Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Tobias Smollett's Humphrey Clinker and Roderick Random, and Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (the very same law enforcement pioneer who formed the Bow Street Runners).
This period witnessed a rising interest in the natural sciences. Rather than relying on theories passed down through generations, barber-surgeons began dissecting bodies; botanists went out into fields to collect samples; geologists dug up fossils with their own hands. The more bizarre the discovery, the more the public's curiosity was aroused. So-called Books of Wonder became highly popular, chronicling "strange but true" phenomena such as dwarves, hermaphrodites, and other "memorable accidents and unheard-of transactions."
A generation later, when readers were illuminating their books with flickering oil lamps that cast spooky shadows across their heavy Victorian rooms, horror tales became an immensely popular form of entertainment. Monsters, vampires, ladies in distress, sensational criminals and unspeakable acts of terror populated a new type of publication geared toward the masses - the penny dreadful. Also known as bloods and shilling shockers, penny dreadfuls were inexpensive novels published in serial form, usually eight pages at a time. Distributed at newsstands and dry goods stores, they were cheaply made so they could be sold for a penny per copy, hence their name. Penny dreadfuls were gory and violent, with graphic, lurid illustrations. Henry James' The Turn of the Screw was a penny dreadful serialized in 1888. Michael Anglo notes in his book Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors, "There were dark dungeons and torture chambers, sepulchral vaults, secret panels and stairways, cobwebs, and bats. The eerie atmosphere, reeking of the charnel house, was designed to make the hackles rise, the flesh creep, and the blood curdle - no easy task in the days when people were inured to the gruesome and the macabre by the frequent public hangings and floggings, and the sight of criminals' decomposing corpses dangling on gibbets."(1)
Like tabloid newspapers today, penny dreadfuls were churned out at a furious pace. Publishers unscrupulously culled their ideas from whatever sources they could find - popular fiction, legendary tales, newspaper accounts of petty crimes - and embellished these stories with as many gruesome details as possible. The sinister Sweeney Todd made his print debut in issue number 7 of The People's Periodical and Family Library, dated November 21, 1846. He appeared as the villain, an evil, murderous barber, in a serial written by Thomas Prest with the improbable title "The String of Pearls; or the Sailor's Gift. A Romance of Peculiar Interest." Todd was only a secondary character in this story, but his activities earned him the moniker of "the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" right from the first publication.
Read other 18th century periodicals from the British Museum's Newspaper Library
Visit Stanford University's Collection of Penny Dreadfuls & Dime Novels
Read more about penny dreadfuls from a collector's point of view
Read a copy of the Annual Register from December 1758