William Jarvis And The Demon Barber

My great great great great grandfather was a man named William Jarvis who was born in 1757. He lived at Hen and Chicken Court, which is just off Fleet Street today, round the corner from the Old Bailey. Read on to discover his amazing story.

London in 1757 was a city undergoing enormous change. At the beginning of the 18th century, London had a population of 630,000 but in truth was still a series of contiguous communities spread along the Thames, each of which was within easy reach of open fields. By the time William Jarvis was born, the city had begun to escape the magnetic attraction of the river, primarily driven by population growth to 740,000.

The grandness of emerging the West End of London

With much of the land owned by aristocratic families, the development of housing was driven by those landowners leasing their land to developers who in turn handed substantial control for the types of buildings erected back to the landowners themselves. As a result, by the 1750s two London’s had emerged - the rich and opulent West End with classical georgian buildings; and the poor and squalid East End.

Sandwiched between the two was the City of London, finally rebuilt after the great fire, with grand buildings such as the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England. Yet, despite the increasingly international financial prowess, much of the City of London was a disorderly neighbourhood with lively markets and open sewers.

The slums of East End London

It was on the fringe of the City of London that my great great great great grandfather William Jarvis grew up. I can find little about his upbringing other than to understand the environment he grew up in. King George II died and gave way to King George III in 1760, which coincided with a population explosion in London that forced London to rapidly develop in order to feed, water, clean and care for its inhabitants. The port of London became increasingly important as trade expanded so young William Jarvis experienced the building of huge docks to the east and the creation of massive warehouses to store the landed cargo.

Around 1777, William Jarvis married Sarah and they lived close to the Old Bailey on Fleet Street at Hen And Chicken Court on the corner of Fetter Lane - a narrow alleyway named after a local inn. Little did they know that London’s greatest serial killer ran a shop nearby.

Hen And Chicken Court Today.  A narrow alleyway off Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd, opened his barber shop at 186 Fleet street, right next door to St Dunstan’s Church. He had learnt his skill as a barber while serving five years in Newgate Prison after being wrongly convicted of stealing a pocket watch. A fellow inmate named Elmer Plummer, serving ten years for fraud, taught Sweeney how to cut hair and shave and also showed him how to pickpocket customers.

When Sweeney was released from prison he decided to apply his new found skills in a rather horrendous way. He opened a barber’s shop where customers were seated in a revolving chair above a trapdoor that led to a disused cellar. When the trapdoor was triggered, the customer and the chair would swing down and an identical empty chair would swing up and take its place. Sweeney would then head down into the basement and slit the throat of the customer lying unconscious on the cellar floor, robbing him of his valuables and money.

He then transported the dead victim through a disused tunnel below St Dunstan In The West Church to his business partner and lover, Margery Lovett, who ran a pie shop nearby. She would turn the man who had merely gone to see Sweeney for a haircut, into pie filling.

Sweeney Todd killed over 150 customers before being caught and was hanged outside Newgate Prison on 25th January 1802. To this day, he is still considered to be London’s greatest serial killer.

It is during the notorious years of Sweeney Todd’s murderous spree that William and Sarah Jarvis gave birth, at Hen And Chicken Court, to their son. Born on the 24th July 1781, he was christened and baptised in St Dunstan In The West Church on Christmas Day 1781. They named him after his father - William Jarvis - and he was destined to be my great great great grandfather.

Of course, the story of Sweeney Todd is actually fiction! It was a very popular story of the time. It is therefore with a bucketload of irony that baby William Jarvis decided to grow up and become a hairdresser!

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