In Georgian England, chimney sweeps took boys from orphanages and homeless children from the streets as indentured servants and apprentices. What they looked for were small boys, usually between five and ten years of age, to clamber up narrow chimney flues and clean out the deposits of soot. Newer kinds of house design, taller buildings and regulations against house fires had resulted in flues twisting and turning as they avoided living spaces and becoming ever narrower as they rose higher.
Pushing brushes up from below proved impossible with the technology available, so children were expected to climb up inside the chimney, brushing and scraping the flue with hand-held brushes and metal scrapers. The underfed, stunted ones were preferred as better able to fit narrow, twisting flues. Feeding a child well and encouraging sturdy growth would soon make him useless.
Faced with such confined spaces, many of the boys were reluctant to wriggle too far in case they got stuck. If that happened, the master sweep or his assistant would ‘encourage’ them upwards with pokes and prods. If they were too high to reach in this way, a small fire was lit in the fireplace beneath them to force them onwards. The boy’s job wasn’t complete until he had put his head out of the top of the chimney and come back down carrying a bag of soot. This was sold to farmers for use as a fertiliser.
The master chimney sweep was supposed to teach such boys his trade and be responsible for their feeding, clothing, and housing. Some may have done, but the general treatment of ‘climbing boys’ as they were known was terrible. It was dangerous and filthy work and many suffered injuries and deformities as a result. Eye inflammation and respiratory illnesses were common, as was ‘chimney sweep’s cancer’ caused by irritation of the skin by coal tar soot.
Here’s a contemporary account of conditions from “A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweepers in London & Westminster” (London, 1785).
“We may figure to ourselves, the boy called from the bag of soot on which he slept, oftentimes walking a mile or two to his work. We seldom behold his nocturnal toils, and combats with the literal powers of darkness; but in the day we frequently see him, blasted with chilling cold, wet to the skin, without shoes, or with only the fragments of them; without stockings; his coat and breeches in tatters, and his shirt in smutty rags; sometimes with sores bleeding, or with limbs twisted or contracted, whilst his misery is rendered more pungent by his task-master, who has no feeling of his sorrows!–You who have the hearts of men, and who have opportunities of seeing human misery, will contemplate the condition of these poor beings, and judge if this picture bears a genuine likeness.”
Attempts to Ban the Practice
Still the practice went on. In the 1760s, Jonas Hanway, a wealthy London merchant and philanthropist, campaigned to improve working conditions for sweeps’ boys and an Act of Parliament in 1788 specified a minimum age of eight for these so-called apprentices. The Chimney Sweeps Act of 1834 outlawed the apprenticing of any child under the age of ten to a chimney sweep. In addition, no child was to be employed in cleaning chimneys under the age of fourteen. This was raised to sixteen in 1840. It all sounds positive, but none of these regulations were ever enforced.
Justices and Overseers of the Poor, desperate to find work for growing numbers of abandoned or orphaned children, were a prime source of fresh victims. This is part of a deed of apprenticeship for a boy of 9 from the borders of Herefordshire and Worcestershire in 1800. It’s good to see the boy was to be washed once a week and not forced to go up any chimney actually on fire!
“Between John Woodyatt of Netherley and William Jauncey (Chwdns) and William Jauncey and Henry Dangerfield (Overseers of the Poor) and Joseph Lloyd, Chimney Sweep, of Dymock.
… do put and bind Joseph M, a poor boy of this parish, being of the age of 9 years or thereabouts, to be apprenticed to the said Joseph Lloyd to learn the Trade, Art, Business and Mystery of a Chimney Sweeper … and with him to serve during the term of seven years … his secrets keep, and his lawful commands everywhere gladly do and perform. He shall not haunt ale houses nor gaming houses, nor absent himself from the service of his master day or night …
Whereas it is necessary for the boys employed in climbing to have a dress particularly suited to that purpose, the said Joseph Lloyd is covenanted to find such suitable dress, and over and above one whole and complete suit of clothing, with suitable linen, stockings, hat and shoes… and further that the said Joseph Lloyd shall once in every week cause the said apprentice to be thoroughly washed and cleansed from soot and dirt … nor shall Joseph Lloyd require or force the said apprentice to climb or go up any chimney which shall be actually on fire …. but shall in all things treat him with as much Humanity and Care as the nature of the employment of a Chimney Sweep will admit of …”
Note the weasel words at the end, “… treat him with as much Humanity and Care as the nature of the employment of a Chimney Sweep will admit of …” These men knew using boys in this way was bound to cause misery, pain and hardship.
It was not until Charles Kingsley published his sentimental tale involving a boy chimney sweep, “The Water Babies”, in 1863 that the public’s conscience was stirred. Even then, an Act passed the following year did not eradicate the problem. Not until 1875 were master chimney sweeps forced to obtain a licence to operate and the police tasked with ensuring all relevant legislation was enforced.