The Role of Children

Did you ever wonder why so many pictures depict children as chimney sweeps? It was understood even in the Georgian period of British history that chimneys had to be brush cleaned. Because of the lack of proper tools, and because the flues of the time were often about seven inches wide, using children was a necessity. Only a child was small enough to fit inside the chimneys to clean them!
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In England, during the 1700’s and 1800’s, Master Sweeps would buy young children from orphanages and take in young homeless children from the streets and turn them into indentured servants. These were usually small boys between the ages of 5 and 10, although most were under the age of seven, and some were even as young as four. These boys were used to clamber up chimneys to clean out deposits of soot. The chimney sweep master taught them the trade while being responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing them.

From before dawn until afternoon, the “climbing boys,” as they were called, passed through the city’s streets announcing their services with cries of ‘Weep! ‘Weep! The job for these climbing boys was to climb up inside the chimney, brushing and scraping the flue as they went, using small hand-held brushes or metal scrapers to remove the harder tar deposits left by wood and especially coal fire smoke. They weren’t done until their heads poked out of the chimney top. Because the chimneys were extremely narrow, many of the children were reluctant to wriggle into them. However, plenty of encouragement was provided. It was a common practice for the master sweep or his assistant to actually light a small fire in the fireplace or hold lighted straw under their feet or even poke and prod the children with pins to force them up to the top. It has been said, that that is where the saying “light a fire under you” comes from.

Working conditions for the climbing boys was harsh and cruel. It was a dangerous and filthy job for the boys to undertake, especially without the protection of safety clothing and respirators, and many suffered from job related ailments, such as twisted spines and kneecaps, deformed ankles, eye inflammations and respiratory illnesses. Many also suffered from the first known industrial disease ‘chimney sweep’s cancer’ caused by the constant irritation of coal tar soot on the naked skin. Sadly there are recorded instances where these climbing boys choked and suffocated to death from inhaling the chimney dust or from getting stuck in the narrow and convoluted chimney flues. Casualties were also frequent as many boys were maimed or killed from falling or from being badly burned.

Sadly, living conditions were equally deplorable. These young chimney sweeps would sleep in cellars on bags of soot collected from the chimneys they swept. Often the soot would be dumped out of one of these bags and that same bag would then be used as a blanket at night. They were often sickly, rarely bathed, and learned to beg handouts of food and clothing from their customers as all the money they earned went to their masters. The soot they collected was sold to farmers for fertilizer.

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

A poetic depiction of what life was like for these climbing boys can be found in two books of poetry by William Blake: Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794).

A contemporary account of the life of a chimney sweeper was recorded in 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.

This practice of using children went on many years before Acts of Parliament, finally approved by the House of Lords, outlawed the use of Climbing Boys. In 1864 Lord Shaftesbury brought in the “Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers” which established a penalty of £10.00 for offenders. Other contributing factors to ending the use of children as chimney sweeping implements were the widespread introduction of gas heating and the invention of mechanical chimney sweeping tools. An engineer, Joseph Glass, from Bristol, England invented the earliest forms of brushes and rods which are still used to this day. The other method of cleaning chimney flues which came from England was the ball, rope and brush system which is also still in use to this day.

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