Children as Chimney Sweeps in England – A Terrible Chapter in History
Did you know that there’s a terrible chapter in the history of chimney sweeps? Children were widely used as human chimney sweeps in England for about 200 years, and the lives of these little ones who were forced to climb chimneys were the stuff of nightmares.
The prominence of using small children as chimney sweeps began after the Great Fire of London, which occurred September 2nd through 5th, 1666. The medieval City of London was gutted in the fire; and afterwards, new building regulations designed to keep the city safer were put in place. Fireplaces had to be built a certain way, with narrower chimneys; and it became more important to ensure that the chimneys were free of obstruction after a liberal amount of usage. This is when the shocking use and abuse of children as chimney sweeps became widespread.
A young boy was traditionally purchased from his poverty-stricken parents by a master sweep, who would so-called “apprentice” the child; but what actually occurred was that the child became, in essence, a slave who did not have a realistic opportunity to advance in life. Children who worked as sweeps rarely lived past middle age.
Child chimney sweeps were required to crawl through chimneys which were only about 18 inches wide. Sometimes their cold-hearted masters would light fires to spur the sweeps on to climb more quickly.
The ideal age for a chimney sweep to begin working was said to be 6 years old, but sometimes they were used beginning at age 4. The child would shimmy up the flue using his back, elbows, and knees. He would use a brush overhead to knock soot loose; the soot would fall down over him. Once the child reached the top, he would slide down and collect the soot pile for his master, who would sell it. The children received no wages.
The health effects of doing this work were devastating. The children often became stunted in their growth and disfigured because of the unnatural position they were frequently in before their bones had fully developed. Their knees and ankle joints were affected most often. The children’s lungs would become diseased, and their eyelids were often sore and inflamed.
The first recorded form of industrial cancer was unique to chimney sweeps. The boys would often develop Chimney Sweep Cancer, which was cancer of the scrotum which usually struck the boys in their adolescence. It was a painful and fatal cancer.
In addition to these health hazards, the boys would sometimes get stuck and die in chimneys for various reasons.
The boys usually slept in a cellar among the black sacks used to collect soot. Some say they bathed about once a week, and other sources say they only bathed about three times a year. And the boys were mercilessly made to work from pre-dawn hours until late at night, reportedly having only one day off per year. Their holiday was Mayday, the first day of May, or “International Labour Day.” The children celebrated by parading through streets, dancing.
Gradually steps were taken to put an end to the shamelessly cruel treatment of chimney sweeps. A classic piece of literature called “The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby,” written by Reverend Charles Kingsley, was published in full in 1863 and helped the cause. It’s a story of a little boy chimney sweep who escapes his cruel life and goes on a fantasy adventure.
Then in February of 1875, a 12-year-old chimney sweep named George Brewster became stuck in Fulbourn Hospital chimneys, where he was sent by William Wyer, his master. An entire wall was pulled down in an attempt to rescue the boy, but he died shortly after the rescue. Wyer was found guilty of manslaughter. More importantly, Brewster’s death became part of an aggressive campaign. A bill was pushed through Parliament in September 1875 which put an end to the practice of using children as human chimney sweeps in England. George Brewster was the last child to die in a chimney.
Unfortunately, The United States of America still used children as chimney sweeps for some time after it was outlawed in England, but that’s a different though similar story.
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