Swept under the carpet

Although called ‘apprentices’ chimney boys were in fact little more than child slaves
A chimney boy with the master sweep

Following my last column about the advent of insurance after the Great Fire of London, I wanted this week to talk about another, unsettling consequence of that disaster.

While researching fire marks, I began reading about the practice of sending small children up chimneys to clean them. I hadn’t previously fully appreciated just how terrible it was, and what a truly shameful part it plays in our history.

Chimneys, in the form that we know them now, didn’t really exist before the 12th century. As my dad explains in his column from 25th August 1979, when buildings were single storey, fires were built at the centre of the house to heat the whole building and smoke escaped through a hole in the roof.

As building techniques developed, and more floors were added to homes, they had to find another way of getting rid of the smoke. So the fireplace was moved to the edge of the room and passages were built within the walls to direct the smoke upwards and outside. Thus the chimney was born.

Before the Great Fire in 1666, chimneys were large enough for a fully-grown man to climb in and clean away the soot. However, following the disaster, fire safety regulations were introduced imposing restrictions on the width of chimneys. Some were no more than 18 inches wide, and many had corners and twists and turns that were impossible for adult men to navigate.

So it became commonplace to send small children up into the chimney stacks. Although these children were officially called ‘apprentices’, they were in fact no more than slaves. Boys (and occasionally girls) as young as four would be taken from the streets, or bought from orphanages or impoverished parents. Once they ‘belonged’ to the master they were treated no better than dogs.

It must have been terrifying to be sent up into these dark, cramped, sooty tunnels, and masters would sometimes light fires below or stick pins in their feet to make the petrified children ascend. These ‘climbing boys’ used their elbows and knees to shimmy up the chimney, holding a brush over their heads to dislodge the soot, which was collected in sackcloth lying at the bottom, and given to the master to sell.

The youngsters worked non-stop from morning until night, were rarely paid, were fed basic rations, and were left to sleep among the coal sacks.

The consequences on their physical health were dire. As well as skin infections caused by burns and open wounds on their elbows and knees, they would suffer soreness of the eyelids and mouth, stunted growth and deformed ankles, and breathing problems due to inhalation of soot. By their teens, many had started to suffer from what was known as ‘chimney sweep’s cancer’, a painful and fatal carcinoma of the scrotal sack, which has the distinction of being the first identified ‘occupational’ cancer. Not only that, but throughout their miserable lives they would have been deliberately underfed to keep them skinny, and then tossed like rubbish into the street once they grew too big.

Although a number of acts were passed aiming to stamp the practice out, they were largely ignored, not only by master sweeps who feared losing their livelihood, but also by institutions like the police, churches, factories, hospitals and municipal buildings that knowingly employed them. In other words, for years and years, the authorities turned a blind eye to the appalling suffering of thousands of children.

It took the death of 12-year-old George Brewster in 1875 to put a stop to the outrage. George was sent up a chimney at Fulbourn Hospital in Cambridge, but became stuck. Rescuers had to dismantle a wall to get him out, but it was too late, and he died from suffocation. Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, had long been campaigning against the use of climbing boys, but it was following George’s death, which he cited in Parliament, that his Chimney Sweepers Act 1875 was passed. It introduced annual licensing for chimney sweeps and the enforcement of the law by the police.

George Brewster’s boss, William Wyer, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six months in prison with hard labour. George certainly wasn’t the first to die this way, but he is the last known climbing boy to perish, and I hope you’ll take a moment to think of him, and the countless other children who suffered.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 23rd  August and the Gazette & Herald on 21st August 2019

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