Working Boys' Clothing: Chimney Sweeps


Figure 1.--We have not yet been able to find a photograph of a child chimney sweep. There are numerous illustrations, but here we are unsue as to their accuracy. Here is one such depiction. The illustrator here is Mike Lacey and appeared in "Victorian Britain".

Through the first half of the 19th century, English home owners cleaned their chimneys by hiring chimney sweep to bring small children to go up the chimeys to clean out the soot. Chimey sweeps either used theirown children or hired or bought boys from poor families. I believe this was a common practice throughout Europe, but only have information on England. Here it was the punlication of Charles Kingsley's satirical work The Water-Babies (1862-63) in serial form that compelled Parliament 1-year later to outlaw the practice. We have not yet been able to find a photogrph of an actual chimey sweep. The British Government prohibited the use of children before photography became commonplace. we are not sure of the time-line in other countries. There may well be some photograph of child sweeps, but we have not yet been able to find one. There are numerous illustrations, but here we are unsue as to their accuracy.

Chimney

Most homes in European cities were heated by burning coal. This meant that homes all had chimneys. Both wood and coal fires produce soot. Gradually the soot builds up inside the chimney. Not only does this prevent the chimny from working efficently, but it is a fire hazard and thus must be removed.

Cleaning Chimneys

Cleaning a chimey is not an easy matter. Chimeys are generally vry narrow. They can be cleaned with specil equipmnt. Commonly in the 18th and 19th century and more inexpensive approch was taken. Children small enough to still fit inside the chimney passage were used.

Child Sweeps

Through the first half of the 19th century, English home owners cleaned their chimneys by hiring chimney sweep to bring small children to go up the chimeys to clean out the soot. Chimey sweeps either used theirown children or hired or bought boys from poor families. I believe this was a common practice throughout Europe, but only have information on England.

The Children

No parent wanted their children to be chimney sweeps. Only the most desperate would permit it. Commonly master sweeps would purchase children from orohanages or work houses. It ws even legal to capture vagrant street children and force into what amounted to child slavery. As far a I know only boys were used.


Figure 2.--Here is a museum display of a chimley sweep in Britain. A reader tells us, "This summer I visited a Museum near Manchester: Salford Museum - Larkhill Place. It is a museum of house fronts from a variety of places in Salford. These historical building fronts have been put together to make a street called Larkhill Place which is the name of the museum. There is a gas lamp in the middle of the street. Standing by it is a boy chimney sweep. He is complete with little brush and chimney sweep brushes and poles. He seems to be dressed well but his hair is long black and greasy looking.

The Work

The master sweep would send the little sweeps up into the chimney, There they would clean the inside wall with their bare hands or scarapers. The children would scrape their fingers, elbows, and knees on the bricks and mortor, especially as the passage narrowed. Often they had to be forced into the chimney. Climing up was difficult and scary and painful if they had injuries from orevious jobs. Some sweeps might be afraid of climbing very high. The master sweep might light a little fire in the fireplace using straw or paper to force the little sweep all the way to the top. Presumably this is the origin of the expression "to light a fire under you".

Dangers

Working as a sweep was very dangerous. Only young children could be used. Once a child began growing he could no longer fit in the narrow chimney passage. It also was a reason for not feeding the children very well. Skinny children even if a littloe older could still be used as sweeps. The children were at risk in several different ways. They could get stuck or sufer grave injuries if they fell. Some were killed and broken bones were not uncommon. There was also the health hazzard of chockinbg and the long term effects of breathing in soot. Many children were scared for life from all the scrapes.

(John) Valentine Gray

John Valentine Valentine Gray was a 10-year-old chimney sweep was from Alverstoke on the Isle Of Wight. He worked in Newport, the island's main town as a chimney sweep. He fell to his death through exhaustion and physical abuse in the first few days of 1822. His body, covered in bruises with a severe blow to the head, was found in an outhouse in Pyle Street where he slept and public indignation was one of the factors which led to the Climbing Boys Act (also known as the Childrens' Employment Act). His master, Benjamin Davies, was eventually convicted of his manslaughter. He and his wife were imprisoned. The passageway on the site where he died has now been renamed Gray's Walk. A plaque is attached to the alley wall and he has an obelisk memorial in Church Litton recreation ground, which was once the churchyard.

Prohibition Campaign

We know little about the effort to prohibit the use of children to sweep chimleys. Presumably this occurred in most European countries. At this time we only have information on Britain. A group in ERngland concerned about the exploitation of children founded the "Society for Superceeding Climbing Boys" (1803). The groups objective was the promotion of cleaning equipment rather than boys to clean the chimneys. In the 18th century such equipment did not exist. George Smart invented effective equipment. Joseph Glass made importnt improvements (1828). The use of the equipment, however, did not catch on. Master sweeps were reluctant to change, especially because the ue of boys ws cheaper thn he quipmet. The House of Lords voted down a bill to ban the use of children under 10 as chimney sweeps (1804). MP H. Bennett sponsored legislation to stop the most serious abuse of child sweeps (1817-19). The issue was debated by notablefigures of the day like William Wilberforce (the anti-slavery crusader) and the Earl of Lauderdale. No progress was made until a law was finally passed prohibiting anyone under 21 years of age from clining chimneys (1840). The law proved ineffective because the fines were so small. It was until the publication of The Water-Babies that public opinion finally demanded action (1862-63). [Wilson, p. 299.] Lord Shaftesbury introduced an act which imposed a 10 fine. At the time this was a considerable fine for a master-sweep to pay. Passage of the act finally ended the practice of child sweeps (1864).

Charles Kingsley

While children were terribly exploited in Victorian England, there were also many who were apauled by the way children were treated. One such person was Charles Kingsley. He was a clergyman and wrote the classic book The Water Babies.

The Water-Babies

The Waterbabies by Charles Kingsley was published in 1862-63. It was not a children's book. but rather a piec of social satire. It was serialized in Macmillan's Magazine (August1862-March 1863). Boys in the 19th century night be sold by their parents or might never know them. Some lived on the streets supporting themelves by begging or stealing as depicted in "Oliver!". Some were taken in by adults because they could work. Such was the case of Tom in The Water-Baby. Kingsley writes, ""He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor knees and elbows raw; and when the soot got into his eyes, which it did every day in the week; and when his master beat him which he did every day in the week; and when he had not enough to eat, which happened every day in the week likewise." [Kingsley, p.13.] Kingsley points out that the boys rarely saw any of the money they earned. He writes, "He lived in a great town in the North country, where there were plenty of chimneys to sweep, and plenty of money for Tom to earn and his master to spend." [Kingsley, p.13.]

Sudbury Hall

The British National Trust has a Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall. The Museum is geared to giving children a sence of childhood in earlier times. Especially notable is a Vicrorian/Edwardian classroom and a nursery. There is also a chimney set up so that childtren can get an idea as to what a little chimney sweep faced.

Country Trends

There must have been child sweeps in many different countries. Of course climate was a factor here. There was more need for sweeps in nothern countries like Britain, Scandinavia and Germany than more southerly countries like Spain and Italy. I have never read much about sweeps in America. You would assume that they existed, but I know nothing about them. American in fact when they think about sweeps are more likely to think about England than America. We also note sweeps in Germany. A reader writes, "Recently read a Reuter's report about German Chimney sweeps. They were very important people. The sweep business stayed in the same family from one generation to another. I am sure that the article said that there were town laws that guarnteed the sweeps fee for keeping the chiney's clean. I think each sweep was in charge of a section of the town. It was like a chimney sweep community charge everyone paid it to the chimney sweep. Wonder if there was a ceremonly costumne which the sweeps wore and whether a sweeps children also wore the uniform too! This seems to have been a well respected trade and I think the sweeps today have similar rights and privledges. There is gnashing of teeth now because there are not so many chimneys to clean and there is resentment at paying this charge for a service that is not needed in most homes."

Imagery

We have not yet been able to find a photogrph of an actual chimey sweep. Photography was developed at the end of the 1830s. Photography in the 1840s was very expensive and it is unlikely that any portraits were made of child chimney sweeps. The cost of a photographic portrait had declined substantially by 1860, but was still expensive. We do not know if any portraits were made of child sweeps. The British Government prohibited the use of children as sweeps in 1862-63 before photography became commonplace. This was also before photography was commonly used to document social problems. There must, however, be a few photographs of the sweeps. we are not sure of the time-line in other countries. There may well be some photograph of child sweeps, but we have not yet been able to find one. There are numerous illustrations, but here we are unsue as to their accuracy. A HBC contributor writes, "I have a big collection of images of The East End and Victorian London. I have never seen a photograph of a child chimney sweep. It may be worth noting that the first images of expolited children were made by Barnardo's some years later and I don't know if it would have been thought an appropriate thing to record previously. Altruism didn't seem to be a facet of society before Climbing Boys were outlawed!" I'm not sure appropriateness was the issue at the time. I think that given the cost of photography at the time that most portraits were family protraitness. Also the potential the political poytency of photography was not yet realized. Thuis was in part because it was not yet feasible to publish photographs.

Idealized Images

Chimley sweeps came to be seen as good luck. I am not sure why this was. By the early 20th century we begin to see idealized images of chimley sweeps. This is the case in several European countries. We are not entirely sure how to interpret these images. European countries by this time was significantly limiting child labor. (America had made less progress.) As a result these idealized images in Europe were acceptable. There was still a need for chimley sweeps, but the work was not being done by children, at least in the major Western European countries.

Sources

Kingsley, Charles. The Water-Babies.

Wilson, A.N. The Victorians (W.W. Norton: New York, 2003), 724p.






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Created: September 6, 2003
Last updated: 11:52 PM 1/1/2007