The child had no choice. Sold as cheap labor by poverty-stricken parents with too many mouths to feed, they were between 4 and 8 years of age, too young to defend themselves or flee their owner and live on their own. Unfortunately, they were just the right size to squeeze into narrow, pitch black, claustrophobic, suffocatingly-hellish 7-inch chimney flues.
The dangers child chimney sweeps faced
In early 1800 England, immediately after the Industrial Revolution and during the Victorian Era, child chimney sweeps faced a hellish task. They were lowered into narrow chimneys by their owner and forced to clean soot, grime, and creosote from the chimney flue. Falling or being burnt to death was always a possibility but worse, if they lost their way in the complex chimney system or got stuck in bends or twists, they suffocated and died. Child chimney sweeps seldom lived to middle age.
The Great Fire of London in September 1666 gutted half the city and forced a change in building regulations, fire codes, and construction technique. Since buildings were taxed based on the number of chimney stacks, flues were combined into one chimney top. New buildings were built with miles of much smaller chimney flues, some as small as 7-inches, snaking throughout (the smaller flues created better draft for the fire). From room to room, floor to floor, chimney systems twisted, turned, merged, and branched in all directions, exiting the building through a dense cluster of pipes and stacks on the roof. Cleaning this complex system of pipes was not just required by law, the maze of twists and turns gathered soot, ash, and creosote much more quickly than straight chimneys, clogging the flue and creating poisonous gases that could kill residents. Sadly, only very small children could fit into the narrow chimney flues.
Children as young as 4 years old were used to clean the chimney flues (5 or 6-years-old was considered the optimal age but only if the child was small). They carried with them a blanket for collecting soot (valuable for resale as garden dust), a scraper pole for scrubbing hardened creosote, and a chimney sweep brush, often made from straw. From the bottom of the chimney, they would shimmy up the dark and winding flue by drawing up their legs and pressing their knees into the brick. If the opening were too narrow, the child would remove his clothes and “buff it” or climb the chimney in the nude. Held in place by the pressure against their knees, elbows, ankles, and back, they would scrub and scrape soot from the chimney surface above, crawling up foot-by-foot until they reached a twist or branch in the chimney. Then they would work through the turn taking great care to remember the path they had taken. When they reached the top, they had to work their way back down – backwards. Getting lost in the complex system of chimney was a deadly mistake.
One writer described the scene:
“If the apprentice climbed the whole chimney, cleaning it from hearth to rooftop, and exited a row of chimneys, he could forget which chimney he came out of. When that happened, he could go back down the wrong one, or go down the right chimney, but make a wrong turn at some merging of the flues. Children could suffocate or burn to death by getting lost on the way down, and accidentally entering the wrong chimney flue.”
If a child became stuck in the chimney, another child would be sent down to assist. Often both children died as a result.
Of course, the child’s health suffered greatly. Their eyelids were typically red and swollen. Some went blind from the abrasive powder. They often developed distorted spines and backs because of the pressure and unnatural position they held inside the chimney. Their knees and ankle joints were often damaged and their growth stunted. Lung disease and cancer was all but guaranteed.
Outlawing the practice of child chimney sweeps
Several attempts were made to outlaw the practice. A bill was passed in 1788 but was rarely enforced. The Chimney Sweepers Act of 1834 prohibited “masters” from taking boys younger than 14. The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act of 1840 made it illegal to hire anyone under the age of 21. But the money was too good and master chimney sweeps simply ignored the laws.
The practice finally ended in 1875, after the death of George Brewster. The child became stuck in a chimney inside Fullbourn Hospital and suffocated. As a result, entire walls were torn down to find and remove the child’s body. Media covered the case and public outrage led to the conviction of Brewster’s owner, William Wyer, of manslaughter. Finally, a bill being pushed through Parliament in September 1875 outlawing the practice of using children as human chimney sweeps. The penalties for violation were severe and the practice ended for the last time.
How a bad situation grew worse
Modern-day readers find it difficult to imagine how such a practice could ever start. In fact, it resulted from an attempt to save children’s lives. Victorian England was overcrowded, and work was scarce. Children were often employed in factories to help families survive. A study of three workhouses revealed an astounding finding. In one workhouse, 68 out of 76 children died within a year. In a second house, 16 out of 18 died in their first year of work. In a third, for 14 years in a row, no children survived in the factory for longer than a year.
This finding forced Parliament to promote a study of child life in Victorian England. The study produced another astounding find. Orphanages were full of children placed there by poverty-stricken parents who could not afford to support them. In these orphanages, it was found that 93 out of every 100 children died their first year in an orphanage.
As a result of these findings, Parliament passed a law prohibiting children from being kept in a workhouse or orphanage for longer than 3 weeks. This forced many children onto the streets where they were snatched up by uncaring business men for cheap labor or back into the hands of poor parents who were then forced to either “sell” their children as workers or watch them starve to death.
How did a child fit in a 7-inch flue?
Chimney flues ranged in size from 7-inches to 14-inches. They were typically square or rectangular. A child could fit into a smaller 7-inch flue by squeezing his shoulders into the corners. One writer described the process:
“Some chimneys could even be as small as 7″, and only the very smallest children were used to clean those chimney flues. The chimneys were square or rectangular, and the child could maneuver his shoulders into the corners, which allowed for crawling up some surprisingly small chimneys.
The child worked his way up the chimney, holding his soot brush in his right hand above his head, and using mainly his elbows, knees, ankles and back, like a caterpillar. He often had a metal scraper in the other hand to scrape away the hard creosote deposits that stuck to the chimney walls.”
How did a child’s elbows and knees survive the abrasive brick surface?
The child moved about the chimney by bracing his body with elbows and knees pressed against the rough, brick surface. Long sleeves and pants did not help because they simply tore away after a few feet of climbing. To toughen the child’s skin, their elbows and knees were often “hardened”. The master chimney sweep did this by placing the child by a hot fire and scrubbing their elbows and knees with a rough brushed soaked in brine. The process was repeated until the scraped and burned skin hardened into crisp, rigid shell.
How did a child suffocate inside a chimney flue?
Children died in the chimneys in one of two ways. If a chimney became too dirty, the flue would contain smoking and burning embers. Even though the master sweep would stand on the roof and pour a bucket of water into the flue if the child cried out, sometimes fires would break out inside the flue and burn the child to death.
More common however, was suffocation. The child would brace themselves with their butt and back pressed against one side of the flue and the legs bent upwards to brace a knee against the brick. However, if the child slipped, the butt and back would slide down and the knees upward, pressed against the child’s chest. In these instances, the child found themselves wedged inside the flue. The more they struggled, the deeper they sank until the compression was so tight, they could neither cry out nor breathe.
What if a child refused to cooperate?
The children of course, understood the dangers involved. Many first-time children would be forced into the chimney by the master sweeper, sometimes simply dropped in. They either caught themselves or found themselves wedged in the tight area. They often froze in place, refusing to climb back out because they knew they would be beaten by their owner. The owner would then light a fire in the fireplace and “smoke” the child out.
Sir Percival Pott, commenting on apprentice chimney sweeps, 1776
“The fate of these people seems peculiarly hard…they are treated with great brutality.. they are thrust up narrow and sometimes hot chimnies, [sic] where they are bruised burned and almost suffocated; and when they get to puberty they become … liable to a most noisome, painful and fatal disease.”
A child chimney sweep recalls his experience
The following is from a written manuscript by child chimney sweep Gottardo Cavalli.
I often explain what it means to be a chimney sweep. A lot of young people don’t believe me, but others do and a friend advised me to describe the life in detail. I have therefore decided to write everything down because these two years were full of stories, hardship, fear, hope, hunger. Writing is not difficult for me. I’m not an author but I don’t have to invent a story. Everything is true – I don’t have to make anything up because these memories permeate my being.
…I was the last from my village to do this work; only two years, but that was enough to be able to describe the life and the physical suffering of these poor beings who had to crawl like moles inside every hole of the chimney, the boiler of the steam engines, the smokestacks, and who were so badly fed they were always begging for a piece of bread to still their hunger. They were poorly dressed and had to sleep in stalls on the straw or in the hay.
The cold was the worst enemy. We could only keep warm if we all pressed together and covered ourselves with the three or four sacks we used to transport the soot.
…We entered a house and my master adjusted my clothes. My jacket was a barracan (a heavy, black overcoat) without pockets which had to be tucked inside the trousers so that when the belt was tightened it could not pull up when coming down the chimney. A linen hood protected my head from soot and was fastened beneath my chin. I carried the rasp in one hand and the broom in the other.
…No one can imagine what it’s like to be trapped in a completely dark hole, having to work your way up with your elbows and knees, 10 to 20 centimetres at a time.
…The narrower the chimney, the more you had the feeling of suffocating. All of the soot fell on top of you, and you couldn’t go down because that’s where your master was.
…Out of one house and into another without anything to eat. You got used to asking for a piece of bread in each dwelling. It became a necessity. When we were no longer hungry, we asked for a glass of wine to wash down the soot. We acted as if we would drink it but we would leave the glass on the table for our master who would come by to pick up the soot.
…In the afternoon of the next day [Sunday], I wandered with my companions through the town…always followed by the curious stares of the children and their mothers, who would warn them, “be good or the chimney sweep will get you!”.
On Christmas and New Year’s Day we didn’t eat any polenta…since we were, as was the custom, invited to the house of a count or rich person…we weren’t allowed to wash our faces since we were said to bring luck. We had to sit at a table with a white tablecloth where all of the food was laid out…but no one said they understood us or our misery. The piece of bread or bowl of soup we received from the poor were worth a lot more since these people gave with their hearts, and didn’t ask for anything in return. But the rich expected us to bring them luck and who knows what else.
…We began the long journeys by foot in late January. We didn’t return to the town, but slept where we were – in stalls or on hay when we were lucky.
…From farm to farm, village to village, always the same. Our worst enemy was the cold. I only saw the snow once in those two years but fog and hoar frost were at home there…it was a damp cold that you felt through to your bones.
Still today, 50 years later, I still dream that I’m in a narrow, dark and dusty gallery with my head wrapped in a sack. I feel like I’m suffocating and wake up. […]”