Chimney Sweepers

During the Industrial Revolution  thousands of  desperate people came to the cities seeking work, but those lucky who managed to find one soon realized that the average wage would have kept them in poverty for the rest of their lives. Justices were given authority over the children of poor families, and began to assign them to apprenticeships to provide them with work, food and shelter.

For master chimney sweeps, these small, defenseless children of powerless or absent parents were the perfect victims to be exploited in their business.

“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.”

 

Their apprenticeships lasted seven years or even more, but being generally unsupervised, once the papers were signed, the children were completely left under the power of their masters. Once left, their families often didn’t see them any longer. A Master was paid a fee to clothe, keep and teach the child his trade. Even if it common belief that both the master and the child apprentices were always male, this wasn’t always true, as many girls also climbed chimneys.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

 
After the Great Fire of London in 1666 new fire codes were necessarily put in place. Chimneys became smaller to burn coal and the number of turns and corners in the flues increased. The flues gathered ash, soot and creosote much more quickly than the larger, straighter chimneys had, so they needed cleaning more often. The chimney flues were pitch black, claustrophobic, potentially full of suffocating soot and confusing to navigate in the dark. Sweepers’ job was, actually, to climb up, inside the chimney, brushing the flue as they went, propelling themselves by their knees and elbows and they weren’t done till their heads poked out of the chimney top. This, of course, was a scary job for these children and they were often unwilling to perform it, therefore, many masters used a dangerous punishment: first the child was forced up the flue and then a fire was lit. Since he couldn’t come down, he had no choice but to climb up the flue. Maybe this is where the term “light a fire under you” originated.

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

 
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. These children lived in deplorable conditions. They carried a large sack with them, into which they dumped the soot they swept from the chimneys. They used this same sack as a blanket to sleep in at night, and only bathed infrequently. They were often sick, and learned to beg food and clothing from their customers as all the money they earned went to their masters.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

 
Even if some children actually received the weekly bath outlined in the apprenticeship agreement, the majority of them was never bathed or followed a more common custom of 3 baths per year, at Whitsuntide (shortly after Easter), Goose Fair (early October) and Christmas. In London, many sweeper apprentices used to wash on their own in a local river, the Serpentine, till one of them drowned. Since then the children were discouraged from bathing in rivers.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

 
Another great increase in the use of small children as chimney sweeps occurred in England after 1773. Parliament passed an act which said that children couldn’t be kept in a workhouse for longer than 3 weeks, as it had been found out that death rates in both workhouses and orphanages was very high: only 7 out of every hundred children survived for a year after being placed in an orphanage. The effect of this act was that small children became much more available not only to chimney sweeps, but to any other business owners who were looking for cheap labor.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm. (The Chimney Sweeper, Songs of Innocence, William Blake)

 

The children risked to be stuck in the chimneys or die from burns and suffocation or even from long falls. For what concerns the boys, there was also another danger. Coal soot found its way easily into the folds of skin on a boy’s scrotal sac due to loose clothing and climbing in the nude. As the soot was not washed off for months at a time over the years, many of the boys developed scrotal cancer, called “chimney sweep’s cancer” about the time they entered puberty.

 

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

 

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

 

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.” (The Chimney Sweeper, Songs of Experience, William Blake)
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33 thoughts on “Chimney Sweepers

  1. Thank you for that excellent historical essay, a combination of reminder and new information about the past. And we look about and complain rather than express gratitude for what we have.

  2. A somber post and it saddens and angers me to think that so many children today still have to deal with oppressive conditions of any kind. Thank you for this excellent essay and the way you wove your words with the words of William Blake.

  3. Powerful piece, Stefy. You remind me of another literary offering from the 19th century: Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies begins with another climbing boy called Tom (did the author know of Blake’s poem?) who seemingly dies after drowning in a Yorkshire river where he goes to cool and wash himself. Kingsley’s novel allegedly prepared public support a decade later for the 1875 Act of Parliament that further regulated the employment of climbing boys, though the actual inciting incident was a well-publicised death: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimney_Sweepers_Act_1875

    The attitudes that led to this economic abuse of small children is, unfortunately, still with us today amongst the neoliberal elite whose only desire is to make more money, whatever the cost to individuals, society and the environment. As we both know full well!

    • Very interesting, Chris. I think that old and new emerging economies have based and still base their fortunes mostly on exploitation. It took at first the form of indentures, slavery, delocalization , but what still matters is keeping the cost of labour as low as possible.

    • I am glad you mentioned the 1875 Act, which was sponsored by the Tory paternalist Lord Shaftsbury, who was also responsible for legislation limiting the hours worked by children and measures preventing women and children being employed in mines, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Ashley-Cooper,_7th_Earl_of_Shaftesbury#Climbing_boys. While it doesn’t excuse the suffering of those employed in poor conditions during the Industrial Revolution, the rapid change from a (mainly) agricultural society, to one based on industrial production inevitably led to problems. While there where those who simply didn’t care about such suffering, there where others who did and acted out of humanitarian motives, as witnessed by Shaftsbury. I think we also need to recognise that amongst those who (wrongly) opposed such reforms, there where those who genuinely believed that the unregulated market was the best system for lifting the living standards of all. This view is wrong, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that men of good conscience, such as John Bright and Cobden sincerely believed that all social groupings benefited from pure laisez-faire. Best – Kevin

  4. Reblogged this on lampmagician and commented:
    a great post in a wonderful way from those days which let us know and feel about it. Thank you, Stefania, ❤ ❤ “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.”

  5. The crude yet deep distinction between the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience will never cease to impress me. It is amazing how, though the point of view it’s still the child’s, Blake is able to change the perception of the reader in such a distinct and direct way.

    Speaking of Blake: I remember you liked U2, I imagine you know they released 2 albums, SOngs of Innocence and Songs of Experience respectively? I did not have a listen to them though, so I cannot judge, but it made me think about studying Blake back in school. 🙂

  6. I’m really shocked by this post and I realize how lucky I am to live in this society. Sometimes we’re nothing but beasts, selfish and inhuman creatures. Poor children, this is so sad..

  7. Excellent post, and I love all the Blake poetry you quote. I’m surprised Dickens didn’t feature any sweeps in his novels, but perhaps he felt Kingsley had already covered that territory.
    I think you’d enjoy Jonathan Auxier’s novel, Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster. It’s lovely (and harrowing).

  8. Revisiting this post (which we all should do), I think of many youths who think that they are abused when asked to pick up their rooms or do simple housework for allowances.

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