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)

Longing for Innocence

Destitute children typical admissions to Dr Barnardo's Home in 1

I’m sure that every now and then, it has happened to all of us to look at our past with a certain nostalgia. Past is always warm, reassuring, bright, peopled by those we loved and cared about us, but that we have inevitably lost in the course of our life, so, if you had the chance to go back in time, which period of your life would you like to live again? How far would you go back? Well, I have no doubts. I would go back , let’s say, to five. It sounds childish, I know, but what I do really miss is that lightness of spirit, that gaiety, those eyes of wonder typical of childhood that transform triviality into beauty. Children are confident about their present and future, as they can see no evil in the world that surrounds them. I still remember, when my mother used to give me the usual warning: “don’t accept candies from strangers!”. After all children focus their attention on candies, rather that pondering on the reason why a complete stranger should give them candies. Adults ponder, children want their drives satisfied.

chim2As long as you can enjoy this happy condition, you are in what Blake called the age of ” Innocence”, which is opposite to “Experience”. It has nothing to do with ageing, or at least not only, but it is a transient state of human soul. As time goes by, the candor of innocence is slowly polluted by experience, that is knowledge, hence we start to open our eyes and we see a new reality. We start to understand, just like in story of “Little Red Riding Hood“, that under the cover of the good hunter there might be a nasty wolf hidden. At this point the world doesn’t seem so safe and welcoming as it used to be and those happy times look like an enchanted garden of heaven we are no longer admitted in. Once definitely outside, we cannot but look at it with nostalgic eyes, like Adam and Eve after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Once you have eaten it, you cannot go back.

victorian style chimney sweep, a child chimney sweep,  hulton pic 05/09/2003In order to mark this passage, Blake rewrote some poems belonging to his early collection   “Songs of Innocence” and included them in the “Songs of Experience“, which was published five years later, thus giving them a different shape and perspective.The poem “The Chimney Sweeper“, for example, deals with the theme of children exploitation. In this poem there is all the disarming beauty of children’s naivety, who keep on being confident in a better future, despite the appalling condition of their lives. A child says he had lost his mother and that his father had “sold” him when he was so young that he “could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”, therefore at such a tender age he was forced to work and slept “in soot“. But children still retain the faculty of dreaming and furthermore believing in what they dream, even if there the shadow of a wolf is always hidden somewhere. The dream is the Freudian metaphor of their imprisoned youth, which is locked in “coffins of black“, which stand for the chimneys they are forced to sweep every day. In that dream an angel comes by and opens all the coffins setting them all free and restoring them to the lightness of thoughtfulness of youth, in fact, once out of those horrible coffins “down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run”.

chim4What did my mother say? “Never accept candies from a stranger!”, particularly if he comes in a shape of an angel, I would add. In fact, then the angel speaks and imparts the child the following lesson: ” if he’d be a good boy, he’d have God for his father, and never want joy.”  Afterwards the little child, whose name is Tom, wakes up and goes to work “happy and warm” , “though the morning was cold”.  Why should Tom be happy and warm in such a dark and cold morning? Because he trusts the angel and he believes in the words the had said: he would have God as father and happiness, if he did his duty, and what is his duty? Working, here is the candy. Therefore, he is just doing the right thing.” He sees no evil in his condition.

chim5The situation completely changes in the poem Chimney Sweeper which appears in the “Songs of Experience“. In this poem there is all the loneliness and hopelessness of a child who is fully aware of the system which enslaves him. He has perfectly understood that the whole society, the church and even his family are part of a scheme whose main concern is the making of profit and constantly ignores his needs. The boy bitterly says : “and because I am happy and dance and sing, they think they have done me no injury”, but they have. They have stolen his youth, happiness and faith in the world and in the future. They have taught him to sing “the notes of woe” and this is irreversible. The boy had bitten the forbidden fruit, the fruit from the tree of knowledge and he had been poisoned, becoming adult too soon.