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Chimney Sweeps Act 1834

The Chimney Sweeps Act 1834 was enacted in an attempt to protect the children employed by the ‘sweeping’ masters from cruel exploitation. The act forbade the apprenticing of any boy under the age of 10 years and the employment of children under 14 in chimney sweeping unless they were apprenticed or on trial.

There seemed to be the problem, there was the get out for the masters, they could always say the child was on trial, who was going to question further? In fact who was going to question at all, since no inspectors were going to be employed to enforce the directive.

It also stated that the apprentices were not to be “evil treated” by their employers and that any complaints from the children were to be heard by justices of the peace. One wonders how often that happened.

Why was there the need for the act?

The plight of the chimney sweepers had long been recognized. See a book printed in 1824 called ‘The Chimney Sweepers Friend and Climbing Boys Album’ Chimneys have always needed to be swept to reduce the instances of fire and from the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, new regulations were introduced ensuring that new properties had narrow chimneys. The chimneys did not run straight up and down they had bends in them to control the fire beneath. This made it impossible for adults to climb the chimney and so the new design ushered in the era of child chimney sweeps. As prosperity grew in the C19th so did the number of houses with chimneys. Most households were burning very dirty coal and rubbish and the chimneys collected large volumes of soot mostly made up of toxic creosote, which needed to be cleared or risk a fire. The newly built urban houses were small and their chimneys were small also, too small for a man to work and so it was that children were employed to clean the chimneys. These children had no protection and worked in the most distressing of circumstances. Th 1834 recognized this but had little impact in changing anything.

How was the cleaning done?

The child would climb the chimney while holding a brush over his or her head.  Ramming their backs against the walls of the inside of the chimney, the child would ‘walk’ the chimney. The brush would scrape away the soot from the walls of the chimney which would fall down onto the child and then to the bottom of the fireplace.  The child would then climb back down the chimney, collect the soot, and hand it over to the master sweep. He could then sell the soot and make yet more money.

In order to be able to ‘walk’ the chimney their feet, elbows and the heels of their hands had to hardened to form callouses. They were scrubbed by their masters with salt until they bled in order to speed up this hardening process

Who were the children who were employed as sweeps?

They could come from two sources, some, small boys sometimes girls usually 6 years of age but they could have been younger, came from the poorest of households. Others came from the work houses where it was the duty of the Poor Law Guardians to apprentice as many children as possible and they paid the master sweep to take on the children as apprentices.

The master sweep would approach poverty stricken parents and effectively buy the children from them to work for him. As his property they did what he wanted and were in fact treated as slaves.

Dangers the children faced.

Many times small children would get physically stuck inside the twisted chimney. They needed to bring their knees up to wedge themselves against the chimney, their backs would form another wedge. If they brought their knees up too far towards their chest, they could become jammed. To avoid asphyxiation the chimney needed to cleaned quickly. Sometimes the master would light a small fire in the grate to speed up the process or send another child up behind to jab the first with a spike. Many of these chimneys were only about 45cm wide. The creosote and soot destroyed their lungs. They rarely got paid, just provided with food and lodging, neither of which was substantial enough to allow a child to thrive. When one child died, well there were plenty more to take his place. So death from falling, getting stuck and asphyxiation and exhaustion were common.

Victorian literature and chimney sweeps.

Many Victorian writers tell us about the horrors faced by the child chimney sweeps and their masters. It must have been something many people observed and saw as a bad thing which makes the fact that after the chimney sweeps act 1834 nothing changed and there was not enough will to make something happen.

Charles Kingsley in his 1862 novel, The Water Babies, tells us a story about the young chimney sweep Tom who escapes the horror of his work as a chimney sweep by becoming a water baby. Kingsley wrote it out of a sense of moral outrage about the plight of the child chimney sweeps. It had a huge impact on its readers and helped to reform legislation that would finally take care of these abused children.

Charles Kingsley in his 1862 novel, The Water Babies, tells us a story about the young chimney sweep Tom who escapes the horror of his work as a chimney sweep by becoming a water baby. Kingsley wrote it out of a sense of moral outrage about the plight of the child chimney sweeps. It had a huge impact on its readers and helped to reform legislation that would finally take care of these abused children.

Further acts were necessary and those of 1840 and 1865 went some way to improving conditions for these children.

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