In the late 1600s in England in response to the Great Fire of London, which gutted the city, building codes changed, requiring chimneys to be much narrower than previously. Due to the new design, keeping the chimneys free of obstruction became more of a challenge and a priority. Shockingly, instead of someone inventing a tool for this purpose, children were employed as human chimney sweeps. For over 200 years, this practice went on, in spite of the deplorable conditions the children lived in, the horrible health effects they suffered, and the many injuries and fatalities resulting from related work hazards.
Master Sweeps took in homeless young boys or bought young children from orphanages or from destitute parents; and the children were supposedly chimney sweep apprentices. Instead, they were nothing less than indentured servants, harshly treated and forced to work from dawn until dusk every day of the year but one.
The small boys used as chimney sweeps were typically between 5 and 10 years of age, and some were as young as 4 years old. They clambered up chimneys with brushing and scraping tools that knocked the creosote and soot from the chimney lining. The boys also had metal scrapers and small brushes to remove hard tar deposits. After reaching the top, the boys slid back down and collected the soot pile, which the master sold to farmers as fertilizer. If the boys were reluctant to climb or were too slow at their work, their masters would sometimes hold a lighted torch under their feet; this is where the phrase “light a fire under someone” originated.
The chimney sweeps were not given any type of respiratory equipment or protective clothing. They suffered many health problems because of their constant exposure to soot and because of the unnatural positions they were in so much of the time. Work-related health problems included: deformed ankles, twisted kneecaps, twisted spines, inflammatory eye syndrome, and respiratory illnesses. The first industrial disease in history was suffered by young chimney sweeps. Chimney sweeps in their adolescence often suffered and died from Chimney Sweep Cancer, a horribly painful and fatal cancer of the scrotum.
The chimney sweeps also frequently suffocated inside the chimneys from breathing the soot. Sometimes they got stuck and died in the narrow chimneys. Many also died after falling or were killed or injured from burns.
The living conditions of the chimney sweeps offered them no relief. They were usually barely fed and slept in basements, covering themselves with the filthy soot sacks they worked with. The boys rarely bathed and were frequently sickly.
Most were unsympathetic to the plight of the young chimney sweeps, but not everyone. Several works of literature helped to bring a spotlight to their terrible plight, including “The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby,” written by Reverend Charles Kingsley and published in full in 1863. Earlier, in the late 1700s, William Blake wrote poetic depictions of the lives of climbing boys which were published in two books of poetry, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
George Brewster, a 12-year-old chimney sweep, became the last climbing boy in England to die on the job. In February of 1875, his master, William Wyer, sent him into the Fulbourn Hospital chimneys, where he got stuck. A wall was pulled down in a desperate attempt to rescue him, but he died a short while after the rescue. In September of 1875, a bill was pushed through which put a stop to the practice of using children as chimney sweeps. Joseph Glass, an engineer from Bristol, England, invented the original brushes and rods used to clean chimneys; the design is still used today.
Child chimney sweeps are remembered and honored every year in England in early May. The date of the annual event coincides closely with May Day, the one day each year the climbing boys were off work, when they danced joyfully in the streets of England.
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