The history of chimney maintenance is all gloom when you go as far back as the Victorian era and beyond. This involved the use of kids as sweeps who were dehumanized, abused, and worked in extremely harsh conditions.
While this isn’t a good story to tell, our discussion highlights the common practices that occurred and how they affected the lives of kids used as forced labor.
The Shocking Tale of Victorian Chimney Sweeps
In the times we live in, a lot is taken for granted due to the relative ease with which basic tasks are performed.
Innovations and improvements in a wide range of areas including chimney care make past experiences look more bizarre.
Now, to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation, we’ll be discussing conditions in which kids were made to undergo just in a bid to earn some bucks for their masters.
The Great London Fire
The story of child chimney sweeps won’t be complete without reference to the great London fire of 1666.
Before this time, child chimney sweeps weren’t so common because chimneys were wider. This enabled adults to perform basic chimney cleaning tasks.
However, after the great fire which led to the huge loss of properties and a few souls, a new regulation governing chimney construction emerged. This construction code required that narrower chimneys be built.
This created a problem as chimney sweeps could hardly fit in to perform basic cleaning tasks.
This situation sounds strange today because tools have been developed that will make cleaning such chimneys even easier. In a bid to adapt to newer regulations, child sweeps were seen as the easiest solution as they could easily fit in through narrow chimneys.
Child Chimney Sweeps become a Trend
After the Great London Fires, the trend of using children as chimney sweeps quickly caught on.
These kids were mostly within the age bracket of 4 to 10 years. They were forced to climb up chimneys while holding chimney cleaning tools which included brushes and scrapers.
Of course, such chimney maintenance actions were performed under the strict supervision of the master sweeps.
You wouldn’t expect these taskmasters to be anything close to compassionate. To them, using the kids as a means to an end.
A Little About Master Sweeps
Since we’ve briefly mentioned master sweeps and the roles they play, it’s only proper to provide a little more information about them.
It’s important to note that chimney master sweeps in Victorian times differ in terms of roles performed compared to master sweeps today.
Then, (in the Victorian era), master sweeps took on apprentices who mostly consisted of young orphan boys to learn the craft. These apprentices didn’t necessarily have to be orphans.
Some kids from poverty-stricken homes were also sold to master sweeps to be used for child labor.
As if that wasn’t enough, some master sweeps were so cruel as to force these kids up the chimneys and even lighted a fire beneath their feet to make them hasten up.
So basically, master sweeps in Victorian times were similar to slave masters as they also owned the kids used for such jobs.
How Chimney Cleaning Was Performed in These Kids
The kids used as chimney sweeps would normally climb up chimneys under coercion. They were able to climb up the flue by pushing up using their knees, backs, and elbows.
Using a brush and scraping tool, they cleared off accumulated soot which when loosened fell onto them.
They continued moving up the chimney flue until they reached the top. From there, they slid down and collected the soot removed. Then, the soot collected wasn’t disposed of.
Rather, it was gathered and used as fertilizer as it contained high volumes of ammonia salts.
Unfavorable Work Hours
If there’s anything that made the situation of child chimney sweeps worse, it’s the work hours they needed to clock each day. Coupled with inhumane conditions, chimney sweeps were forced to work from pre-dawn hours till late at night.
This continued throughout the week with Sundays being the only day off. Such conditions only made things worse for them. As such, it’s no surprise that they became sickly and disfigured.
Living Conditions of Child Chimney Sweeps in Victorian Times
Chimney sweeps in Victorian times lived in terrible conditions.
As properties of master sweeps, these kids had nowhere to go and considered baths a luxury. After a hard day’s work, there was little relief at all as they mostly slept in basements, using dirty soot sacks as covering.
It was little wonder that these kids were mostly sickly due to the work and living conditions they found themselves in. It’s terrible that a large number of these kids never lived beyond their teens.
More about this will be discussed shortly.
Life Expectancy of Chimney Sweeps in Victorian Times
Because they were powerless, the boys used as chimney sweeps had no option but to be continually exposed to significant soot levels which they easily inhaled regularly.
This of course took its toll on their health and led to an early death.
Apart from death, other health complications were quite common. These included stunted growth and disfigurement due to positions they had to maintain while cleaning.
As such, disfigurement resulted from improper bone development.
Lung diseases, as well as cancer, were other ailments that resulted from these unsafe work conditions. More gruesome was the fact that some kids actually got stuck in tight chimneys and died.
How Child Labor Came to an End
One important aspect of the whole story is that this practice no longer exists today. So, how did it come to an end?
Things came to a head when a 12-year-old chimney sweep by the name of George Brewster got stuck in a hospital chimney. This happened in Fulbourn Hospital in 1875.
Although there were attempts to rescue him by pulling down the chimney wall, the child died shortly after. This unfortunate death of the chimney sweep kick-started the campaign to bring an end to child labor and slavery. It culminated with a bill in the British parliament that brought the practice to a halt.
So far, we’ve seen that chimney sweeps in Victorian times faced inhumane conditions with many paying the price with their lives. Thankfully, this practice has ended.
However, it’s a solemn reminder of what kids had to go through in a bid to earn money for their masters.
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