• Thu. Mar 30th, 2023

London Victorian Children As Young As 4-years-old Were Forced To Squeeze Through Miles Of Pitch-black, Claustrophobic, Suffocating 7-inch Chimney Flues (1800’s).


Jan 26, 2023

The child had no choice. Sold as cheap labor by poverty-stricken parents with too many mouths to feed, they were between 4 and 8 years of age, too young to defend themselves or flee their owner and live on their own. Unfortunately, they were just the right size to squeeze into narrow, pitch black, claustrophobic, suffocatingly hellish 7-inch chimney flues.

The dangers child chimney sweeps faced (and why children were used in the first place)

Child chimney sweep apprentice and chimney sweep master

In early 1800 England, immediately after the Industrial Revolution and during the Victorian Era, child chimney sweeps faced a hellish task. They were lowered into narrow chimneys by their owner and forced to clean soot, grime, and creosote from the chimney flue. Falling or being burnt to death was always a possibility but worse, if they lost their way in the complex chimney system or got stuck in bends or twists, they suffocated and died. Child chimney sweeps seldom lived to middle age.

The Great Fire of London in September 1666 gutted half the city and forced a change in building regulations, fire codes, and construction technique. Since buildings were taxed based on the number of chimney stacks, flues were combined into one chimney top. New buildings were built with miles of much smaller chimney flues, some as small as 7-inches, snaking throughout (the smaller flues created better draft for the fire). From room to room, floor to floor, chimney systems twisted, turned, merged, and branched in all directions, exiting the building through a dense cluster of pipes and stacks on the roof. Cleaning this complex system of pipes was not just required by law, the maze of twists and turns gathered soot, ash, and creosote much more quickly than straight chimneys, clogging the flue and creating poisonous gases that could kill residents. Sadly, only very small children could fit into the narrow chimney flues.

How Victorian children cleaned 7-inch chimney flues

Children as young as 4 years old were used to clean the chimney flues (5 or 6-years-old was considered the optimal age but only if the child was small). They carried with them a blanket for collecting soot (valuable for resale as garden dust), a scraper pole for scrubbing hardened creosote, and a chimney sweep brush, often made from straw. From the bottom of the chimney, they would shimmy up the dark and winding flue by drawing up their legs and pressing their knees into the brick. If the opening were too narrow, the child would remove his clothes and “buff it” or climb the chimney in the nude. Held in place by the pressure against their knees, elbows, ankles, and back, they would scrub and scrape soot from the chimney surface above, crawling up foot-by-foot until they reached a twist or branch in the chimney. Then they would work through the turn taking great care to remember the path they had taken. When they reached the top, they had to work their way back down – backwards. Getting lost in the complex system of chimney was a deadly mistake.

Chimney sweep child carrying ladder 1930s

One writer described the scene:

“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.”

If a child became stuck in the chimney, another child would be sent down to assist. Often both children died as a result.

Of course, the child’s health suffered greatly. Their eyelids were typically red and swollen. Some went blind from the abrasive powder. They often developed distorted spines and backs because of the pressure and unnatural position they held inside the chimney. Their knees and ankle joints were often damaged, and their growth stunted. Lung disease and cancer were all but guaranteed.

Outlawing the practice of child chimney sweeps

Dead child chimney sweep

Several attempts were made to outlaw the practice. A bill was passed in 1788 but was rarely enforced. The Chimney Sweepers Act of 1834 prohibited “masters” from taking boys younger than fourteen. The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act of 1840 made it illegal to hire anyone under the age of twenty-one. But the money was too good and master chimney sweeps simply ignored the laws.

The practice finally ended in 1875, after the death of George Brewster. The child became stuck in a chimney inside Fullbourn Hospital and suffocated. As a result, entire walls were torn down to find and remove the child’s body. Media covered the case and public outrage led to the conviction of Brewster’s owner, William Wyer, of manslaughter. Finally, a bill was pushed through Parliament in September 1875 outlawing the practice of using children as human chimney sweeps. The penalties for violation were severe and the practice ended for the last time.

Additional information

How a bad situation grew worse

Boy on chimney

Modern-day readers find it difficult to imagine how such a practice could ever start. In fact, it resulted from an attempt to save children’s lives. Victorian England was overcrowded, and work was scarce. Children were often employed in factories to help families survive. A study of three workhouses revealed an astounding finding. In one workhouse, sixty-eight out of seventy-six children died within a year. In a second house, sixteen out of eighteen died in their first year of work. In a third, for 14 years in a row, no children survived in the factory for longer than a year.

This finding forced Parliament to promote a study of child life in Victorian England. The study produced another astounding finding. Orphanages were full of children placed there by poverty-stricken parents who could not afford to support them. In these orphanages, it was found that ninety-three out of every one hundred children died their first year in an orphanage.

As a result of these findings, Parliament passed a law prohibiting children from being kept in a workhouse or orphanage for longer than 3 weeks. This forced many children onto the streets where they were snatched up by uncaring businessmen for cheap labor or back into the hands of poor parents who were then forced to either “sell” their children as workers or watch them starve to death.

How did a child fit in a 7-inch flue?

Chimney flues ranged in size from 7-inches to 14-inches. They were typically square or rectangular. A child could fit into a smaller 7-inch flue by squeezing his shoulders into the corners. One writer described the process:

“Some chimneys could even be as small as 7″, and only the very smallest children were used to clean those chimney flues. The chimneys were square or rectangular, and the child could maneuver his shoulders into the corners, which allowed for crawling up some surprisingly small chimneys.

The child worked his way up the chimney, holding his soot brush in his right hand above his head, and using mainly his elbows, knees, ankles and back, like a caterpillar. He often had a metal scraper in the other hand to scrape away the hard creosote deposits that stuck to the chimney walls.”

How did a child’s elbows and knees survive the abrasive brick surface?

The child moved about the chimney by bracing his body with elbows and knees pressed against the rough, brick surface. Long sleeves and pants did not help because they simply tore away after a few feet of climbing. To toughen the child’s skin, their elbows and knees were often “hardened”. The master chimney sweep did this by placing the child by a hot fire and scrubbing their elbows and knees with a rough brush soaked in brine. The process was repeated until the scraped and burned skin hardened into crisp, rigid shell.

How did a child suffocate inside a chimney flue?

Children died in the chimneys in one of two ways. If a chimney became too dirty, the flue would contain smoking and burning embers. Even though the master sweep would stand on the roof and pour a bucket of water into the flue if the child cried out, sometimes fires would break out inside the flue and burn the child to death.

More common, however, was suffocation. The child would brace themselves with their butt and back pressed against one side of the flue and the legs bent upwards to brace a knee against the brick. However, if the child slipped, the butt and back would slide down and the knees upward, pressed against the child’s chest. In these instances, the child found themselves wedged inside the flue. The more they struggled, the deeper they sank until the compression was so tight, they could neither cry out nor breathe.

What if a child refused to cooperate?

The children, of course, understood the dangers involved. Many first-time children would be forced into the chimney by the master sweeper, sometimes simply dropped in. They either caught themselves or found themselves wedged in the tight area. They often froze in place, refusing to climb back out because they knew they would be beaten by their owner. The owner would then light a fire in the fireplace and “smoke” the child out.

Sir Percival Pott, commenting on apprentice chimney sweeps, 1776

“The fate of these people seems peculiarly hard…they are treated with great brutality.. they are thrust up narrow and sometimes hot chimnies, [sic] the place they’re bruised burned and virtually suffocated; and once they get to puberty they change into … liable to a most noisome, painful and deadly illness.”

A baby chimney sweep remembers his expertise

The next is from a written manuscript by little one chimney sweep Gottardo Cavalli.

Four sweep apprentices in tight chimneys

I usually clarify what it means to be a chimney sweep. A whole lot of younger folks don’t imagine me, however others do and a pal suggested me to explain the life intimately. I’ve due to this fact determined to put in writing all the pieces down as a result of these two years have been stuffed with tales, hardship, worry, hope, starvation. Writing isn’t troublesome for me. I’m not an writer however I don’t must invent a narrative. All the things is true – I don’t must make something up as a result of these reminiscences permeate my being.

…I used to be the final from my village to do that work; solely two years, however that was sufficient to have the ability to describe the life and the bodily struggling of those poor beings who needed to crawl like moles inside each gap of the chimney, the boiler of the steam engines, the smokestacks, and who have been so badly fed they have been all the time begging for a bit of bread to nonetheless their starvation. They have been poorly dressed and needed to sleep in stalls on the straw or within the hay.

The chilly was the worst enemy. We may solely hold heat if all of us pressed collectively and coated ourselves with the three or 4 sacks we used to move the soot.

…We entered a home and my grasp adjusted my garments. My jacket was a barracan (a heavy, black overcoat) with out pockets which needed to be tucked contained in the trousers in order that when the belt was tightened it couldn’t pull up when coming down the chimney. A linen hood protected my head from soot and was fixed beneath my chin. I carried the rasp in a single hand and the broom within the different.

…Nobody can think about what it’s wish to be trapped in a totally darkish gap, having to work your method up along with your elbows and knees, 10 to twenty centimetres at a time.

…The narrower the chimney, the extra you had the sensation of suffocating. All the soot fell on high of you, and also you couldn’t go down as a result of that’s the place your grasp was.

…Out of 1 home and into one other with out something to eat. You bought used to asking for a bit of bread in every dwelling. It grew to become a necessity. Once we have been not hungry, we requested for a glass of wine to scrub down the soot. We acted as if we might drink it however we would go away the glass on the desk for our grasp who would come by to choose up the soot.

…Within the afternoon of the following day [Sunday], I wandered with my companions by means of the city…all the time adopted by the curious stares of the kids and their moms, who would warn them, “be good or the chimney sweep will get you!”.

On Christmas and New Yr’s Day we didn’t eat any polenta…since we have been, as was the customized, invited to the home of a depend or wealthy individual…we weren’t allowed to scrub our faces since we have been mentioned to deliver luck. We needed to sit at a desk with a white tablecloth the place the entire meals was laid out…however nobody mentioned they understood us or our distress. The piece of bread or bowl of soup we acquired from the poor have been price much more since these folks gave with their hearts, and didn’t ask for something in return. However the wealthy anticipated us to deliver them luck and who is aware of what else.

…We started the lengthy journeys by foot in late January. We didn’t return to the city, however slept the place we have been – in stalls or on hay after we have been fortunate.

…From farm to farm, village to village, all the time the identical. Our worst enemy was the chilly. I solely noticed the snow as soon as in these two years however fog and hoar frost have been at house there…it was a humid chilly that you simply felt by means of to your bones.
Nonetheless at present, 50 years later, I nonetheless dream that I’m in a slender, darkish and dusty gallery with my head wrapped in a sack. I really feel like I’m suffocating and get up. […]”

Photograph gallery

Picture Credit

Lifeless little one chimney sweep through Altered Dimensions with utilization sort – Public Domain
Younger chimney sweep through Owl Cation by Creator unknown with utilization sort – Public Domain
Baby chimney sweep card through Google with utilization sort – Public Domain
Good luck little one chimney sweep through Pinterest with utilization sort – Public Domain
The Chimney Sweep 1843 through History Daily by Angelo Inganni with utilization sort – Public Domain. The Chimney Sweep, 1843, by Angelo Inganni (1807-1880). Oil on canvas, 46.5×46.5 cm.
Baby chimney sweep apprentice and chimney sweep grasp through History Daily by Unknown Creator with utilization sort – Public Domain
Baby Chimney sweep circa 1891 through Alpha History with utilization sort – Public Domain
Boy on chimney through Wikipedia Commons by Siren-Com with utilization sort – Creative Commons License
Chimney sweep little one carrying ladder Nineteen Thirties through https://fakehistoryhunter.internet/2022/07/26/not-a-3-year-old-chimney-sweep/ with utilization sort – Public Domain
Baby chimney sweep and his father through Google with utilization sort – Public Domain
4 sweep apprentices in tight chimneys through Owl Cation by The Mechanics Journal with utilization sort – Public Domain
Demise of two boys climbing within the flue of a chimney through Owl Cation by England’s Climbing Boys with utilization sort – Public Domain
Grasp chimney sweep forcing younger boy down chimney through Altered DImensions with utilization sort – Public Domain

Featured Picture Credit score

Grasp chimney sweep forcing younger boy down chimney through Altered DImensions with utilization sort – Public Domain

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