What would we have done without the chimney sweep in the days gone by? We all love the warmth from a roaring fire in the freezing months but all those blazing fires would produce soot.
Black smutty soot would accumulate and clog up the chimney and if not cleaned regularly could be dangerous. The service of a chimney sweep was called for when the chimney got to this stage – it was important to clean away the excess debris. Access to chimneys can be difficult because they are restricted by size. And because of this it made the task of cleaning the flue for the chimney sweep even more difficult. In many cases it was small child or person that was employed to scale up inside because it was a cheaper option.
Waifs and orphans as young as four years old were often sold by orphanages and workhouses to master sweeps so that they would clean the chimneys. In them days it was also legal to capture tramps/vagrants or even homeless children and force them into slavery. The small hostages (children) would climb up the chimney and scrape the soot from the walls with their hands or with the aid of a scraper. It was not unusual for a child to be scared and reluctant to climb. Alarming as it is – but it was common practice to light a small fire in the fire grate to force the small chimney sweep to the top. This is where that popular phrase “to light a fire under you” originated from.
The risks that were taken in this type of employment were unbelievable. The most suitable chimney sweep would be young and poorly fed. Every day the chimney sweeps life was in danger. Those dangers were serious as in i.e. getting stuck in a narrow chimney, being choked, or even falling to their death. Breathing problems, cancer and deformities of the limbs were all future health hazards along with physical and mental side affects.
In the year 1803 the Society for Superseding Climbing Boys was created with the intention of finding other ways on how to reduce the risks when cleaning chimneys and also without using children. Equipment to do the job was invented by George Smart and improved later in time by Joseph Glass in 1828. However in saying that, it was still cheaper to use children so therefore the equipment did not become as popular as the children would have liked.
A bill to put a halt to using young chimney sweeps under the age of 10 as was trounced by the House of Lords in 1804. The Hon H. Bennett tried but failed to pass bills to stop child abuse of chimney sweeps between 1817 and 1819. In spite of several campaigns and strong opposition (including William Wilberforce and the Earl of Lauderdale), unfortunately their pleas were ignored so little was done to end the exploitation of young children as chimney sweeps up until 1840 when an act was enforced forbidding any person under 21 years of age from climbing chimneys. This act had little effect as fines and penalties were trivial. Lord Shaftesbury in 1864 introduced another act imposing a penalty of a £10 fine (in those days a large sum) on anyone breaking the law.
The penalty was governed with plenty of back up and support in its enforcement from the police, court houses and the public. This act actually was the beginning of an end when this particular form of cruelty was over.
The hard work of all the campaigners over the years paid off putting and end to all the suffering and fatalities.