In this article, we’ll be looking at the sad history of child chimney sweeps.
As important as a chimney sweep process is, there are times when finding out the historical details of the trade presents shocking scenarios. This is seen in the use of child labor for over 2 centuries.
What could have resulted in such a shocking situation? This is what we intend to focus on in our discussion.
Child Chimney Sweeps In The Industrial Revolution
We’ll be looking at events that led to the recruitment of children to serve as chimney sweeps, the health hazards they were exposed to, and also the inhuman conditions they worked under during the Victorian Era.
The First Industrial Disease in History
An industrial disease by simple definition refers to a situation where the health condition of workers is adversely affected due to their working conditions. For workers with pre-existing health challenges, such working conditions exacerbate their symptoms.
In other words, their work environment isn’t health-friendly.
Now, child chimney sweeps are widely known to have contracted the first industrial disease. This is because they were primarily used as sweeps to get into narrow chimneys and have such cleaned.
What Brought About the Need For Children Chimney Sweeps?
You’d agree that there’s no possible justification for the use of children as human chimney sweeps. This is a practice that started after the London fire which originated from a bakery in the 1600s.
After this disaster that destroyed the city, new building codes were issued. This change required buildings to have narrower chimneys among other things. While trying to solve a problem, it created another.
Narrower chimneys meant that adult chimney sweeps couldn’t access the chimney interior anymore. Now, instead of developing new tools for accessing such chimneys, the easiest, yet most inhumane way was settled for.
Who Are Child Chimney Sweeps?
Children were to be used as chimney sweeps as they could readily squeeze into narrow chimneys to clean. This brought about untold hardships as children were made to work under difficult conditions and unsafe work environments.
As expected, these children suffered terrible health problems including cancers as well as fatalities and injuries.
What more? Child chimney sweeps experienced cruelty in the hands of their masters whom they served as apprentices.
Master sweeps were largely responsible for the cruelty faced by child chimney sweeps.
They took advantage of young children who were homeless, from poor families or orphans, etc. These were taken in to serve as chimney sweep apprentices.
All child chimney sweep apprentices were forced to work every day of the year except one. Plus, such work began from dawn and ended at dusk. These harrowing work conditions led to the death of many child workers.
Age Range and Specific Tasks Performed
From the start of this article, we’ve made several mentions of child chimney sweeps.
However, it will be necessary to be a bit more specific by stating the age range of these children. Most of the kids used as child chimney sweeps were aged between 5 and 10 years.
These were small enough to get into chimneys and clean them up.
What did child chimney sweeps use to clean chimneys?
Now, the primary tools used by these kids for the job included small brushes and scraping tools. Starting from the bottom of the chimney, they worked their way to the top.
Hard tar, soot, and creosote deposits were brushed or scraped off in the process. When the child sweeps cleaned and reached the top of the chimney, they slid down and gathered up the soot. The soot gathered wasn’t disposed of. It belonged to the master sweep who then sold to them as fertilizer.
Apart from the difficult and inhumane work conditions experienced by child chimney sweeps, they were also punished if they were too slow.
This involved cruelty of epic proportions where lighted torches were held underneath their feet to force them to work fast.
Respiratory Protection and Protective Gear
Child chimney sweeps were exposed to a wide range of health risks.
No protective gear of any sort was provided. They were fully exposed to chimney soot in addition to other risks. Due to such exposure, it was common to find such boys with deformed ankles, a wide range of respiratory illnesses, and twisted spines.
Additional health problems included inflammatory eye syndrome, twisted knee caps including cancer of the scrotum which was quite common and arose from exposure to the above conditions.
Part of the very disturbing work conditions faced by child chimney sweeps includes suffocation. These kids were exposed to large amounts of soot that entered unhindered into their system resulting in suffocation.
Did child chimney sweeps get stuck? Yes. Sometimes, child chimney sweeps weren’t as lucky as they got stuck and died within chimneys. Other horrible conditions included accidents caused by fire or falling.
Just like their work conditions, their living conditions weren’t any better.
Child chimney sweeps were housed and fed by their master sweeps. The housing conditions were dismal as they slept in basements using dirty soot coverings to keep themselves warm.
This highly unhygienic condition coupled with the fact that they rarely bathed made matters even worse. Feeding conditions were very much below par as they hardly ate good food.
The little they got to eat wasn’t coming regularly. As expected, most boys working as child chimney sweeps were looking malnourished and sickly.
Did No One Care?
The dark times during which this practice was prevalent were so hopeless?
A lot of questions have been asked about whether people were so unperturbed and heartless regarding the living conditions of child chimney sweeps. Sadly, a large majority were.
Most were not interested in how these boys fared. However, there were a few who wrote poems and books about the dire working conditions of child chimney sweeps.
Thankfully, their work shed some light on the existence of such a practice and the need to abolish it.
Growing to Adulthood
This subheading may sound hopeful to the reader, but unfortunately, not many of these sweeps made it to adulthood. A lot of them died from health complications resulting from continued exposure to unhealthy and toxic work environments.
The few that did grow up to adulthood suffered from a wide variety of diseases. To make matters worse, advances in healthcare wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. This is a pathetic situation we must all condemn and never allow to happen again.
The Trigger! Ban On Child Sweeps
Abolishing the use of child chimney sweeps was triggered by an accident that happened in the late 1800s.
A child chimney sweep was sent into a hospital chimney to clean up. Unfortunately, the boy got stuck. People intervened to get the boy out of the chimney and even broke a wall to release him.
Unfortunately, the child chimney sweep didn’t survive the ordeal. This unfortunate event brought the practice under the limelight. The legislation was introduced to bring the practice to a halt.
When did children stop being chimney sweeps? The practice of using children as human chimney sweeps was eventually halted in September 1875.
Inventions That Followed The Ban Of Children Chimney Sweeps
In the absence of child chimney sweeps, a wide range of cleaning tools including brushes were invented.
Since then, there has been a general improvement in the way people maintain their chimneys. The sad news is; it had to involve the above inhumane conditions before any discovery was made.
The dark history of child chimney sweeps sparks off the same feelings similar to those of slavery. People had to be treated by others in an inhumane way for material gain. Deaths resulting from such treatments can never be reversed.
However, it’s a good thing to discuss such happenings as we’re now doing. The reasons are simple. Knowledge of the past, no matter how ugly helps us appreciate how far society has progressed.
Also, a day of remembrance for what they went through helps us to pay a closer look at child labor. Although society has made great progress by leaving behind such practices of cruelty, it isn’t over.
A lot of kids, especially those in the developing world are exploited in a wide range of ways. Child labor is very common as children are used as ready and cheap labor in gold and diamond mines across different parts of the world.
A Call to Action
The dark history of child chimney sweeps teaches us an important lesson.
To be attentive to the injustices mostly faced by the vulnerable in society. Different types of child labor exploitation are being perpetrated in different parts of the world.
So, how significant is your voice to ending such exploitative and evil practices? Very significant! It only starts with one person and that person could be you. Simply reporting an anomaly to the appropriate authorities goes a long way to put pressure on perpetrators to stop such exploitation.
HISTORY: Chimney Sweep Top Hats
Our discussion has so far focused on the dark history of child chimney sweeps. This has enabled us to better appreciate the gains made across all human societies. Despite such progress, a lot more needs to be done.
A lot of kids are still being exploited for gain across different parts of the world. So, wherever you’re reading this article from, an ounce of action you take today can make a whole lot of difference to stop such evil practice.