What was life like for an adult Victorian chimney sweep?

What was life like for an adult Victorian chimney sweep?


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What was life like for an adult Victorian chimney sweep?

I'm looking into my family history at the moment and my great-great-grandfather is listed on an 1881 census as a chimney sweep. I thought this was a child labourer's profession and have never heard of an adult chimney sweep in the UK before.

What would life have been like for him? Was this an undignified profession? What was a chimney sweep's lifestyle like in Victorian Britain?


Actually, by 1881 the use of children as chimney sweeps had been abolished in the UK.

In 1840, the UK Parliament had passed a revised Chimney Sweeps Act which had raised the minimum age at which children could be "apprenticed" to chimney sweeps to 16. Unfortunately, the act was never enforced, and it was widely ignored. Finally, the Chimney Sweepers Act 1875 had required chimney sweeps to be licensed and made it the duty of the police to enforce all previous legislation.

Although sweeping chimneys was a relatively skilled occupation (certainly compared with most common labourers), adult chimney sweeps in Victorian England, were poor men. The occupation was dirty, and continuous exposure to the soot led to a number of health problems.

As you might expect, sweeps commonly developed a variety of lung diseases. Furthermore the first industrially related cancer to be documented, was actually associated with chimney sweeps. Although more common in those who had worked as sweeps as children, "Soot Wart" or "Chimney Sweep's Cancer" was a form of of scrotal squamous cell carcinoma.


Adult chimney sweepers in Victorian England, were poor men, who had no other choices. And because the occupation was dirty, they were at the bottom of society.

As you wrote, it was a more common occupation for children who smaller and more suited for the job. An adult sweeper would probably have been a small man, who was too small and weak to get other higher-paying "heavy lifting" jobs.


Chimney Swift Life History

Chimney Swifts breed in urban and suburban habitats across the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada. They are most common in areas with a large concentration of chimneys for nest sites and roosts. In rural areas they may still nest in hollow trees, tree cavities, or caves. Chimney Swifts forage mostly over open terrain but also over forests, ponds, and residential areas. During migration they forage in flocks over forests and open areas and roost in chimneys at night. They spend the winter in the upper Amazon basin of Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil, where they are found in open terrain and on roosts in chimneys, churches, and caves.Back to top

Chimney Swifts eat airborne insects. Feeding on the wing, they capture flies, bugs, bees, wasps, ants, mayflies, stoneflies, beetles, caddisflies, fleas, craneflies, and other insects. They grab large insects with their bills small ones go right down the throat. Chimney Swifts feed over urban and residential neighborhoods, fields, grasslands, shrublands, orchards, forests, and marshes, usually some distance away from nest sites. They can also pick insects from branch tips and “helicopter” down through the foliage to flush out prey. Normally diurnal foragers, they sometimes hunt for insects at night around streetlights or lit windows. They have been reported taking berries from elderberry bushes.Back to top


A Horrible Experience for Children

For many children starting out chimney sweeping at such a young age, it was a very painful and upsetting experience. When first starting the job the inside of the chimney would often damage all parts of the youngsters body leaving open wounds and blood on their scraped arms and legs. The bosses of these children would often watch as the emerged back out the chimneys covered in soot and blood from the scrapes and cuts that had picked up when inside. They were usually quickly cleaned up with salty water and sent on to the next chimney. The bosses would even underfeed the children so that they would better fit down the chimneys!

After working on the chimneys for a while the boys would start to develop toughened areas of skin (calluses) over the damaged skin which would make the job somewhat more bearable as their skin would not damage quite so easily. Many of the children died or received serious injuries in the chimneys either getting stuck or falling great distances. It is reported that some homeowners would be completely unaware of chimney sweeps being inside of their property, leaving the child stuck in the chimney exposed to smoke and fire. Breathing in soot everyday also caused lung damage to the majority of the chimney sweeps. It is argued that the children were in most cases needlessly used, as the work could be carried out by adults using brushes just as easily.


What was life like for an adult Victorian chimney sweep? - History

It was understood even in the Georgian period of our history that chimneys had to be brush cleaned. Way back to the 17th century the Master Sweep of the day would employ small boys to climb and scramble up chimneys. The task for these climbing boys was to brush clean the inside of the flue with small hand-held brushes. They also used metal scrapers to remove the harder tar deposits left by wood or log fire smoke.

The boys were apprentices and were bound to the trade as young as seven years old. A Master was paid a fee to clothe, keep and teach the child his trade. Sweeps' Boys were usually parish children or orphans, though others were sold into the trade by their families. Some grew up to be Journeymen (assistants to the Master), the remainder were put out to various trades to try to learn a new occupation. In London, there was a London Society of Master Sweeps with its own set of rules, one of which included that boys were not required to work on Sundays but had to attend Sunday School to study, learn and read the Bible.

However, conditions for the boys were harsh and often cruel. They slept in cellars on bags of soot and were seldom washed. Years of accumulated soot and grime often produced cancer of the testicles. It was a dangerous and filthy job for the boys to undertake, especially without the protection of safety clothing and respirators. Sadly there are recorded instances where these Climbing Boys choked and suffocated to death by dust inhalation whilst attempting to clean chimneys. Casualties were also frequent as boys became stuck in narrow flues or fell from climbing rotten chimney stacks.

It took many years and campaigns before Acts of Parliament finally approved by the House of Lords outlawed the use of Climbing Boys. In 1864 Lord Shaftesbury brought in the "Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers" which established a penalty of £10.00 for offenders.

In the early part of the 18th century various types of chimney cleaning methods were being developed. An engineer from Bristol, Mr. Joseph Glass, is widely recognized as the inventor of chimney cleaning equipment, which has become universal even to this day. This was the design and introduction of canes and brushes, which could be pushed and propelled up from the fireplace into the chimney above. Early canes were made of malacca and imported from the East Indies. Brushes were made of whale bones, no nylon or polypropylene.

The other method of cleaning flues that was developed originally came from the Continent - Europe. This was the ball, brush and rope system which was lowered down from the top of the chimney. The weight of the lead or iron ball pulls the brush down, thus cleaning the chimney. This procedure is still used widely in Scotland even today. This is because of the historical contacts Scotland had with Europe. With the Industrial Revolution and ever greater demand for coal production, chimney sweeps grew in numbers. In Victorian London, there were over 1,000 chimney sweeps serving the area.

The continued expansion of coal as the main fuel for domestic heating ensured that the sweeping trade flourished. This was right up to the early 1960s when gas began to be installed and replace coal as a source of domestic heating. The switch to gas continued in the seventies and many of the old established family sweeps retired or gave up the business. Until this period, sweeps had traditionally cleaned only coal, wood and oil chimneys. Public awareness of the need for clean, safe and clear chimneys was almost non-existent. Carbon monoxide poisonings from blocked chimneys began to be noticed.

Above text copyright Martin Glynn, President of The National Association of Chimney Sweeps (Used without permission).

Being a chimney sweep was not lucky for the little girls and boys who had this job in the 1700's to 1800's. They were a type of indentured servant, bought by the chimney sweep master. The master was to teach them the trade while being responsible for housing them. Their job was to actually climb up, inside the chimney, brushing the flue as they went, and they weren't done til their heads poked out of the chimney top. This, of course, was a scary job for these children and they were often reluctant to perform as expected. Many masters used a dangerous punishment: the child was forced up the flue then a fire was lit. Since he couldn't come down, they had no choice but to climb up the flue. We think this is where the term "light a fire under you" originated.

These children lived in deplorable conditions. They carried a large sack with them, into which they dumped the soot they swept from the chimneys. They used this same sack as a blanket to sleep in at night, and only bathed infrequently. They were often sickly, and learned to beg handouts of food and clothing from their customers as all the money they earned went to their masters. The soot they collected was sold to farmers for fertilizer.

Why did chimney sweeps wear tophats and tails? They are said to have most often gotten their clothing as cast-offs from funeral directors. The outfit was always a very practical black in color, and gave an air of distinction to a dirty, though necessary, job. Chimney sweeps often served double duty as the town's "nightman", whose job it was to clean out the privy. It is said that chimney sweeps wore slippers because they could be more easily removed, freeing the toes to aid their climbing grip.

Not many chimney sweeps carry on the tradition of tophats and tails as their standard attire these days, as many feel the garb demeans the seriousness of the jobs we perform, which are not only sweeping chimneys but performing repairs and maintenance of many types. (The topcoat tails also make it difficult to climb a ladder.) We all probably have them tucked away in the back of our closets and still can be convinced to wear them for weddings and photo ops.


Chimney Sweeps – Victorian Child Labor

/>The life of a chimney sweep in Victorian times was nothing like what you see in Mary Poppins. It was a brutal, dreary existence for Victorian child chimney sweeps. Some were as young as 3 years old. Their tiny size made them a popular choice for going down the narrow chimney stacks.

A Victorian Child Chimney Sweep may have been the most dangerous job for children in the 1800’s, especially when the child first started doing the job. Being sent down the chimney the first several times would cause the child’s arms, elbows, legs and knees to be rubbed and scraped raw. At times their knees and elbows looked like there was no skin at all on them. The boss would then wash their wounds with salt water and send them down another chimney without sympathy.

After a time the child would develop calluses making their task a little more bearable. But the dangers of the job were only beginning. Falling was a major fear for chimney sweeps or getting stuck in the stacks also, both could cause death very easily. The constant breathing in of soot caused irreversible lung damage in many children. There were a few reported cases of children getting stuck in chimneys and no one even knowing it, leaving them to die alone from exposure or smoke inhalation or worse. I will leave it to your imagination about how terrifying that must have been. The lifespan of Victorian Chimney sweeps rarely made it to middle age.

Interesting facts about Victorian Child Chimney Sweeps

  • Orphans were sometimes taken and put into (for lack of a better word) slavery, and then put back on the street when they grew too big for the chimneys.
  • Bosses underfed children so that they would be thin enough to continue going down chimneys.
  • Sometimes bosses even kidnapped children to use on the job.
  • Children usually outgrew the job around 9 or 10 years of age.
  • Children were not even necessary. Sweeping Chimneys could be done more safely and just as well by using brushes.

Victorian Child Labor Laws Against the use of Child Chimney Sweeps

Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788

In 1788 a law against the use of young children under the age of eight as chimney sweeps was enacted. Furthermore, the master sweep had to offer proper clothing as well as decent living conditions and had to allow the children to go to church on Sundays. Before this act children as young as 4 years old were being used as Victorian child labor.

The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act of 1840

Children as young as six were still being use to sweep chimneys. Under this act it was not legal to make someone or even allow person under the age of 21 to climb up or into a chimney for the purpose of cleaning it.

Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875

In 1875, a 12-year-old boy name George Brewster died in an accident after his Master Sweep made him climb the chimney at Fulbourn Hospital to clean it. A man called Lord Shaftesbury was obviously touched by the story and the spattering of public outcry that followed. He proposed a new Act that would superseded the Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act of 1840.

The Chimney Sweepers Act 1875 made sure that all chimney sweeps had to be registered with the police. Then their work had to be officially supervised. The guidelines of the previous acts would be enforced as well.


A History of Chimney Sweeping

The chimney sweep has been around for hundreds of years and still today is a necessary and important profession. The early Romans first made the switch from a single fire in the center of a room to an isolated fireplace to heat buildings and cook indoors, but it was not until 16th century England that the trend of fireplaces and chimneys really caught on. It was not long before people built fireplaces in each room of their home to use as a heat source. In 17th century England, along with all of the new fireplaces came a hearth tax, based on the size of the house and the number of chimneys the house had. To avoid these high taxes, builders would connect the flues of new fireplaces with those of an existing chimney, creating a complex maze of pitch black narrow tunnels inside the home.

In this same time period, coal became a popular substitute for burning wood in fireplaces. As a result of this switch from wood to coal, the need for regular cleaning became increasingly necessary. The use of coal left large sticky soot deposits on the walls of the fireplace that had to be cleaned off regularly for the chimney to remain cleared. If the fireplace was left uncared for, the coal residue would cause the chimney to back up and pollute the home with harmful fumes. At this point the profession of the chimney grew rapidly. With the rise in coal use, regular chimney sweep visits became a safety necessity. In London at this time, Queen Victoria mandated that all chimneys be cleaned regularly. At this time, chimney sweeps became known for bringing clean and fresh air back to the home and they became associated with good hearth and good health.

Many times in literature, movies and artwork child sweeps were portrayed as having fun and the cheerful young apprentices of accomplished older sweeps. The truth was a bit different of course. Many orphans were forced into child labor and treated poorly as they worked long, hard hours as chimney boys.

Cleaning the inside of the soot-filled chimney flues was a difficult and dangerous job because of the narrow chimney flues and the amount of soot the sweepers were exposed to. For this reason, the job was left to poor orphan boys brought in by the chimney master or children sold by their parents into the trade. The children served as indentured servants to their master in exchange for a home and food and water the children were taught the trade. The children climbed into the chimneys to scrape off the coal deposits and brush the walls with little scrubber brushes. The conditions were harsh and the work was hard. Children were often scared to climb into the narrow passageways, so to give them a little extra encouragement the chimney masters would light a small fire under the child to coax him up the interior walls, hence the start of the expression, “to light a fire under you”. The life of a ‘climbing boy’ was not just undesirable but dangerous as well. Because they worked and lived in the soot and grime of the chimneys, the children often developed respiratory problems and other related issues. Fatal falls from rotting chimneys were not uncommon either. William Blake, an English poet, illustrates the difficult life of a chimney sweep boy in his poem, “The Chimney Sweeper”.

In London, sweeps would spend all day moving from one roof to the next of the row houses.

Finally, in 1864, Parliament passed the “Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers” which ended the use of young boys to clean the chimneys. At this time, various cleaning devices were invented to aid the chimney sweep in cleaning and bushing the walls from one end of the chimney. One method of chimney cleaning invented around this time used a heavy lead or iron ball and rope system used to clean the chimney from the top all the way down to the fireplace. And, in the 18th century, a man named Joseph Glass invented chimney cleaning equipment consisting of a set of canes and brushes that could be used from the fireplace to clean all the way up to the top of the chimney. More modern variations of both of these inventions are still used today.

In the 1960s, gas and electricity have replaced coal and fireplaces as the main heating source for homes. This change in fuel type has mandated a revision to the role of the chimney sweep. In the 1970s though, when the price of fossil fuels rose dramatically, people went back to burning wood in their fireplaces rather than to use other more costly methods of heating. But when people used fireplaces that had been left unused for a long period of time without proper cleaning and care, house fires and carbon monoxide poisonings from clogged chimneys became commonplace. This switch back to the use of fireplaces after years of non-use was very dangerous if the proper provisions were not taken care of beforehand. Presently, the professional chimney sweep has made a comeback with fireplaces getting regular use rather than just used for a decoration and this old profession is still growing today.

Although the life of the early chimney sweeps including children has often been dramatized and romanticized as being cheery and fun in stories, movies and artwork, the reality was quite different and the sweep’s life many times was one of toil and hardship.

One of the most famous literary works about Chimney Sweeps is William Blake’s poem, “The Chimney Sweeper.”

The chimney sweep today has come a long way from sending children armed with brushes up the chimney flues. Professional chimney sweeps are educated in the codes and science behind chimneys and fireplaces. Chimney sweeps now do more than simply clean a chimney they diagnose and service problems, repair all types of chimneys and install fireplaces and hearths. Through it all, the chimney sweep remains an important profession that will continue to grow and bring good health and good hearth to every home they service.

Today, the chimney sweep is a well respected professional that helps to provide homeowners and businesses to maintain safe operation of heating systems, fireplaces, stoves, flues and chimneys of all kinds. Organizations like the CSIA and the NCSG hold members to very high ethical and educational standards of performance as well


Child Chimney Sweeps: Dark Chapter in Sweep History

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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A Living Victorian Village

Privately owned by the same family since 1738 and kept in the style of a mid-Victorian village. Clovelly is the only privately owned village in England and is a great tourist attraction because the owners have kept it in the style of a Victorian village so its like stepping back in time. When holidaying in Devon and Cornwall we made a point of visiting Clovelly for a day trip finishing off with a Devon Cream Tea (scone with jam and cream) in one of the restaurants on the quayside at the bottom of the village. Below is the video I made of our visit to Clovelly, a Victorian village.


Venturing Beyond Chimneys

The chimney climbing boys and girls worked long hours, but their work entailed more than just sweeping chimneys.

Each child has a blanket where they collected soot after cleaning a chimney. The black, powdery substance was invaluable master sweepers sold them as dust fertilizer to farmers.

If the master chimney sweep has several children working under him, the older ones will wander the streets, calling “soot-o and clean-o.” This served as a reminder for people to clean their chimneys to prevent fires.

Eventually, the treatment of children improved, thanks to the Parliament. It established a minimum wage for the sweepers and limited the number of children a master could take in. Later on came the demise of the chimney apprenticeship in England in 1875.

The world has come a long way since the story of the climbing boys who braved the chimney sweeping trade during the 1700s. Today, chimney sweeps use modern technology, such as specialized cameras and scopes to make the job much easier.


Watch the video: What It Was Like to Be a Chimney Sweeper In the Victorian Era


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