Apprenticeships could be honourable agreements, but too many apprentice chimney sweeps were treated as slaves
Produced by Owlcation for Education
Apprenticeships, which allowed children to be trained in a trade, and allowed businesses to have cheap labour, were informally practiced throughout history.
In Britain and other countries in Europe, legal apprenticeship agreements were being signed by the 15th century, and legal agreements for apprenticeship are still being used today in some places.
On the whole, apprenticeships have been very useful when both parties are working together. However, certain trades and certain periods in history have lent themselves to severe abuse of apprenticed children.
For apprentice chimney sweeps, the worst abuses occurred in England immediately before and during the Industrial Revolution, and during the Victorian Era, when thousands of people came to the cities seeking work. Many of them found either no work or work with wages guaranteed to keep them in poverty for the rest of their lives.
In England in the late 16th century, the problems caused by great numbers of unemployed and under-paid workers in the cities became severe. Justices were given authority over the children of poor families, and began to assign them to apprenticeships to provide them with work, food and shelter.
Abuses became much more common as the children of the poor became available through justices placing them in apprenticeships. For master chimney sweeps, these small, underfed children of powerless or absent parents were perfect for sending up chimneys. Thus, they were the apprentices chosen most often in this trade.
While other apprenticeships lasted a standard seven years, master chimney sweeps could sometimes obligate the children to an apprenticeship for several years more. As these apprenticeships were generally unsupervised once the papers were signed, the children were completely dependent on the good heart and generosity of their masters. This meant that many were basically sold into seven years or more of cruel slavery.
Smaller chimneys and more complicated flues were potential death traps for the children
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, when buildings were replaced, fire codes were also put in place. While they did help fire safety, they also complicated the configurations of chimney flues.
The buildings were sometimes four stories high, with much smaller chimney flues than were previously used. (Smaller chimneys became normal when coal came into use, because they created better draft for fires.)
This arrangement could easily mean that a chimney of 9″ by 14″ could extend 60 feet or more, with many corners, turns and twists to accommodate living space. The chimneys then clustered on the roof, and extended up to expel the smoke high away from the building. While London was by far the largest city in Britain, other good-sized cities throughout Britain quickly followed suit with their new construction.
Chimney flues had several twists and turns, both because they were being built around living space, and because they were often attached to other flues within the building to share a chimney opening. Combining flues into one chimney top was more frequently done after the 1664 change in the hearth tax, as it helped to reduce the number of chimney tops – if a roof had over 2 chimney tops, each top was taxed.
As the chimneys became smaller to burn coal and number of turns and corners in the flues increased, the flues gathered ash, soot and creosote much more quickly than the larger, straighter chimneys had. They also needed cleaning more often (usually 3 or 4 times per year). This was not only because chimney fires were a danger, but because the coal fumes could kill if they were allowed to build up in the houses.
Even if a chimney didn’t prove too hot when an apprentice entered it to clean, the chimney flues were pitch black, claustrophobic, potentially full of suffocating soot and confusing to navigate in the dark. It was dangerous enough work, even when the master chimney sweep tried to do well by the apprentices. The children not only had to go up these tight, dark chimneys, they had to come back down them after the work was done.
Unfortunately, the turns, twists, and merges of the chimney flues behind the walls of tall buildings created a confusing, pitch black and soot-filled maze that could sometimes be deadly to a young apprentice chimney sweep trying to make it to the roof.
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.