An increase in child apprentice chimney sweeps came from an attempt to be more humanitarian

Produced by: Owlcation for Education

Children were apprentice chimney sweeps throughout Europe for several hundred years, and were as common in England as any place else.

However, while abuses also occurred in other countries, the abuses related to sending children up small, long chimneys occurred mainly in London and other large cities in England and Ireland.

In other countries in Europe, and in Scotland, while some master sweeps used small apprentices for chimney cleaning, the smallest chimneys were more commonly cleaned with a lead ball and brush attached to a rope. This was not true in England and Ireland; it was unusual for a small child not to be sent up a small chimney.

In England, another great increase in the use of small children as chimney sweeps occurred after 1773. Oddly enough, the increase in this abusive trade was caused by an attempt to be more humanitarian.

At that time, an Englishman named Jonah Hanway returned from a trip to China, where he had learned that no questions were asked when new-born Chinese babies were killed by their parents. He decided to confirm for himself that the English were more compassionate. He began by investigating the workhouses.

To his horror, he found that 68 out of 76 children had died within a year in one workhouse, and 16 out of 18 children had died within a year in another. The worst, though, was that, for 14 years in a row, no children at all had survived for a year in a third workhouse.

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He reported this to Parliament. As they were responsible for the safety of children in workhouses and orphanages, they ordered an investigation. The investigation found that death rates were also high in many other workhouses; in addition, the investigation found that only about 7 out of every hundred children survived for a year after being placed in an orphanage.

To mend this terrible situation, in 1773 Parliament passed an act that children couldn’t be kept in a workhouse for longer than 3 weeks. Then they had to be boarded out. The effect of this act was that small children became much more available not only to chimney sweeps, but to a lot of other business owners who were looking for cheap, expendable labour.

Powerless children were made apprentice chimney sweeps

From 1773, master chimney sweeps regularly kept anywhere from 2 to 20 children, depending on how many they could use for their business. For each child, the master sweep was paid 3-4 pounds by the government when the apprenticeship agreement was signed.

Often poor parents were faced with a choice of either finding someplace to send their small children or watching them starve. In those cases, the master sweep took the child directly from the parents and paid them a few shillings. While this was also called an apprenticeship, the parents many times never saw the child again or knew if it had survived.

Homeless children were also snatched off the street by master sweepers, and pressed into apprenticeship. This practice was sanctioned by the government, based on the theory that the children were better working than being little criminals.

Most people assume that both the master and the child apprentices were always male. This wasn’t the case. Many girls also climbed chimneys, and if they survived to adulthood, just as the boys did, some of them became journeymen in their teens, and eventually master sweepers, too.

The legal arrangement for apprenticeship was indentured servitude. The agreement defined the master’s duties as providing the child with food, clothes, shelter and at least one bath a week, with access to church, while the master was training the child in the chimney sweep trade.

On the child’s side, the agreement stated that the child gladly did what the master said to do, didn’t harm the master, tell his secrets, lend his gear or waste his resources, and worked the entire time with no pay. The agreement did not include a limit on the number of hours a child worked each day.

The apprenticeship agreement also stated that the child wouldn’t frequent gaming or drinking establishments. The child would receive money either by being paid a few coppers after the master determined that the child was worth it – if a master was honorable – or by begging from families who had their chimneys cleaned.

 

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In Part 3: Children were not only expected to put up with little care, but they were expected to find customers. The apprentice chimney sweeps did work that was too dangerous for anyone to do.

 

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