The Poor Life of An Apprentice Chimney Sweep – The History of Children at Work Part 3 of 5
Posted on 08/04/2018
Children were not only expected to put up with little care, but they were expected to find customers
Produced by Owlcation for Education
In London and other larger cities apprentice chimney sweeps usually fared the worst, not only because the competition was keener, but because the chimneys were smaller and taller.
Unfortunately, especially in London and other larger cities, master chimney sweeps kept as many children as they could keep alive; many sweeps didn’t want to spend more than would keep each child moving and earning money. Too many of the children were in rags, and seldom had shoes. To save money and to keep them small so they could climb small chimneys, they were often fed as little as possible.
The children were worked long hours, even the youngest of them, at 5 or 6 years old. (The youngest known apprentice was taken at 3 1/2 years.) Most sweepers didn’t like them below the age of 6, because they were considered too weak to climb tall chimneys or work long hours, and they would “go off”, or die, too easily. But taken at 6 they were small (and could be kept that way with poor feeding), strong enough to work and not nearly as likely to die.
Each child was given a blanket. The blanket was used during the day to haul soot after cleaning a chimney. The soot was valuable. It was dumped at the master chimney sweep’s courtyard, sifted of lumps and sold as “dust” fertilizer to farmers.
After the blanket was filled and emptied of soot on a regular basis during the day, the child slept under it at night. Sometimes a child and his companion apprentices slept on either straw or on top of another blanket full of soot, and they normally huddled together for warmth. This was so common that it had a term, “sleeping in the black”, because the child, clothes, skin and the blanket were all covered with soot.
Some children actually received the weekly bath outlined in the apprenticeship agreement. However, some were never bathed, and many followed a more common custom of 3 baths per year, at Whitsuntide (shortly after Easter), Goose Fair (early October) and Christmas.
In London, many sweeper apprentices had washed on their own in a local river, the Serpentine, until one of them drowned. Then the children were discouraged from bathing in it.
The master chimney sweep might have plenty of regular customers, or might have gone through the streets calling, “soot-o” and “sweep-o”, reminding people that it was time to clean the chimney to prevent the too-common chimney fires.
If a master sweep had several apprentices, the older ones would also walk the streets calling for clients. They would do this on their own, but their call was “weep, weep”. If someone hailed them for a job, they would either fetch the master’s journeyman to handle the transaction, or they would do it themselves and bring the money back to the master.
Depending on their circumstances, people tended to wait as long as they could before having the chimneys cleaned, to save on the expense. For the child, this meant that when the child went up the chimney, there was too often a great deal of soot. As he scraped it above him and it came down on his head, in that small space, it could surround his head and shoulders and suffocate him.
The apprentice chimney sweeps did work that was too dangerous for anyone to do.
When a master sweep was hired to do the job, the hearth fire would be put out. Then he would place a blanket across the front of the hearth. The child would take off any jacket or shoes. If the chimney was tight, the child would “buff it”, or climb the chimney in the nude.
The child pulled his apprentice sweep cap over his face and hooked it under his chin. This was the only protection the child had against the great volumes of soot and any burning creosote that would fall on his face and body as he brushed and scraped the chimney above him.
The larger chimneys were about 14″ square, and the smaller ones about 9″ by 14″. If there were bends or corners, which was normal, the child had to find a way to make it past the changes in direction within that small space. Some chimneys could even be as small as 7″, and only the very smallest children were used to clean those chimney flues. The chimneys were square or rectangular, and the child could maneuver his shoulders into the corners, which allowed for crawling up some surprisingly small chimneys.
The child worked his way up the chimney, holding his soot brush in his right hand above his head, and using mainly his elbows, knees, ankles and back, like a caterpillar. He often had a metal scraper in the other hand to scrape away the hard creosote deposits that stuck to the chimney walls.
When a child first began to climb chimneys, his elbows and knees would be badly scraped with every climb and would bleed profusely (children climbed anywhere from 4 to 20 chimneys a day). While a few of the more humane master sweepers provided the children with knee and elbow pads, most solved this problem by “hardening” the child’s elbows and knees. This involved standing the child next to a hot fire and scraping his scraped knees and elbows with a rough brush dipped in brine. Needless to say, it was extremely painful, and many children were either beaten or bribed when they cried and tried to get away from the brush. Some children’s elbows and knees didn’t harden for weeks, months or even years. Nevertheless, they received these brush and brine treatments regularly until the scraped and burned skin hardened.
Being burned by chimneys that were still hot, or by smoldering soot and creosote when a chimney fire had begun were also very common for apprentice sweeps in London. If a household waited too long to have the chimneys cleaned, then a chimney fire began, the master sweep was called to take care of it. The master sweep would then send the child up the hot chimney to clean it out, burning embers and all. Because many children burned to death this way, the master sweep would often stand on the roof with a bucket of water to dump on the child if he cried out or if flames started above him.
In Part 4: There were many ways for the children to die on the job. The apprentice chimney sweeps not only had to contend with the chimneys, they had to contend with the weather. Sir Percival Pott’s comments on apprentice chimney sweeps, 1776. If boys reached puberty, it could hold one more tragedy for them.