The Poor Life of An Apprentice Chimney Sweep – The History of Children at Work Part 4 of 5
Posted on 10/04/2018
There were many ways for the children to die on the job
Produced by: Owlcation for Education
The children also became stuck in the chimneys, and many died of suffocation from slipping and being jammed too tight to breathe, or from huge deposits of soot and ash dumping on them. Whether or not the child was alive, a mason was called to open the chimney and remove him.
From their own experiences and from hearing about the deaths of other apprentices, the children were well aware of these hazards, and, especially the younger ones, were often frightened of going up into the heat and the claustrophobic dark. They would go into the chimney because they were stuffed up into it by a demanding master or journeyman. However, they would freeze once inside the chimney and wouldn’t go any further. They also wouldn’t come out, because they knew they would be beaten.
The master sweepers solved this problem by either lighting straw below the children who had been stuffed up the chimney, or sending another child up to prick the first child’s feet with pins. The term “lighting a fire under him” is said to have come from the master sweepers lighting straw under boys in chimneys to make them start moving and cleaning upward away from the fire.
The children not only died from burns and suffocation, they died from long falls, either back down the chimney itself, or after reaching the very top. They cleaned and climbed the chimney to the very top, including the part that was sticking high up out of the roof. Once in a while, the clay chimney tops – called “pots” – were cracked or poorly fitted. The boys would climb up into them, and a bad pot would either break or fall off the roof, plunging both boy and down two, three or even four stories onto the cobblestone street or courtyard below.
The danger of the chimney flues being too much of a maze, or the child going back down the wrong flue to a fire or dead-end that they couldn’t back up from have been mentioned. Usually, this happened to new children and, if they survived, they didn’t need to be frightened like that many times to build a mental map of their climbs in the claustrophobic darkness.
The apprentice chimney sweeps not only had to contend with the chimneys, they had to contend with the weather
The hazards outside of the chimneys were also constant. For the most part, the ailments the children suffered as a result of their work went untreated.
They had chronic sore eyes, including some blindness, from the constant soot particles in their eyes. They had chronic respiratory illnesses, and died of those, especially when they were out in the winter months for long hours.
Their spines, arms and legs would become deformed from poor nutrition, and from spending many long hours in unnatural positions while their soft bones were still growing. Their knee joints became deformed from the long hours they spent each day with their body weight pressing their knees against the chimney walls. Their ankles were chronically swollen from the pressure they had to maintain on them while their feet were vertical against the opposite chimney walls.
Their backs not only became twisted from the scraping and unnatural positions inside the tight chimneys, but from carrying soot bags from every job back to the master’s courtyard. These bags were much too heavy for small children.
The children not only used their blankets to carry soot, but they also used them as their only winter clothing. Once they were proven reliable, they were often expected to go by themselves to sweep chimneys at 5 or 6 in the morning, before households heated the chimneys for the day. With the pain they already had in their arms, legs, feet and backs, the cold was especially bad for them. “Chillblains”, which is pain, blistering and itching from the cold due to reduced circulation, was a common complaint.
Around Christmastime, pain from the cold was especially troubling, because that was a very busy time of year, no matter how cold it was. Households waited longer than usual to have their chimneys cleaned, so they could do it immediately before the heavy cooking at Christmas. As a result, the children were up earlier and worked later than usual, and the chimneys were much more loaded with soot and creosote. They went from the cold outside to the tight, suffocating chimneys inside many times a day. Some of the weaker, worse-dressed children died of exposure in the coldest months.
Sir Percival Pott, commenting on apprentice chimney sweeps, 1776
” The fate of these people seems peculiarly hard…they are treated with great brutality.. they are thrust up narrow and sometimes hot chimnies, [sic] where they are bruised burned and almost suffocated; and when they get to puberty they become … liable to a most noisome, painful and fatal disease.”
If boys reached puberty, it could hold one more tragedy for them
For the boys, their treatment led to another tragedy. Coal soot found its way into the folds of skin on a boy’s scrotal sac due to loose clothing and climbing in the nude. Because the soot was not washed off for months at a time over the years, many of the boys developed scrotal cancer, called “chimney sweep’s cancer” about the time they entered puberty.
This was the first occupation-caused disease reported during the Industrial Revolution. Sir Percival Pott studied and reported it in 1775.
The cancer started as a small sore spot on the surface of the scrotum. If it was seen by the boy while it was small – before it became and open sore – it was the custom in London for the boy to trap it between a split stick and cut the sore spot off with a razor. If he did this early enough, it could save his life.
The sore was never seen by a doctor before it had been an open sore and was growing larger for some time. Then, before Sir Percival’s discovery, the doctor thought it was venereal disease, and the boy was given mercury to treat it. (As we know today, the mercury would inhibit the boy’s immune system, and the cancer would spread more quickly.)
While the open sore was sometimes removed by the doctor, by that time, it was usually too late to save the boy. It ate away the scrotal sac and thigh skin and anal area, and progressed to the abdominal cavity. The unfortunate boy who had managed to survive climbing the hot, soot-filled and tight chimneys would then die a very painful death
In Part 5: The circumstances of these children were publicized, but still the abuses continued. Even the sympathetic were not willing to let the boys stop climbing chimneys. Finally, for English children, being an apprentice chimney sweep ended.