The Poor Life of An Apprentice Chimney Sweep – The History of Children at Work Part 5 of 5
Posted on 12/04/2018
The circumstances of these children were publicized, but still the abuses continued
Produced by: Owlcation
If the children survived long enough to no longer fit into chimneys, and didn’t die from the chimney sweep’s cancer, they would become journeymen, and begin supervising the apprentices for the master sweeper.
Or they would be kicked out of the master chimney sweep’s home with no money, deformed and covered in soot. If they were dumped into the streets, nobody was interested in hiring them, even for heavy labor, because their deformed legs, arms and backs made them look weak. So the children who weren’t allowed to become journeymen or master sweepers often became petty criminals.
The circumstances of children sweep apprentices were well known and their various unhappy fates also known by the authorities. Their deaths and the court testimonies of the cruelties of the few master chimney sweeps that made it to court were publicized in the papers. However, it was still very difficult to find the support to end using children to sweep chimneys.
Gradually, court cases made it all too obvious that the master sweepers, for the most part, were not people to entrust with raising and training children. These cases included many child fatalities after they were forced up clogged or burning chimneys to clean them, or beaten to death for being too afraid to go up them.
A mechanical chimney sweeper was invented in 1802, but many people would not allow it to be used in their homes. If they had chimneys that had many corners in them, they didn’t want the expense of making the corners into bends that the brush could navigate. They were also very certain that the mechanical sweeper could not do the good job that a human could.
The fact that the human who went up the chimney was a small and abused child was both known and ignored by the people who hired chimney sweeps. The only difference knowing the brutality of these children’s lives seemed to make was that the children could sometimes beg a small coin, some clothes or an old pair of shoes from the mistress of the house. The begging was encourage by the masters, because it saved on clothing expenses.
Everything was, more often than not, then taken from the children. Clothing that couldn’t be used was sold. (Having improper clothing castoffs given to them was where some chimney sweeps found the top hats that became a mark of their trade.)
After the invention of the mechanical sweeper, the master sweeps who stopped using children and began to use the mechanical sweepers had a difficult time staying in business. This was even though they reported that the brushes did as good a job as the children.
Even the sympathetic were not willing to let the boys stop climbing chimneys
The Irish Farmers’ Journal, ever watchful for reports about climbing boys, referred to a leaflet by S. Porter of Wallbrook, entitled: An Appeal to the Humanity of the British Public. This quoted statements about deaths, burns and suffocation of six boys in 1816 and eight in 1818. One report was about a child of five years old, another about a boy who was “dug out – quite dead” from an Edinburgh flue: “the most barbarous means were used to drag him down:. This journal reported in March 1819 that the Bill to do away with the employment of climbing boys had been lost; the editor in spite of his humanity would not have recommended total abolition of climbing because he was of the opinion that some chimneys were impossible to clean by machines.
Finally, for English children, being an apprentice chimney sweep ended
The treatment of these children was gradually improved over many years through a string of Acts passed by Parliament. First, a minimum legal age for a sweep’s apprentice was created, then increased. Then the number of children a master sweeper could apprentice was limited to six. Other limits were put in place as the 73 years after the invention of the mechanical sweep passed.
However, for many of the Acts, the enforcement also had to be pushed, because people, including the authorities, held on to their belief that chimneys were cleaner when they were cleaned by people.
Many advocates, such as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Dr. George Phillips, worked diligently for decades on the children’s behalf. These advocates lobbied for the children, made pamphlets and also made sure that some of the many court cases for abuse and manslaughter that were brought against master sweeps who forced frightened children up hazardous chimneys were also printed in the papers. The pamphlets and publicized court cases slowly began to reduce the resistance of the public to using mechanical sweepers.
Then, in the early 1870’s, several boys died in chimneys; the youngest boy was 7 years old. Finally, 12 year old George Brewster was made to climb a chimney at Fulbourn Hospital. He became stuck, and suffocated. This was the tipping point.
Lord Shaftsbury had reported the other boys’ deaths to Parliament. Finally, he used George Brewster’s death (and his master light sentence of six months’ hard labor) to push the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875 – and to push its proper enforcement. This act set the lower age limit for chimney sweeps at 21, and demanded the registration of all chimney sweeps with the local police. Unlike the Acts before it, this Act was properly supervised. This meant that George Brewster was the last child apprentice chimney sweep to die on the job.
While the use of small children in England was eventually stopped in 1875, it continued in other countries for many more years. The only two advantages that those children had were that they didn’t clean very small chimneys, and they did not get chimney sweeper’s cancer.In most other ways, they had the same problems and the same fates as the English children had endured.
Very little is known about the children who were chimney sweeps in the U.S., because black children were used in this trade. White children usually worked in the textile mills, coal mines, and other locations. Where white children were used, black children would not normally be given jobs. And because black children were chimney sweeps in the United States, very little is known about their profession and what they endured before child labour laws were enacted.
COMMENT and Epilogue
In 1875, the death of 12-year-old chimney sweep George Brewster became the catalyst that finally pushed through legislation that outlawed the cruel exploitation of boys.
His master, William Wyer, had sent poor George Brewster into one of the chimneys in Fulbourn Hospital where he became stuck and distressed. A wall had to be torn down to free George from his narrow prison. The boy died shortly afterwards. Wyer was charged and found guilty of manslaughter, but George Brewster became the last child chimney sweep in England to die in a chimney.
This obscene part of British (and European) history is one reason among many that undermines the claim that males oppressed females and white people were privileged. Times were hard and brutal for most people, men, women and children. Plagues, wars, starvation and bitter cold were all part of what it was like in Britain and Europe for a large part of the time.