By Susan Durack, Special Collections & Archives
The Chimney-sweeper’s friend, and Climbing-boy’s album was printed by A. & R Spottiswoode in 1824. The book is about the plight of Chimney Sweepers or Climbing Boys as they were known and sets forth “the wrongs of many thousands of unfortunate children”. It is a miscellany of prose, poetry, plays and reports urging the legislature to “prohibit the masters from taking any more children as climbers”. The book was arranged by James Montgomery (1771-1854).
The Industrial Revolution brought a huge increase in homes being built with chimneys; this resulted in the Master Chimney Sweep becoming much sought after. New chimneys were being built with more right, horizontal and vertical angles and sections. Flues also became narrower to create a better draught. Chimney sweeping was one of the more commonly difficult, hazardous, and low paying occupations of the era. Boys were picked up from the street or bought from orphanages or destitute parents.
The boys were usually aged between four and ten although most were under the age of seven. These boys were used to clamber up chimneys to clean out deposits of soot. The chimney sweep master taught them the trade while being responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing them. It was a common practice for the master sweep or his assistant to actually light a small fire in the fireplace or hold lighted straw under their feet or even poke and prod the children with pins to force them up to the top. It has been said, that that is where the saying “light a fire under you” comes from. The job was not considered complete until the climbing boys head appeared out of the top of the chimney.
Working conditions for the climbing boys were harsh and cruel. It was a dangerous and filthy job to undertake. Many suffered from job related ailments, such as twisted spines and kneecaps, deformed ankles, eye inflammations and respiratory illnesses. Many also suffered from the first known industrial disease ‘chimney sweep’s cancer’ caused by the constant irritation of coal tar soot on the naked skin. Sadly there are recorded instances where these climbing boys choked and suffocated to death from inhaling the chimney dust or from getting stuck in the narrow and convoluted chimney flues. Casualties were frequent as many boys were maimed or killed from falling or from being badly burned.
Montgomery, James (1771-1854) the compiler of the book was a British poet, hymn-writer and editor. He was particularly associated with humanitarian causes such as the campaigns to abolish slavery and to end the exploitation of child chimney sweeps. He was very well regarded in the city and played an active part in its philanthropic and religious life. He died in 1854.
In the 1760s, Jonas Hanway, a wealthy London merchant and philanthropist, campaigned extensively to improve working conditions for sweeps’ apprentices through legislative change for the protection of children as chimney sweeps.
The Acts of 1788, 1834 and 1840 brought up the age of apprentices from 8 years to 21 and addressed the working conditions of the boys and the contract obligations of the Master Sweep. But these were not generally enforced.
In 1875, a successful solution was implemented by the Chimney Sweepers’ Act which required sweeps to be licensed and made it the duty of the police to enforce all previous legislation. The penalty was a £10.0.0 fine. The Bill was proposed by Lord Shaftesbury triggered by the death of twelve-year-old George Brewster whose master had caused him to climb and clean the chimney at Fulbourn Hospital. The widespread introduction of gas heating and the invention of mechanical chimney sweeping tools put an end to the use of children as Chimney Sweeps.