Chimney sweeps

L0068331 London labour and the London poor
Chimney sweep from London labour and the London poor, 1851. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Child labor was a common and expected part of everyday life in the Victorian Era. However, the treatment and working conditions of the children were brutal and life-threatening.  The children labored for long hours, low pay, and under harsh conditions that led to health injuries, and frequent deaths.

Children were very commonly used as chimney sweeps in the Victorian Era because of their petite size and ability to fit in the confined chimney stacks. Children who worked as chimney sweeps generally ranged from as young as 4 to about 10 years old, when they grew too big to fit down the tiny chimneys anymore. The children were often times underfed by their bosses to keep them skinny enough to fit in the extremely narrow chimneys.

It was the chimney sweep’s responsibility to climb in the hot and claustrophobic chimney in order to clean out all of the soot and ash. The child chimney sweeps were often referred to as “climbing boys,” and they used brushes and metal scrapers to clean the chimneys. If the child was reluctant to continue climbing up the narrow chimney then the boss, also known as the master chimney sweep, would light a fire underneath the child in order to force them to keep crawling up the chimney.

Being a child chimney sweep was an extremely dangerous, if not the most dangerous, job for children in Victorian times. The first couple of times that a child was sent down the chimney it would rub their elbows, arms, and knees completely raw.   This was extremely painful, and the children received little to no sympathy from their boss. The children were not given protective clothing or masks to cover their faces, and therefore, they suffered from many illnesses and injuries from the inhumane working conditions that they endured; some common examples include cancer and lung damage. Two of the biggest fears of a chimney sweep were falling and getting stuck in the chimney – both often led to death.

Two_chimney_sweeps,_one_of_them_is_feeling_ill_and_taking_me_Wellcome_V0011152.jpg
Two chimney sweeps, one of them is feeling ill and taking medicine. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Children getting stuck in chimneys often went unnoticed by their supervisors. This could lead to the child eventually starving to death or being burned when a fire was lit below them. In addition to the constant inhalation of soot, chimney sweeps were often exposed to carcinogenic materials such as arsenic, nickel, chromium, asbestos, and products of fossil fuel combustion. Rates of lung cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, leukemia, and other cancers among former chimney sweeps were higher than the general population. Also, exposure to asbestos has been linked to a rare form of cancer, mesothelioma. Contact with birds, particularly pigeons, leads to an increased risk of contracting histoplasmosis, a fungal infection of the lungs.

Over time, legislation that dealt with child labor began to be passed. These laws sought to better the employment and working conditions of the children, but they only helped marginally, and it was a gradual process.

Written by Kristen Belote with contributions by Denise Webb

Sources

Horrell, Sara; Humphries, Jane. “The Exploitation of Little Children’: Child Labor and the Family Economy in the Industrial Revolution, 1787-1872.” Explorations in Economic History. Oct 1995, Vol. 32 Issue 4.

Humphries, Jane. Childhood and child labour in the British industrial revolution. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Price, Paxton. “Victorian Child Labor and the Conditions They Worked In.” Victorian Children. Accessed March 29, 2016.

Emma Griffin, Child labour

Chimney Sweeps: Occupational Diseases