Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Service Industry/ General - Chimney Sweeps

see also London by Day and Night - click here

see also Richard Rowe in Episodes in an Obscure Life - click here


WE usually abstain from the discussion of merely painful things. Those who desire such reading find it amply supplied elsewhere, and some of our respected contemporaries serve it up strongly flavoured enough for any appetite. But here is a case in which we make exception. We take this paragraph from the Pall Mall Gazette 
    "Chimney-sweeps, who continue, in defiance of the law, to employ 'climbing boys' may take warning from a case which has been tried at Durham. A Gateshead chimney-sweeper was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for the manslaughter of an unhappy little lad who was suffocated in attempting to carry out his orders in clearing a flue.''
    Apart from the individual ruffianism in this case, Mr. Punch asks whether the Act which was intended to deliver little children a from the most hideous cruelties, is becoming a dead letter in any part of the kingdom. Is there any other place than Gateshead where little lads are rammed into foul hues to be suffocated? The present generation may not remember the struggle that had to be fought out, over and over, before the children could be protected. It had to be waged against habit, prejudice, greed, ridicule; but the victory was won. JAMES MONTGOMERY. the poet, with one ghastly but damaging volume, the Chimney Sweep's Magazine and Climbing Boy's Album,gave thousands a nightmare that lasted for years, but he carried the Act. There was a poem in the book, too, by BLAKE, the painter, that did yeoman's service. We got the Act, and believed that the system of atrocious cruelty was at an end. But the above paragraph wakes painful doubts. Will some M.P. set an investigation going?
    We should call the sentence on the fellow who killed the child ridiculously mild, could anything ridiculous connect itself with such a theme. We wish that this master chimney-sweeper of Gateshead could have been sentenced to two years' imprisonment, varied by twenty sound lashes with the cat every quarter day, except the last, when he should have had fifty, as a parting testimonial of the public sense of his character. Let us hope that the gaolers of Gateshead are not of a forbearing kind, and that the excellent chaplain will give him terrifying Calvinistic doses of commination, calculated to "chasten him in the night season," since he will not get the other castigation he has so well earned.

Punch, March 15, 1873

A verdict of manslaughter has been returned against a chimney sweeper of Cambridge for causing the death of a boy by compelling him to go up in a flue at the Fulbourn Asylum. The lad was taken out insensible and died in an hour, his lungs and windpipes being clogged with soot.

from The Graphic, February 1875

see also Cassells Household Guide - click here

    THE CHIMNEY SWEEP.—Here he is, his face as black as soot, his eyes red with rubbing away the salt tears which the soot has brought out of them; his teeth white and glistening, shining out like rows of ivory against his black face, as he opens his mouth and sings out his well known call of ‘Swe-ep, swe-ep!’ We cannot see what the cloth is that his suit is made of, whether it is fustian or tweed, nor whether it is brown or grey, or any other shade. All is the colour of soot, for soot covers him from top to toe. It is his business which so begrimes him with black. He sweeps the soot from the chimneys of our houses, and so his dark trade makes him one of our fire-defenders. For if we allow the soot to gather thickly in the chimney, the fire might turn sweep —and a very dangerous and expensive one—as a spark or piece of burning paper carried up by the draught would very quickly set it in a blaze. Our sweep has a very keen scent for the smell of burning soot, and as the job will be a profitable one, he is not long in letting the people know of his willingness to put out the fire. And when it is put out, he will point to his damaged and scorched machine, and charge heavily for his work.
    To see him properly, you must open your eyes very early, as he is up with the lark in the morning; for his work must be done when stoves and chimneys are cool. In September and October he is very busy; for then we call to mind that in a little while we shall have November’s chilly fogs and December’s cold winds about us, making us shiver. Then we shall want the cheerful blaze in the grate, and shall love to draw up nearer to the fire. But first let us see to the chimneys, and call the sweep in to bring all the soot down. For a foul chimney makes a dull fire, and blacks flying about may promote bad ternpers. But after he has done his work about the chimney, and we see the fire brightly burning, we rub our hands and say, ‘What a cheerful fire! How cosy it is!’ and so forget to be cross. O yes! let the sweep come.
    The sweep is quite a respectable-looking person, compared with what he used to be. He no longer looks the ragged, shuffling sweep, calling out in long, lazy, and doleful tones, ‘Shwi—eep;’ and, instead of walking, he rides in a neat little cart, drawn by a sleek, well fed, and brightly harnessed little pony, of which he is the happy possessor. On the sides of the cart he displays his sign-board, with his name in gaily painted letters, stating that he sweeps chimneys and beats carpets, and that orders are punctually attended to. His machine is formed of several hollow rods made of cane, which will easily bend, and will not break in the twists and turnings of the chimney. The rods fit into one another by means of brass screws, and to the top tube of the machine is fixed the brush or head, which is made of elastic whalebone spikes. This gives and bends just as the man who is working the machine moves it either up or down.
    But let us go back some seventy or eighty years, and see how people managed to get the soot down from their chimneys. You have heard, perhaps, people frighten children by saying something like this: ‘The sweeps will come and take you away in their bags.’ That was only a silly threat; but long ago sweeps have been known to steal children. Some parents also would sell their boys if they were small or slenderly formed. For the sweeps wanted such boys to sweep the chimneys by climbing up inside.
    These poor little fellows were made to go up the chimneys, pressing their knees and elbows against the sides of the flue. When their shoulders and elbows were firmly fixed, then they shuffled the legs up; and when their legs were fixed, then they shuffled the shoulders up. And so they climbed the chimneys, while, until they were quick and expert, a bigger boy followed, who often made the small boy go quicker by sticking pins in his feet, and sometimes by burning straw under him. The poor little ‘chummy,’ as he was called, had a very painful task; for, what with shuffling up and shipping down, he rubbed severe sores in his arms and legs. The little climber had a cap to protect his eyes and mouth, and a sort of flannel tunic, but his arms and legs were bare. He carried with him a scraper and brush, but they were seldom used, except where there were turns and corners; for the boy really swept the greater part of the soot away by shuffling up and down with his shoulders and limbs.
    The masters were very cruel to them, beating and kicking them for very little faults, and would sometimes flog them with a rope made hard at both ends. Through such a cruel training, the children grew up to be stunted, unhealthy, evil, and ignorant men. The sweep in those days lived day and night covered with soot, for he seldom washed himself; and the climbing boys lived in very filthy places, and had the soot-bags for their beds. But about fifty years ago our Government came to their rescue, and stopped the employ­ment of climbing boys.

The soot which is swept down is sold to market gardeners and others around London, who use it as a manure to mix with the earth, which it very much enriches. So even the dirty smoke, as it comes from our coal fires, and congregates as soot in our chimneys, is of some use.

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)

see also Police regulation of sweeps (1903) - click here

see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here