Apprenticships could be honorable agreements, but too many apprentice chimney sweeps were treated as slaves
Apprenticeships, which allowed children to be trained in a trade, and allowed businesses to have cheap labor, were informally practiced throughout history.
In Britain and other countries in Europe, legal apprenticeship agreements were being signed by the 15th century, and legal agreements for apprenticeship are still being used today in some places.
On the whole, apprenticeships have been very useful when both parties are working together. However, certain trades and certain periods in history have lent themselves to severe abuse of apprenticed children.
For apprentice chimney sweeps, the worst abuses occurred in England immediately before and during the Industrial Revolution, and during the Victorian Era, when thousands of people came to the cities seeking work. Many of them found either no work or work with wages guaranteed to keep them in poverty for the rest of their lives.
In England in the late 16th century, the problems caused by great numbers of unemployed and under-paid workers in the cities became severe. Justices were given authority over the children of poor families, and began to assign them to apprenticeships to provide them with work, food and shelter.
Abuses became much more common as the children of the poor became available through justices placing them in apprenticeships. For master chimney sweeps, these small, underfed children of powerless or absent parents were perfect for sending up chimneys. Thus, they were the apprentices chosen most often in this trade.
While other apprenticeships lasted a standard seven years, master chimney sweeps could sometimes obligate the children to an apprenticeship for several years more. As these apprenticeships were generally unsupervised once the papers were signed, the children were completely dependent on the good heart and generosity of their masters. This meant that many were basically sold into seven years or more of cruel slavery.
Smaller chimneys and more complicated flues were potential death traps for the children
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, when buildings were replaced, fire codes were also put in place. While they did help fire safety, they also complicated the configurations of chimney flues.
The buildings were sometimes four stories high, with much smaller chimney flues than were previously used. (Smaller chimneys became normal when coal came into use, because they created better draft for fires.)
This arrangement could easily mean that a chimney of 9″ by 14″ could extend 60 feet or more, with many corners, turns and twists to accommodate living space. The chimneys then clustered on the roof, and extended up to expel the smoke high away from the building. While London was by far the largest city in Britain, other good-sized cities throughout Britain quickly followed suit with their new construction.
Chimney flues had several twists and turns, both because they were being built around living space, and because they were often attached to other flues within the building to share a chimney opening. Combining flues into one chimney top was more frequently done after the 1664 change in the hearth tax, as it helped to reduce the number of chimney tops – if a roof had over 2 chimney tops, each top was taxed.
As the chimneys became smaller to burn coal and number of turns and corners in the flues increased, the flues gathered ash, soot and creosote much more quickly than the larger, straighter chimneys had. They also needed cleaning more often (usually 3 or 4 times per year). This was not only because chimney fires were a danger, but because the coal fumes could kill if they were allowed to build up in the houses.
Even if a chimney didn’t prove too hot when an apprentice entered it to clean, the chimney flues were pitch black, claustrophobic, potentially full of suffocating soot and confusing to navigate in the dark. It was dangerous enough work, even when the master chimney sweep tried to do well by the apprentices. The children not only had to go up these tight, dark chimneys, they had to come back down them after the work was done.
Unfortunately, the turns, twists, and merges of the chimney flues behind the walls of tall buildings created a confusing, pitch black and soot-filled maze that could sometimes be deadly to a young apprentice chimney sweep trying to make it to the roof.
If the apprentice climbed the whole chimney, cleaning it from hearth to rooftop, and exited a row of chimneys, he could forget which chimney he came out of. When that happened, he could go back down the wrong one, or go down the right chimney, but make a wrong turn at some merging of the flues. Children could suffocate or burn to death by getting lost on the way down, and accidentally entering the wrong chimney flue.
A group of apprentice chimney sweeps
An increase in child apprentice chimney sweeps came from an attempt to be more humanitarian
Children were apprentice chimney sweeps throughout Europe for several hundred years, and were as common in England as any place else.
However, while abuses also occurred in other countries, the abuses related to sending children up small, long chimneys occurred mainly in London and other large cities in England and Ireland.
In other countries in Europe, and in Scotland, while some master sweeps used small apprentices for chimney cleaning, the smallest chimneys were more commonly cleaned with a lead ball and brush attached to a rope. This was not true in England and Ireland; it was unusual for a small child not to be sent up a small chimney.
In England, another great increase in the use of small children as chimney sweeps occurred after 1773. Oddly enough, the increase in this abusive trade was caused by an attempt to be more humanitarian.
At that time, an Englishman named Jonah Hanway returned from a trip to China, where he had learned that no questions were asked when new-born Chinese babies were killed by their parents. He decided to confirm for himself that the English were more compassionate. He began by investigating the workhouses.
To his horror, he found that 68 out of 76 children had died within a year in one workhouse, and 16 out of 18 children had died within a year in another. The worst, though, was that, for 14 years in a row, no children at all had survived for a year in a third workhouse.
He reported this to Parliament. As they were responsible for the safety of children in workhouses and orphanages, they ordered an investigation. The investigation found that death rates were also high in many other workhouses; in addition, the investigation found that only about 7 out of every hundred children survived for a year after being placed in an orphanage.
To mend this terrible situation, in 1773 Parliament passed an act that children couldn’t be kept in a workhouse for longer than 3 weeks. Then they had to be boarded out. The effect of this act was that small children became much more available not only to chimney sweeps, but to a lot of other business owners who were looking for cheap, expendable labor.
Powerless children were made apprentice chimney sweeps
From 1773, master chimney sweeps regularly kept anywhere from 2 to 20 children, depending on how many they could use for their business. For each child, the master sweep was paid 3-4 pounds by the government when the apprenticeship agreement was signed.
Often poor parents were faced with a choice of either finding someplace to send their small children or watching them starve. In those cases, the master sweep took the child directly from the parents and paid them a few shillings. While this was also called an apprenticeship, the parents many times never saw the child again or knew if it had survived.
Homeless children were also snatched off the street by master sweepers, and pressed into apprenticeship. This practice was sanctioned by the government, based on the theory that the children were better working than being little criminals.
Most people assume that both the master and the child apprentices were always male. This wasn’t the case. Many girls also climbed chimneys, and if they survived to adulthood, just as the boys did, some of them became journeymen in their teens, and eventually master sweepers, too.
The legal arrangement for apprenticeship was indentured servitude. The agreement defined the master’s duties as providing the child with food, clothes, shelter and at least one bath a week, with access to church, while the master was training the child in the chimney sweep trade.
On the child’s side, the agreement stated that the child gladly did what the master said to do, didn’t harm the master, tell his secrets, lend his gear or waste his resources, and worked the entire time with no pay. The agreement did not include a limit on the number of hours a child worked each day.
The apprenticeship agreement also stated that the child wouldn’t frequent gaming or drinking establishments. The child would receive money either by being paid a few coppers after the master determined that the child was worth it – if a master was honorable – or by begging from families who had their chimneys cleaned.
Some children were treated well by the agreement’s standards, with decent food, weekly baths, an extra set of clothes and shoes, and they were taken to church regularly. Even some poor master chimney sweeps tried to treat their apprentices decently for the standards of the time. In the country and in smaller cities, they were, on the whole, treated better.
There was enough soot in London to create a “dust” business
Children were not only expected to put up with little care, but they were expected to find customers
In London and other larger cities apprentice chimney sweeps usually fared the worst, not only because the competition was keener, but because the chimneys were smaller and taller.
Unfortunately, especially in London and other larger cities, master chimney sweeps kept as many children as they could keep alive; many sweeps didn’t want to spend more than would keep each child moving and earning money. Too many of the children were in rags, and seldom had shoes. To save money and to keep them small so they could climb small chimneys, they were often fed as little as possible.
The children were worked long hours, even the youngest of them, at 5 or 6 years old. (The youngest known apprentice was taken at 3 1/2 years.) Most sweepers didn’t like them below the age of 6, because they were considered too weak to climb tall chimneys or work long hours, and they would “go off”, or die, too easily. But taken at 6 they were small (and could be kept that way with poor feeding), strong enough to work and not nearly as likely to die.
Each child was given a blanket. The blanket was used during the day to haul soot after cleaning a chimney. The soot was valuable. It was dumped at the master chimney sweep’s courtyard, sifted of lumps and sold as “dust” fertilizer to farmers.
After the blanket was filled and emptied of soot on a regular basis during the day, the child slept under it at night. Sometimes a child and his companion apprentices slept on either straw or on top of another blanket full of soot, and they normally huddled together for warmth. This was so common that it had a term, “sleeping in the black”, because the child, clothes, skin and the blanket were all covered with soot.
Some children actually received the weekly bath outlined in the apprenticeship agreement. However, some were never bathed, and many followed a more common custom of 3 baths per year, at Whitsuntide (shortly after Easter), Goose Fair (early October) and Christmas.
In London, many sweeper apprentices had washed on their own in a local river, the Serpentine, until one of them drowned. Then the children were discouraged from bathing in it.
The master chimney sweep might have plenty of regular customers, or might have gone through the streets calling, “soot-o” and “sweep-o”, reminding people that it was time to clean the chimney to prevent the too-common chimney fires.
If a master sweep had several apprentices, the older ones would also walk the streets calling for clients. They would do this on their own, but their call was “weep, weep”. If someone hailed them for a job, they would either fetch the master’s journeyman to handle the transaction, or they would do it themselves and bring the money back to the master.
Depending on their circumstances, people tended to wait as long as they could before having the chimneys cleaned, to save on the expense. For the child, this meant that when the child went up the chimney, there was too often a great deal of soot. As he scraped it above him and it came down on his head, in that small space, it could surround his head and shoulders and suffocate him.
The apprentice chimney sweeps did work that was too dangerous for anyone to do
When a master sweep was hired to do the job, the hearth fire would be put out. Then he would place a blanket across the front of the hearth. The child would take off any jacket or shoes. If the chimney was tight, the child would “buff it”, or climb the chimney in the nude.
The child pulled his apprentice sweep cap over his face and hooked it under his chin. This was the only protection the child had against the great volumes of soot and any burning creosote that would fall on his face and body as he brushed and scraped the chimney above him.
The larger chimneys were about 14″ square, and the smaller ones about 9″ by 14″. If there were bends or corners, which was normal, the child had to find a way to make it past the changes in direction within that small space. Some chimneys could even be as small as 7″, and only the very smallest children were used to clean those chimney flues. The chimneys were square or rectangular, and the child could maneuver his shoulders into the corners, which allowed for crawling up some surprisingly small chimneys.
The child worked his way up the chimney, holding his soot brush in his right hand above his head, and using mainly his elbows, knees, ankles and back, like a caterpillar. He often had a metal scraper in the other hand to scrape away the hard creosote deposits that stuck to the chimney walls.
When a child first began to climb chimneys, his elbows and knees would be badly scraped with every climb and would bleed profusely(children climbed anywhere from 4 to 20 chimneys a day). While a few of the more humane master sweepers provided the children with knee and elbow pads, most solved this problem by “hardening” the child’s elbows and knees. This involved standing the child next to a hot fire and scraping his scraped knees and elbows with a rough brush dipped in brine. Needless to say, it was extremely painful, and many children were either beaten or bribed when they cried and tried to get away from the brush. Some children’s elbows and knees didn’t harden for weeks, months or even years. Nevertheless, they received these brush and brine treatments regularly until the scraped and burned skin hardened.
Being burned by chimneys that were still hot, or by smoldering soot and creosote when a chimney fire had begun were also very common for apprentice sweeps in London. If a household waited too long to have the chimneys cleaned, then a chimney fire began, the master sweep was called to take care of it. The master sweep would then send the child up the hot chimney to clean it out, burning embers and all. Because many children burned to death this way, the master sweep would often stand on the roof with a bucket of water to dump on the child if he cried out or if flames started above him.
Chimney sweep apprentices being retrieved after suffocation
If a chimney sweep slipped, even a little, death could be the result.
There were many ways for the children to die on the job
The children also became stuck in the chimneys, and many died of suffocation from slipping and being jammed too tight to breath, 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.
The circumstances of these children were publicized, but still the abuses continued
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.
American children still had to endure being apprentice chimney sweeps
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 labor laws were enacted.