Way back to the 17th century the Master Sweepers of London would employ boys small enough to climb and scramble up chimney flues. The task for these climbing boys was to brush clean the inside of the flue with small hand-held brushes. They also used metal scrapers to remove the harder tar deposits left by wood or log fire smoke. The boys were apprentices and were bound to the trade as young as seven years old. A Master was paid a fee to clothe, keep and teach the child his trade. Sweeps’ Boys were usually parish children or orphans, though others were sold into the trade by their families. Some grew up to be Journeymen (assistants to the Master), the remainder were put out to various trades to try to learn a new occupation. There was a London Society of Master Sweeps with its own set of rules, one of which included that boys were not required to work on Sundays but had to attend Sunday School to study, learn and read the Bible.
Daily life, however, was predictably harsh for these young workers: lungs clogged with soot, eyes burning, and fires lit beneath them to encourage efficient cleaning. Casualties were frequent as boys became stuck in narrow flues or fell from climbing rotten chimney stacks.
Because children were frightened of climbing into cramped, dirty spaces with their soot bags and brushes dangling from their wrists, their masters would light a fire beneath them. The expression “Light a fire under you” apparently hails from this experience of kids scuttling up chimneys in fear of being roasted alive. When a chimney sweeper’s head popped out the chimney top, the fireplace was considered cleaned.
Even after the job was done, chimney sweepers lived in cruel quarters. After being sold as indentured servants, their masters were responsible for housing and food but as was often the case, chimney sweepers begged for rations. Their soot bag performed double duty as a nighttime blanket, and the children suffered from severe neglect until their health gave out and a new chimney sweep replaced them.
The famous mystic and 19th century poet William Blake wrote a touching poem entitled The Chimney Sweeper several years after the 18th century invention of extendable brushes. The poem, published with other poems in a book in 1789, can be read below. Use of children wasn’t outlawed until the 1864 Act of Regulation for Chimney Sweepers, but this didn’t prevent artists from portraying children as tragically romantic figures.
THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER
(SONGS OF INNOCENCE)
by William Blake
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight—
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
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