Chimney Sweeper Boys

Chimney Sweeper Boys

1849 drawing

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.

1861 etching

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.




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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Milwaukee Chimney

Holy cow. I run a small chimney company and had no idea of the origins of that stuff. I feel terrible about the association, but things are obviously much different now. Also interesting fact about “lighting a fire” under their butts. I’ve definitely used that on my own kids lol.


There was a society for the prevention of cruelty to horses before laws were passed to protect the young chimney sweepers. Brushes were available. Many of the boys contracted a cancer that targeted their genitals . This was mainly because the soot would get in their clothes or around their scrotum and they didn’t have adequate facilities for washing and no one told them to wash there. Many of the chimneys weren’t straight up and down but branched off in a sort of Y formation which was even more difficult for the children to navigate.
It isn’t surprising that many died; what is surprising is that many survived.
Children worked in mills because they were small enough to get under the looms. Several lost a hand or worse because the looms were automated. They were big and moving rapidly and could kill or maim a child.
Many women as well as children worked in the mines. Some of these were little move than a mole tunnel which they had to transverse naked and on their stomachs. It took a long hard fight to get regulations that outlawed such work as sending children up chimneys, under looms, and down mines.

Sue Barr

I had just finished researching a bit about chimney sweeps and their ‘Sweep Boys’ for a brief vignette in my latest novel. Your timing was impeccable. Such a sad life most children had who were not born into any type of wealth.

Michelle F.

This reminds me of a mystery I listened to on C.D.: The Yard by Alex Grecian. There was a scene with a kid stuck in a chimney (can’t remember if he was alive or a dead body!). That was when I first heard of children being chimney sweeps. Then there was a part in the book where children worked in mines.

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