Swept out of sight

27th November 1998 at 00:00
Linda Blackburne reveals the terrible story of the 'climbing boys', a grim reminder of the 19th century's confused attitude to children

The pitiful story of the struggling child chimney sweeps of the 18th and 19th centuries has often been romanticised in fiction, poetry and art.

In reality, there was little to glamorise in the tale of the white child slaves who were forced to climb up chimneys by a society in a moral crisis. "Who could and who can fail to be moved by the boys and the occasional girl who were induced to climb the chimneys by pins pricked in their feet or straw lighted at the grate?" asks Professor Hugh Cunningham, an authority on the history of childhood at Kent University.

The complex history of the climbing boys pivots on romantic stories - some true, some false - about the children, their place in the 19th century economy, and the grown-ups who came to their rescue.

Chimney sweeps, and the children in the cotton mills and the mines, were contributing to the economy. Many of their destitute parents had to carry their half-asleep, worker-children to factories at 4am.

Boys as young as five sometimes had to scale chimneys that were only 22 by 22cms wide. Six or seven was a typical starting age in the late 18th century but by the 1820s the recorded age of apprenticed climbing boys was no lower than eight.

Many of these children died of cancer of the scrotum because of the carcinogenic soot they had to work in. Some fell to their deaths; others got stuck in the chimneys and died in the darkness; some managed to run away. Those lucky enough to reach the end of their apprenticeship at the age of 18 or 21 often became master sweeps, deploying the same cruel tactics as their own masters.

The boys, who only numbered about 500 in London between the 1790s and 1820s, often had sores on their knees and elbows because they had to jam their outstretched limbs against the sooty walls to climb the narrow chimneys.

The master sweeps derided suggestions that the boys could be replaced with machines, but others had more bizarre ideas; the Irish cleared their chimneys by putting a rope around a goose's neck and throwing it down the shaft.

Poor children were often proud of their working status, as the 19th century writer Henry Mayhew found out. An anonymous eight-year-old watercress seller shocked him with words better suited to a street-wise woman than a young girl: "I can't read or write but I knows how many pennies goes to a shilling. ..All my money I earns I puts in a club and draws it out to buy clothes with. It's better than spending it in (sic) sweetstuff, for them as has a living to earn. Besides it's like a child to care for sugar-sticks, and not like one who's got a living and vittals to earn. I ain't a child, and I shan't be a woman until I'm 20, but I'm past eight, I am."

The industrial employment of children was not a new phenomenon in English history. It was recorded with pride in some cloth-making districts in the 16th and 17th centuries that every child above the age of five could earn his or her own living.

Black slaves were objects of pity in the early 19th century but, says Professor Cunningham, the climbing boys and the child factory and mine workers were more than slaves: "There was an additional emotional string to their bow. 'Infant' was a key word; more than 'child', it conveyed an impression of both innocence and helplessness."

The vulnerability of children was romanticised by Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, and poets Samuel Roberts, William Wordsworth, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But it was William Blake who immortalised the child as victim in one of his "Songs of Innocence": 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.

It was believed that some children were stolen and sold into the chimney sweep trade, a notion that was used to further romanticise the image of climbing boys. One famous story concerned the theft of a son of the 18th century intellectual, or "bluestocking", Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, who years later was to find her son in her own house after he had swept her chimney. It was for this reason, so it was said, that she held the annual dinners to raise money for sweeps. The extraordinary appeal of this story was such that there were at least seven versions of it besides the one that featured Mrs Montagu. It led the young Charles Dickens to see in every sweep "the lost son and heir of some illustrious personage".

Fortunately social reformers were on hand to save the country from the moral morass it had fallen into, and one of the most famous was the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, was an unlikely friend of working children. He was an aristocrat, an MP, and the step-brother-in-law of Lord Palmerston, the Whig Prime Minister. As an evangelical philanthropist, he frequently turned down Government posts, preferring to pilot successive factory Acts through the House, and eventually achieved the 10-hour day, and the provision of lodging houses for the poor.

Mill-owners dismissed the Earl of Shaftesbury and his fellow reformers - such as the Lancashire trade union leader John Doherty - as meddlers. They also attacked the conditions of workers on Shaftesbury's Dorset estate, but Ashley was tortured by worries that he wasn't doing enough to help the poor.

He made hospital visits to children who had been mangled by mill machinery, and was greatly moved by their plight, but his chief concern was that these children would go to hell because the long hours they worked (normally 12 hours a day) left no time for religious instruction.

Journalist John Brown, however, was more concerned with their physical well-being. In 1832, after the "remarkably handsome" child worker Mary Richards's life was saved following a cotton mill accident, Brown asked:

"Saved to what end? - to be sent back to the same mill, to pursue her labours upon crutches, made a cripple for life, without a shilling indemnity from the parish, or the owners of the mill?" There was nothing romantic about the lives of those whom the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "poor little White-Slaves".


1833: Children under nine were prohibited from working in factories.

1837: Birth certificates were introduced so employers could tell whether children were old enough to work in the factories and mines.

1842: Children under 10 were banned from working underground.

1850s: The government believed it had eliminated the most exploitative forms of child labour, but in 1860 children were discovered working in brickyards.

1880: Every child had to go to school until the age of 10. Child labour started to decline but magistrates were sympathetic to working children who were brought to the courts by school attendance officers.

1900: It wasn't until the turn of the century that the habit of going to school every day became well-established.


* Children and Childhood inSociety Since 1500, by Hugh Cunningham (Longman 1995 Pounds 11.95)l Quarry Bank Mill, 18th century working cotton factory, Styal, Cheshire. Tel: 01625 532034. Education packs: Key Stage 2, Victorian Britain and Quarry Mill, Pounds 8.50 plus postage; GCSE, Evidence, Pounds 10 plus postage. Website: www.rmplc.co.ukorgsquarrybankmill * Llechwedd Slate Caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales. Tel: 01766 830306. Tours to Victorian mine where children age 12 worked. Website: http:llechwedd. co.uk.

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