Climbing boys, some as young as four or five years of age, scrambled up Victorian chimneys to brush out the soot. Often, terrified, they stuck fast or fell to their deaths. They worked long hours with the smell of soot in their nostrils and the taste of choking dust in their throats and eyes.
The boys’ workplace was a tiny, confined space. Rough bricks scraped their elbows and knees until they were raw or calloused as the boys struggled to climb through the maze of chimneys. Any child too terrified to move was likely to find a fire lit beneath him to encourage faster climbing.
Many climbing boys died from cancer, while a lucky few ran away, probably becoming vagabonds on the streets.
Victorian parliamentarians, led by Lord Shaftesbury, disapproved of sending small boys up chimneys, but the habit persisted. After all, who else would fit into a space of 22x22cm?
The Chimney Sweeps Act of 1834 and its revision in 1840 decreed that no child under 14 should be cleaning chimneys, but there was little enforcement of the law until a further Act licensed sweeps in 1875.
As the surviving climbing boys grew older, they often became chimney sweeps themselves. The 1834 Act regulated the noise of their street cries, a common annoyance in London. It became illegal to shout “Sweep, sweep.” As one sweep put it, according to the Morning Post of 21 November 1834. ‘Vell, I never… I vunder vot next ve shall have. Carn’t even now call out “serveep” for van’s livelywood but vot the beak is arter us and nails us for five bob, or a month in kervod.’
In 1873, The Pall Mall Gazette reported that a Gateshead chimney sweep was convicted of the manslaughter of a ‘climbing boy.’ The sentence imposed on the culprit? Just six months imprisonment.
What do you think of that as a punishment?