Dirty Jobs of the Victorian Era – Chimney Sweeps Pt. 1

No, no – after you, I insist…

Taken from Pembroke’s Articles of Occupational Concerns, 1881

The limits of human endurance are never more emphatically tested than during the labor of an honest days work. The industrial revolution is as exacting on its human machinery as it is beneficial to the rich who profit, and the maladies, diseases and injury unleashed upon the mortal frame are as numerous as they are lethal. Beneath the treads of progress the human body is ground in, thrown up and endlessly abused.

Ahem. Forgive my overtly poetic prose. I must have become intoxicated from taking a breath of the cocktail of chemicals spitting out of the nearest industrial smoke-stack. My study overlooks a factory complex situated in the guts of the industrial sweeps of South Onyxfeld and the emitted fumes that stream from these districts are so palpable they are almost chewy. Have the wind suddenly shift in an unfavorable direction and you’ll be reduced to a wheezing mass of coughs and splutters. Ah, city living.

Occupational disease, injury and suffering placed upon the human form are of course fascinating to me, and I intend to study their effects further. A few weeks ago, the fate of the milliner and their mercury poisoning was our focus. Over the next few articles, lets take a short, utterly depressing tour through some more of these authorized industrial tortures and see what we can find, shall we?

“I say, did you hear something? That boy has been up there for ages.”
“You’re imagining things again dear. Have another brandy.”

Chimney sweeps evoke a certain whimsical tone and it’s easy to indulge the stereotypical image; the happy-go-lucky scamp with sooty cheeks, a brush over his shoulder, whistling a merry tune with a spring in his step. It’s the quintessential image of our age.

Happy little children? Dancing? Merry tune? Such a loathsome vision, and thankfully, utterly inaccurate.

Try this instead: a wheezing, spluttering child drags a clogged brush behind him down a street after a fourteen hour workday, his skin and hair utterly saturated by clinging, inextricable coal dust, a few coppers in his pocket being the only compensation for his suffering. He’ll sleep beneath dirty coal sacks in the same clothes he worked in and eat next to nothing, coughing up the detritus in his lungs for the rest of his short life. Not so cheery I suppose, but the truth never is.

Chimney sweep apprentices, often ‘liberated’ from the disgraceful conditions of the poor-houses could be as young as a precious 6 years old, and were usually orphans or had absentee parents. Their new masters appeared to brook no slacking, nor any fear of the hot, claustrophobic spaces the boys were expected to venture into. Sometimes children needed a little encouragement to go up into those tiny spaces, and this ‘encouragement’ came in the form of lighting small fires in the hearth beneath them to get them started on their way.

Sort of takes on a different context now, doesn’t it?

The children would be expected to dislodge the large quantities of accumulated soot and dust that were a product of burned coal, the predominant form of fuel used to cook with and heat the homes of the nineteenth century. Blood disorders were especially rife in the little fellows, as they would clamber up, sometimes naked, shimmying into the narrow flues, rubbing their knees and elbows bloody-raw in the process.

Although the trade served as employment for all ages, it was young children that were favored as they were able to squeeze into the tiny spaces and force themselves through the twists and turns of the chimney. And there are other benefits to child labor in the sweeping trade: one needn’t worry when the child became too ill to work; meager pay meant they ate very little ensuring their figures remained trim – some flues were no more than 9 or 10 inches wide; and occasionally when your little apprentice didn’t come back down from the chimney (a fairly common event ) then no real loss, right?

Here’s one account of a young member of the trade from around 1817:

“After passing through the Chimney and descending to the second angle in the fire-place, the Boy finds it completely filled with soot, which he has dislodged from the sides of the upright part. He endeavors to get through, and succeeds in doing so, after much struggling as far as his shoulders; but finding that the soot is compressed hard all around him, by his exertions, that he can recede no farther; he then endeavors to move forward, but his attempts in this respect are quite abortive; […] he is prevented from moving in the least either one way or the other. His face, already covered with a climbing cap, and being pressed hard in the soot beneath him, stops his breath. In this dreadful condition he strives violently to extricate himself, but his strength fails him; he cries and groans, and in a few minutes he is suffocated. […] A Coroner’s Jury returns a verdict of ‘Accidental Death.’ “

To avoid having a dead child in your chimney (what would the dinner guests think?) a brick layer would be called, creating an aperture through which the small lifeless body would be extricated.

“Lesson 1: Urinate into the chimney. Saves you from nasty surprises later.”

In the process of cleaning the flues, the air would be thick with coal smoke and smoke, the sweepers’ lungs protected by nothing more than their work-caps pressed over their faces to block out as much of the offending air as possible. Needless to say, this did little to prevent inhalation of massive amounts of dust. Out of curiosity I have examined the lungs of deceased chimney-sweep children (of which there are no short supply) and in comparison, the interior of the lungs of a life-long pipe smoker looks like a picture of medical health.

The lining of a chimney-sweepers lungs were so caked with dust and debris that by mid-teens the worker had already developed a deep rasping and painful cough. Each breath sounded like it’s wheezing through a set of defective bellows, which is not too far from the medical truth. From there the laborer is likely to suffer from cancer of the lungs and other kinds of silicosis, similar to the common affliction of the masons and stone-cutters. These ailments frequently claimed the lives of children as young as 12.

Perhaps next time you’ll think twice about lighting the fire, and just put a cardigan on instead, hmm?

In the next article, we’ll be discussing the worst ailment of trade. The title ‘Chimney Sweeps Carcinoma’ might not pique your twisted sensibilities, until you realize that in layman’s terms it means ‘cancer of the scrotum’, and is one of the most gruesome afflictions I’ve ever come across…

(Sources available upon request. Article first published on the Pandora Society July 1st 2015)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s