Taken from Pembroke’s Articles of Occupational Concerns, 1881
In the last article we examined the life of the lowly chimney sweep – the ever suffering but integral member of the Victorian working community – as if to say anyone had it easy. They did not. With conditions being so poor, pay so very meager and the a life expectancy of 30 years, I feel the very least we can do is provision them with their very own disease: Chimney Sweeps’ Carcinoma – or ‘cancer of the scrotal sac’. Mm, those lucky devils.
If you’re not a fan of detailed descriptions of gruesome, old-fashioned diseases, I suggest you look away now…
Conditions in the chimney sweep business during the Victorian era were not at all pleasant, especially for the children employed in the field. The little apprentices were usually very young, orphaned and were sourced mostly from those institutions so integral to our image of the era: the workhouses. As for the predicament of the average child in learning this trade after being in the poorhouse, I can’t think of a more apt idiom than ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ – or quite literally above it.
Problem with children is you can’t get them to work. One solution, as was before mentioned, was to shove the lazy little blighters into the chimney and then light a small fire beneath, to give them a little ‘push’ towards the right working ethic, not to mention a workplace slightly on the claustrophobic side. If that didn’t work, poking at them with sticks usually did the trick.
With the prevalence of soot, dust, heat and insanely long working hours, the seeds had been planted for this malignancy that would begin to manifest in the children as early as nine or ten years old. Whereas the German and French sweeps wore protective clothing that prevented the thick coal dust from adhering to the body, the British paid no such heed to basic hygiene , with sweeps wearing loose-fitting clothing, the folds of which held the dust extremely well. On the European continent, regular baths were encouraged to prevent build up, but no such bathing policy existed in England, and the workers would toil for months with the same filthy clothes, often sleeping beneath coal sacks .
Sometimes known as ‘soot wart’, chimney-sweeps’ carcinoma appeared as multiple tiny lumps in a single area which gradually developed into large rashes throughout the lower half of the body. In a paper written in 1775 by Sir Percivall Pott – the doctor who is pretty much personally responsible for inventing the term ‘occupational hazards’ – it’s mentioned that given that this particular affliction of the skin seemed to start primarily around the testicles, it was assumed that sweat from the extremely hot conditions caused the coal dust to accumulate in that area.
Ad-hoc treatment was usually provided by the sweeps themselves. Using methods that would make even the least squeamish flinch, they would trap the warts between a split stick, and slice the growth off with a pen knife. This apparently was not very painful – although the mindset required to even consider this a viable treatment indicates a extremely hardy constitution to begin with. Mention the words ‘knife’ and ‘testicles’ and you’ll make a grown man stammer.
It gets worse. Simply ‘snipping’ the warts of course didn’t resolve the issue and the condition would quickly worsen. Large scale sores would eventually develop, painful swathes of the dermal layer pocked and hardened with swelling, running from the anus to the lower stomach. In time, the cancerous sores would move into the spermicidal tract and ultimately transition to the abdomen, by which time the ailment would become lethal.
From Dr. Pott:
It is a disease which always makes it first attack on the inferior part of the scrotum where it produces a superficial, painful ragged ill-looking sore with hard rising edges…..in no great length of time it pervades the skin, dartos and the membranes of the scrotum, and seizes the testicle, which it inlarges(sic), hardens and renders truly and thoroughly distempered. Whence it makes its way up the spermatic process into the abdomen.
Advanced stages of this disease were extremely gruesome. Accounts tell of large crusted sores the size of a mans open hand, with multiple hard glandular growths approximately the dimensions of an egg. The skin would be stripped from surface of the testicles, which had by now become swollen to two or three times regular size, and regular bleeding was common. Many continued to work as long as possible whilst experiencing these symptoms. One chimney-sweeping patient nonchalantly describes freely bleeding a pint or more of blood.
Don’t worry – there was ‘treatment’, but by now you should know enough to understand what that word meant in Victorian times. Provided the cancer had not spread into the abdomen – usually a fatal incident – various options were available. Sometimes doctors mistook early warts as venereal diseases and used poultices of – you guessed it – mercury, and sometimes arsenic. For those whose condition was correctly diagnosed, the solution was complete excision of the tumorous skin. This account from 1846:
“An incision was made on each side of the diseased mass, which was then dissected off from the parts beneath, so that both testicles were fully exposed; the left testicle was found adherent by its outer tunics to the diseased mass; these adhesions were next cut through, and the diseased scrotum removed.”
Did I mention this was without anesthetic?
And with that, I conclude my brief analysis and study of the working conditions of the average chimney sweep. Next time anyone entertains the whimsical perspective of the chipper, happy, happy-go-lucky fellow, be sure to point them in the direction of this article. We can’t have people indulging in anything resembling a rosy view of this era, now can we?
(Sources available on request. This post was originally published on The Pandora Society on July 8th 2015)