Climbing Boys: A Peek at the Reality of Life in Regency England
By Penny Hampson
As a writer of historical fiction set in Regency England, I often describe scenes where my characters are warming themselves by an open fire, so I decided to look at how fireplaces and chimneys in those stately homes and inns were maintained in the past. Believe me, it wasn’t pleasant, and some of you may find the details upsetting.
From the late 17th century onwards, the number of brick built houses in towns rapidly grew. As a result of the Great Fire of London in 1666, a Government Act was brought in to regulate the construction of buildings, covering such things as the thickness of the brickwork, ceiling heights, etc. Coal, increasingly used as fuel instead of wood, required a good draught to burn efficiently and so fireplaces were designed with reduced sized flues. These narower flues became blocked more frequently if they were not swept regularly, leading to the danger of fire. Previously, older style flues, being wider, were not as difficult for a householder himself to clean, but these more modern, narrower flues posed a problem.
In England, Building Acts of 1774, 1834, and 1840, sought to diminish the risk of chimney fires by stipulating that chimneys should be regularly cleaned. Master sweeps were unable to negotiate the reduced sized flues themselves, so small boys, and sometimes girls, were employed to do the job.
The children themselves came from the poorest sections of society, from parents who were unable to provide for their families, or more often, from parish workhouses who wished to alleviate the burden of the Poor Rate on their parishioners. Life for children in the workhouse was pretty dreadful anyway; a survey of 1765 found that in one London workhouse out of 78 children admitted in one year 64 died. In another workhouse, not one child survived in fourteen years. As an inducement to take parish children, workhouses offered a payment to prospective employers looking for ‘apprentices’. Charles Dickens references this practice in Oliver Twist.
|A widow selling her son to a chimney sweep.|
Climbing boys were ‘apprenticed’ to chimney sweeps. Apprenticeship generally meant learning a recognised trade, so that on adulthood, the apprentice could become a tradesman in his own right. Unfortunately, this was not the case for climbing boys. If he managed to reach adulthood at all, a climbing boy would most likely be in ill-health, and deformed due to being forced into unnatural angles to negotiate the twisting, narrow flues. Elbows and knees became scarred and thickened by being constantly scraped against the brickwork; knees also suffered under the stress of carrying heavy bags of soot.
‘Short life is very common among them, frequently from their being exposed to colds, coughs, and from the poor and miserable and half-starved manner in which they generally live, as many of them are not allowed to eat anything, except what they obtain through the generosity of the inhabitants whose chimneys they sweep.’
Boys frequently got stuck, and were burned or suffocated while cleaning. In 1794, a boy was suffocated in a flue in Stradishall, Suffolk. In 1811 a boy in Wakefield was burned to death when he fell down a flue. In 1808, a boy got stuck in a chimney and had to be rescued by the house owner removing bricks to create an opening. When his master returned, the boy, who was weak and suffering from fatigue, was beaten and sent on his way to clean another chimney.
In 1813, another boy was not so lucky. Sent up a brewery chimney by his master, the eight-year-old did not return. A hole was made to pull him out, but he was already dead.
Cruelty by the master sweeps was not uncommon, the argument being that boys would not go up the chimneys otherwise. There are numerous reports of boys being beaten and starved. In February of 1808, a boy died of exposure after starting work at three in the morning. In a leaflet entitled An Appeal to the Humanity of the British Public, the deaths of six boys in 1816, and eight in 1818 were recorded. One was a boy of five years old, while another boy was ‘dug out - quite dead’ and ‘the most barbarous means were used to drag him down’
Another terrible consequence of being a climbing boy was Chimney sweeps’ carcinoma, a disease affecting the skin of the scrotum. This was the first reported form of occupational cancer, identified in 1775. A dreadful disease, the only known cure was the cutting away of the scrotum and sometimes the testicles; death could result from the disease itself or the surgery.
As early as 1773, there had been calls for action to alleviate the sufferings of the climbing boys, notably by one man, the philanthropist Jonas Hanway. His intervention brought about legislation in 1788, which ostensibly prohibited the use of boys under eight years of age.
But matters did not improve. In The Gentleman’s Magazine for November1802, the following appeal was published by someone signing himself as a ‘Friend to progress in Social life’:
‘Must a number of children be dwarfed and disfigured, and, what is worse, made the victims of brutal cruelty, who, if rescued from such a situation, might contribute to the strength of our navy, the culture of our fields, and thus repay, by important services, the benevolent invention which raised them to a place of honour in civil life… to climb, shivering and naked, a cold and dirty chimney, whilst their only reward is hard fare, and worse lodging. The master learns to be a tyrant, the boy acquires the disposition of a slave.’
Speaking of tyrants, the same edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine includes a vivid account of a well-known chimney sweep. Mrs Bridger, otherwise known as Mother Brownrigg, was reported as having died at her house in Swallow Street. On the morning of her death she had drunk a pint of gin, due to being low in spirits, because her foreman, Peter Cavanagh had been convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment for the kidnap and cruel treatment of a child, and she was likely to face the same charges.
With the death of her partner ten months previously (in the article, doubt is cast on whether she was actually married to Mr Bridger) she had been constantly confined to bed by badly ulcerated legs, a result of her heavy drinking. She was reported to drink three or four ‘glasses of liquor’ before breakfast, and a couple of pints of beer. ‘The remainder of the day she spent in like manner.’ To visitors, she would complain of her low spirits whilst taking a drink from the bottle that ‘always stood by her bedside’.
It was reported that, for amusement, she would have one of her young apprentices brought to her, have him stripped naked, then she would beat him ‘in a most cruel and barbarous manner with a large stick’ kept by her bedside for that purpose. When she was in a good mood, she would force her apprentices to box each other, giving ‘a piece of plum pudding or a halfpenny to the victor.’
Her apprentices were forced to get up at three every morning and, barefooted and shirtless, made to sweep chimneys. Returning home, they were then required to scour the stairs, and undertake other menial household tasks before they received their meal.
After her death, her body was put on public display, ‘the neighbours and passengers wishing to see a monster, concerning whom they had heard much’.
The article describes her as ‘a disgrace to her sex and to humanity, as well as the torment and scourge of all who had the misfortune to have any connection with her.’
In 1817 the legislation banning the use of boys under eight years of age was still largely being ignored. It was reported that, though the majority of boys were between the ages of eight and fourteen, children of five and six were still being employed to clean small chimneys.
‘Little boys for small flues’ was a popular slogan used on chimney sweeps’ trade cards, to assure customers that they would be able to deal with the very small flues of ovens and coppers, which were usually less than nine inches square.
An account of 1819, tells of another unfortunate incident.
‘the boy was employed in sweeping the library chimney; the boy went freely and voluntarily up the chimney, and knowing it to be a troublesome chimney, two boys went up at the same time; the little boy went out at the top of the chimney, the deceased was in the slanting part of the chimney and was … overpowered by the soot and suffocated. … a bricklayer was got and the chimney was broken into, where the boy was found, his head surrounded on all sides by the soot; he was suffocated and dead; … he was nearly an hour and a half in the chimney.’
If a boy got stuck and did manage to get out alive, he would not receive much sympathy from a master, more likely he would suffer a beating for causing trouble and embarrasment. The death of a boy would be hushed-up, with the boy’s body being brought out the house surreptitiously, and household staff warned not to mention it.
One of the worst jobs a climbing boy could be given, was to act as a ‘nightman’, that is, cleaning out privies. This was a task usually given to the smallest boy.
‘I have been tied round the middle and let down several Privies, for the purpose of fetching watches and things; it is generally made the practice to take the smallest boy and let him through the hole without taking up the seat, and to paddle about there till he finds it, they do not take a big boy because it disturbs the seat.’
Despite all the cruelties, deaths, and even the fact that mechanical sweeping machines, able to deal with the narower flues, had been in existence since 1803, legislation to ban the use of climbing boys continued to be defeated, notably in 1817, 1818, and 1819. It was only in 1875 that Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885), philanthropist and social reformer, succeeded in introducing a Bill that was finally passed.
So next time you read a story set in the past, where one of the characters leans casually against a mantelpiece, or someone warms themselves next to a blazing fire, spare a thought for the poor little mites who were forced to clean the chimneys, and be thankful that this terrible practice was brought to a halt.
An Officer’s Vow
By Penny Hampson
Lottie Benham is desperate. Her life is in danger and she needs a place of safety until her next birthday. The unexpected proposal from this attractive, but intimidating officer could be the answer to her prayers. Not normally a risk-taker, she decides to gamble all by placing her trust in this charismatic gentleman, who she suspects might be more in need of help than she.
But the best laid plans…
Caught up in conflict, danger, and deception, will Lottie and Nate survive to find the perfect solution to their problems?
Having worked in various sectors before becoming a full time mum, Penny Hampson decided to follow her passion for history by studying with the Open University. She graduated with honours and went on to complete a post-graduate degree.
Penny then landed her dream role, working in an environment where she was surrounded by rare books and historical manuscripts. Flash forward nineteen years, and the opportunity came along to indulge her other main passion – writing historical fiction. Encouraged by friends and family, three years later Penny published her debut novel A Gentleman’s Promise.
Penny lives with her family in Oxfordshire, and when she is not writing, she enjoys reading, walking, swimming, and the odd gin and tonic (not all at the same time).
The Climbing Boys, A Study of Sweeps’ Apprentices, 1773-1875, K. H. Strange, 1982, Allison & Busby
The Chimney-Sweeper’s Friend and the Climbing Boy’s Album, London, 1824
Clamp, P. G. (1984). Climbing boys, childhood, and society in nineteenth-century england. The Journal of Psychohistory, 12(2), 193. Retrieved from https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2186/docview/1305585442?accountid=13042
Great Britain, Parliament, Parliamentary Papers (Commons), 1817, vol. VI (Reports), Cmmd. 400, June 1817, ‘Report from the Committee on Employment of Boys in Sweeping of Chimnies: Together with the Minutes of Evidence Taken Before the Committee, and an Appendix, 23 June 1817.
‘An Account of the Proceedings of the Society for Superseding the Necessity of Climbing Boys, 1816’ The Edinburgh Review LXIV (October 1819)
Image of 2 boys on donkey
Trade card for William Woodward, 18th century. Credit: .
Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury by John Collier, National Portrait Gallery