London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys.
FORMERLY the chimneys used to be cleansed by the house servants, for a person could easily stand erect in the huge old-fashioned constructions, and thrust up a broom as far as his strength would permit. Sometimes, however, straw was kindled at the mouth of the chimney, and in that way the soot was consumed or brought down to the ground by the action of the fire. But that there were also regular chimney-sweepers in the latter part of the century is unquestionable; for in the days of the James and Charles, poor Piedmontese, and more especially Savoyards, resorted to England for the express purpose. How long they laboured in this vocation is unknown. The Savoyards, indeed, were then the general showmen and sweeps of Europe, and so they are still in some of the cities of Italy and France.
As regards the introduction of English children into chimneys—the establishment of the use of climbing boys—nothing appears, according to the representations made to Parliament on several occasions, to be known; and little attention seems to have been paid to the condition of these infants—some were but little better—until about , when the benevolent Jonas Hanway, who is said, but not uncontradictedly, to have been the person who regularly used an umbrella in the streets of London, called public attention to the matter. In Mr. Hanway and others brought a bill into Parliament for the better protection of the climbing boys, requiring, among other provisions, all master sweepers to be licensed, and the names and ages of all their apprentices registered. The , however, rejected this bill, and the George III., c. , was passed in preference. The chief alterations sought to be effected by the new Act were, that no sweeper should have more than apprentices, and that no boy should be apprenticed at a tenderer age than years. Previously there were no restrictions in either of those respects.
These provisions were, however, very generally violated. By of those "flaws" or omissions, so very common and so little creditable to our legislation, it was found that there was no prohibition to a sweeper's employing his own children at what age he pleased; and "some," or "several," for I find both words used, employed their sons, and occasionally their daughters, in chimney climbing at the ages of , , and even between and years! The children of others, too, were continually being apprenticed at illegal ages, for no inquiry was made into the lad's age beyond the statement of his parents, or, in the case of parish apprentices, beyond the (in those days) not more trustworthy word of the overseers. Thus boys of were apprenticed—for apprenticeship was almost universal—as boys of , by their parents; while parish officers and magistrates consigned the workhouse orphans, as a thing of course, to the starvation and tyranny which they must have known were very often in store for them when apprenticed to sweepers.
The following evidence was adduced before Parliament on the subject of infant labour in this trade:—
Mr. John Cook, a master sweeper, then of and Kentish-town, the who persevered in the use of the machine years before its use was compulsory, stated that it was common for parents in the business to employ their own children, under the age of , in climbing; and that as far as he knew, he himself was only between and when he "came to it;" and that almost all master sweepers had got it in their bills that they kept "small boys for register-stoves, and such like as that."
Mr. T. Allen, another master sweeper, was between and when articled to an uncle.
Mr. B. M. Forster, a private gentleman, a member of the "Committee to promote the Superseding of Climbing Boys," said, "Some are put to the
|employment very young; instance of which occurred to a child in the neighbourhood of , who was put to the trade at and a quarter years, or thereabouts. The father of a child in Whitechapel told me last week, that his son began climbing when he was years and months old. I have heard of some still younger, but only from vague report."|
This sufficiently proves at what infantine years children were exposed to toils of exceeding painfulness. The smaller and the more slenderly formed the child, the more valuable was he for the sweeping of flues, the interior of some of them, to be ascended and swept, being but inches square.
I have mentioned the employment of female children in the very unsuitable labour of climbing chimneys. The following is all the information given on the subject.
Mr. Tooke was asked, "Have you ever heard of female children being so employed?" and replied, "I have heard of cases at Hadley, Barnet, Windsor, and Uxbridge; and I know a case at Witham, near Colchester, of that sort."
Mr. B. M. Foster said, "Another circumstance, which has not been mentioned to the Committee, is, that there are several little girls employed; there are of the name of Morgan at Windsor, daughters of the chimney-sweeper another instance at Uxbridge, and at Brighton, and at Whitechapel (which was some years ago), and at Headley near Barnet, and Witham in Essex, and elsewhere." He then stated, on being asked, "Do you not think that girls were employed from their physical form being smaller and thinner than boys, and therefore could get up narrower flues?" "The reason that I have understood was, because their parents had not a sufficient number of boys to bring up to the business." Mr. Foster did not know the ages of these girls.
The inquiry by a Committee of the , which led more than any other to the prohibition of this infant and yet painful labour in chimney-sweeping, was held in , and they recommended the "preventing the further use of climbing boys in sweeping of chimneys;" a recommendation not carried into effect until . The matter was during the interval frequently agitated in Parliament, but there were no later investigations by Committees.
I will adduce, specifically, the grievances, according to the Report of , of the climbing boys; but will present the following extract from the evidence of Mr. W. Tooke, a gentleman who, in accordance with the Hon. Henry Grey Bennet, M.P., and others, exerted himself on the behoof of the climbing boys. When he gave his evidence, Mr. Tooke was the secretary to a society whose object was to supersede the necessity of employing climbing boys. He said:—
The grievances I have spoken of were thus summed up by the Parliamentary Committee. After referring to the ill-usage and hardships sustained by the climbing boys (the figures being now introduced for the sake of distinctness) it is stated:—
. With regard to the —for there was often a difficulty in procuring climbing boys—I find mention in the evidence, as of a matter, but not a very frequent matter, of notoriety. stolen child was sold to a master sweeper for Mr. G. Revely said:—
Mr. J. Harding, a master sweeper, had a fellow apprentice who had been enticed away from his parents. "It is a case of common occurrence," he said, "for children stolen, to be employed in this way. Yes, and children in particular are enticed out of workhouses: there are a great many who come out of workhouses."
The following cases were also submitted to the Committee:—
It was in country places, however, that the stealing and kidnapping of children was the most frequent, and the threat of "the sweeps will get you" was often held out, to deter children from wandering. These stolen infants, it is stated, were usually conveyed to some distance by the vagrants who had secured them, and sold to some master sweeper, being apprenticed as the child of the vendors, for it was difficult for sweepers in thinlypeopled places to get a supply of climbing boys. It was shown about the time of the Parliamentary inquiry, in the course of a trial at the Lancaster assizes, that a boy had been apprenticed to a sweeper by travelling tinkers, man and woman, who informed him that the child was stolen from another "traveller," miles away, who was "too fond of it to make it a sweep." The of the child was not mentioned.
Respecting the sale of children to be apprentices to sweepers, Mr. Tooke was able to state that, although in , the practice had very much diminished of late, parents in many instances still This sum was generally paid under the guise of an apprentice fee, but it was known to be and was called a "sale," for the parents, real or nominal, never interfered with the master subsequently, but left the infant to its fate.
. I find the following account of the
The boy in the instance went for a month, or any term agreed upon, "on trial," or "to see how he would suit for the business." During this period of probation he was usually well treated and well fed (whatever the character of the master), with little to do beyond running
|errands, and observing the mode of work of the experienced climbers. When, however, he was "bound" as an apprentice, he was put with another lad who had been for some time at the business. The new boy was sent up the chimney, and immediately followed by the other, who instructed him how to ascend. This was accomplished by the pressure of the knees and the elbows against the sides of the flue. By pressing the knees tightly the child managed to raise his arms somewhat higher, and then by pressing his elbows in like manner he contrived to draw up his legs, and so on. The inside of the flue presented a smooth surface, and there were no inequalities where the fingers or toes could be inserted. Should the young beginner fall, he was sure to light on the shoulders of the boy beneath him, who always kept himself firmly fixed in expectation of such a mishap, and then the novice had to commence anew; in this manner the twain reached the top by degrees, sweeping down the soot, and descended by the same method. This practice was very severe, especially on new boys, whose knees and elbows were torn by the pressure and the slipping down continually—the skin being stripped off, and frequently breaking out in frightful sores, from the constant abrasions, and from the soot and dirt getting into them.|
In his evidence before Parliament in (for there had been previous inquiries), Mr. Cook gave an account of the training of these boys, and on being asked:—"Do the elbows and knees of the boys, when they begin the business, become very sore, and afterwards get callous, and are those boys employed in sweeping chimneys during the soreness of those parts?" answered, "It depends upon the sort of master they have got; some are obliged to put them to work sooner than others; you must keep them a little at it, or they will never learn their business, even during the sores." He stated further, that the skin broke generally, and that the boys could not ascend chimneys during the sores without great pain. The way that I learn boys is," he continued, "to put some cloths over their elbows and over their knees till they get the nature of the chimney—till they get a little used to it: we call it them, and then we take them off, and they get very little grazed indeed after they have got the art; but very few will take that trouble. Some boys' flesh is far worse than others, and it takes more time to harden them." He was then asked:—"Do those persons still continue to employ them to climb chimneys?" and the answer was: "Some do; it depends upon the character of the master. None of them of that class keep them till they get well; none. They are obliged to climb with those sores upon them. I never had of my own apprentices do that." This system of padding, however, was but little practised; but in what proportion it practised, unless by the respectable masters, who were then but few in number, the Parliamentary papers, the only information on the subject now attainable, do not state. The inference is, that the majority, out of but of these masters, with some or apprentices, did treat them well, and what was so accounted. The customary way of training these boys, then, was such as I have described; some even of the better masters, whose boys were in the comparison well lodged and fed, and "sent to the Sunday school" (which seems to have comprised all needful education), considered "padding and such like" to be "newfangled nonsense."
I may add also, that although the boy carried up a brush with him, it was used but occasionally, only when there were "turns" or defects in the chimney, the soot being brought down by the action of the shoulders and limbs. The climber wore a cap to protect his eyes and mouth from the soot, and a sort of flannel tunic, his feet, legs, and arms being bare. Some of these lads were surprisingly quick. man told me that, when in his prime as a climbing boy, he could reach the top of a chimney about as quickly as a person could go up stairs to the attics.
The following is from the evidence of Mr. Cook, frequently cited as an excellent master:—
It was also stated that the journeymen used the boys with greater cruelty than did the masters —indeed a delegated tyranny is often the worst— that for very little faults they kicked and slapped the children, and sometimes flogged them with a cat, "made of rope, hard at each end, and as thick as your thumb."
Mr. John Fisher, a master chimney-sweeper, said:—"Many masters, are very severe with their children. To make them go up the chimneys I have seen them make them strip themselves naked; I have been obliged myself to go up a chimney naked."
As respects the cruelties of driving boys up chimneys by kindling straw beneath their feet, or thrusting pins into the soles of their feet, I find the following statements given on the authority of B. M. Forster, Esq., a private gentleman residing in Walthamstow:—
. On the subject of the , to which chimney-sweepers in their apprenticeships were not only exposed, but, as it were, condemned, Mr. R. Wright, a surgeon, on being examined before the Committee, said, "I shall begin with I am well persuaded that the deformity of the spine, legs, arms, &c., of chimney-sweepers, generally, if not wholly, proceeds from the circumstance of their being obliged not only to go up chimneys at an age when their bones are in a soft and growing state, but likewise from their being compelled by their too merciless masters and mistresses to carry bags of soot (and those very frequently for a great length of distance and time) by far too heavy for their tender years and limbs. The knees and ancle joints mostly become deformed, in the instance, from the position they are obliged to put them in, in order to support themselves, not only while climbing up the chimney, but more particularly so in that of coming down, when they rest solely on the lower extremities.
The "chimney-sweep's cancer" was always lectured upon as a separate disease at Guy's and Bartholomew's Hospitals, and on the question being put to Mr. Wright: "Do the physicians who are intrusted with the care and management of those hospitals think that disease of such common occurrence, that it is necessary to make it a part of surgical education?"—he replied: "Most assuredly; I remember Mr. Cline and Mr. Cooper were particular on that subject; and having or cases of the kind in the hospital, it struck my mind very forcibly. With the permission of the Committee I will relate a case that occurred lately, which I had from of the pupils of St. Thomas's Hospital; he informed me that they recently had a case of a chimneysweeper's cancer, which was to have been operated on that week, but the man 'brushed' (to use their expression) or rather walked off; he would not submit to the operation: similar instances of which I have known myself. They dread so much the knife, in consequence of foolish persons telling them it is so formidable an operation, and that they will die under it. I conceive without the operation it is death; for cancers are of that nature that unless you extricate them entirely they will never be cured."
Of the chimney-sweeper's cancer, the following statement is given in the Report: "Mr. Cline informed your Committee by letter, that this disease is rarely seen in any other persons than chimney-sweepers, and in them cannot be considered as frequent; for during his practice in St. Thomas's hospital, for more than years, the number of those could not exceed . But your Committee have been informed that the dread of the operation which it is necessary to perform, deters many from submitting to it; and from the
|evidence of persons engaged in the trade, it appears to be much more common than Mr. Cline seems to be aware of.|
To they were frequently liable in the pursuit of their callings, and sometimes these accidents were the being jammed or fixed, or, as it was called in the trade, "stuck," in narrow and heated flues, sometimes for hours, and until death.
Among these hapless lads were indeed many deaths from accidents, cruelty, privation, and exhaustion, but it does not appear that the number was ever ascertained. There were also many narrow escapes from dreadful deaths. I give instances of each:—
"In the improvement made some years since by the , in , a chimney, belonging to a Mr. Mildrum, a baker, was taken down, but before he began to bake, in order to see that the rest of the flue was clear, a boy was sent up, and after remaining some time, and not answering to the call of his master, another boy was ordered to descend from the top of the flue and to meet him half-way; but this being found impracticable, they opened the brickwork in the lower part of the flue, and found the firstmen- tioned boy dead. In the mean time the boy in the upper part of the flue called out for relief, saying, he was completely jammed in the rubbish and was unable to extricate himself. Upon this a bricklayer was employed with the utmost expedition, but he succeeded only in obtaining a lifeless body. The bodies were sent to St. Margaret's Church, , and a coroner's inquest, which sat upon them, returned the verdict—Accidental Death."
"In the beginning of the year , a chimneysweeper's boy being employed to sweep a chimney in Marsh-street, Walthamstow, in the house of Mr. Jeffery, carpenter, unfortunately, in his attempt to get down, stuck in the flue and was unable to extricate himself. Mr. Jeffery, being within hearing of the boy, immediately procured assistance. As the chimney was low, and the top of it easily accessible from without, the boy was taken out in about minutes, the chimney-pot and several rows of bricks having been previously removed; if he had remained in that dreadful situation many minutes longer, he must have died. His master was sent for, and he arrived soon after the boy had been released; he abused him for the accident, and, after striking him, sent him with a bag of soot to sweep another chimney. The child appeared so very weak when taken out that he could scarcely stand, and yet this wretched being, who had been up ever since o'clock, had before been sent by his master to Wanstead, which with his walk to Marsh-street made about miles."
"In , a boy employed in sweeping a chimney in Sheffield got wedged fast in of the flues, and remained in that situation near hours before he could be extricated, which was at length accomplished by pulling down part of the chimney."
On occasion a child remained above hours in some danger in a chimney, rather than
|venture down and encounter his master's anger. The man was held to bail, which he could not procure.|
As in the cases I have described (at Messrs. Calvert's, and in ), the verdict was usually "Accidental Death," or something equivalent.
It was otherwise, however, where wilful cruelty was proven.
The following case was a subject of frequent comment at the time:—
This long-continued system of cruelties, of violations of public and private duties, bore and ripened its natural fruits. The climbing boys grew up to be unhealthy, vicious, ignorant, and idle men, for during their apprenticeships their labour was over early in the day, and they often passed away their leisure in gambling in the streets with another and other children of their stamp, as they frequently had halfpence given to them. They played also at "chuck and toss" with the journeymen, and of course were stripped of every farthing. Thus they became indolent and fond of excitement. When a lad ceased to be an apprentice, although he might be but , he was too big to climb, and even if he got employment as a journeyman, his remuneration was wretched, only a week, with his board and lodging. There were, however, far fewer complaints of being insufficiently fed than might have been expected, but the sleeping places were execrable: "They sleep in different places," it was stated, "sometimes in sheds, and sometimes in places which we call barracks (large rooms), or in the cellar (where the soot was kept); some never sleep upon anything that can be called a bed; some do."
Mr. T. Allen, a master sweep for years, gave the Committee the following account of (what may be called) under the exploded system:—
Of the condition and lot of the operatives who were too big to go up chimneys, Mr. J. Fisher, a master-sweeper, gave the following account:— " They sometimes go into the country, and after staying there some time, they come back again; I took a boy of that sort very lately and kept him like my own, and let him go to school; he asked me Sunday to let him go to school, and I was glad to let him go, and I gave him leave; he accordingly went, and I have seen nothing of him since; before he went he asked me if I would let him come home to see my child buried; I told him to ask his schoolmaster, but he did not come back again. I cannot tell what has become of him; he was to have served me for months. I did not take him
|from the parish; he came to me. He said his parents were dead. They frequently go into the country and get various places; perhaps they stop a month at each; some try to get masters themselves, and some will get into bad company, which very often happens. They generally turn loose characters, and people will not employ them lest they should take anything out of the house."|
The criminal annals of the kingdom bear out the foregoing account. Some of these boys, indeed, when they attained man's estate, became, in a great measure, through their skill in climbing, expert and enterprising burglars, breaking into places where few men would have cared to venture. of the most daring feats ever attempted and accomplished was the escape from Newgate by a sweeper about years ago. He climbed by the aid of his knees and elbows a height of nearly feet, though the walls, in the corner of the prison-yard, where this was done, were nearly of an even surface; the slightest slip could not have failed to have precipitated the sweeper to the bottom. He was then under sentence of death for highway robbery.
"His name was Whitehead, and he done a more wonderfuller thing nor that," remarked an informant, who had been his master. "We was sweeping the bilers in a sugar-house, and he went from the biler up the flue of the chimney, it was nearly as high as the Monument, that chimney; I should say it was or feet higher nor the sugar-house. He got out at the top, and slid down the bare brickwork on the outside, on to the roof of the house, got through an attic window in the roof, and managed to get off without any knowing what became of him. That was the most wonderfullest thing I ever knowed in my life. I don't know how he escaped from being killed, but he was always an oudacious feller. It was nearly months after afore we found him in the country. I don't know where they sent him to after he was brought back to Newgate, but I hear they made him a turnkey in a prison somewhere, and that he's doing very well now." The feat at the sugar-house could be only to escape from his apprenticeship.
In the course of the whole Parliamentary evidence the sweepers, reared under the old climbing system, are spoken of as a "short-lived" race, but no statistics could be given. Some died old men in middle age, in the workhouses.
I took the statement of a man who had been what he called a "climbing" in his childhood, but as he is now a master-sweeper, and has indeed gone through all grades of the business, I shall give it in my account of the present condition of the sweepers.
Climbing is still occasionally resorted to, especially when repairs are required, "but the climbing boys," I was told, "are now men." These are slight dwarfish men, whose services are often in considerable request, and cannot at all times be commanded, as there are only about of them in London, so effectually has climbing been suppressed. These little men, I was told, did pretty well, not unfrequently getting or for a single job.
As regards the , during the existence of the climbing boys, we find in the Report the following results:—
The wages to the journeymen were a week, with board and lodging. The apprentices received no wages, their masters being only required to feed, lodge, and clothe them.
The wages were the same as the nominal, with the addition of as perquisites in money. There were other perquisites in liquor or broken meat.
In the Reports are no accounts of the duration of labour throughout the year, nor can I obtain from master-sweepers, who were in the business during the old mode, any sufficient data upon which to found any calculations. The employment, however, seems to have been generally , running through the year; though in the course of the twelvemonth master would have and another different journeymen, but only at a time. The vagrant propensities of the class is a means of accounting for this.
The wages of those journeymen who resided in their own apartments were generally a week, and their about extra in the form of perquisites. Others resided "on the premises," having the care of the boys, with board and lodgings and a week in money , and , the perquisites being worth
Concerning the or average wages of the whole trade, I can only present the following computation.
Mr. Tooke, in his evidence before the , stated that the Committee, of which he was a member, had ascertained that boy on an average swept about chimneys daily, at prices varying from to , or a medium return of about per chimney, exclusive of the soot, then worth or a bushel. "It appears," he said, "from a datum I have here, that those chimney-sweepers who keep boys (the greatest number allowed by law) gain, on an average, nearly ; boys, ; boys, ; boys, ; boys, ; and boy (yearly), exclusive of the soot, which is, I should suppose, upon an average, from half a bushel to a bushel every time the chimney is swept."
"Out of the profits you mention," he was then asked, "the master has to maintain the boys?"— "Yes," was the answer, "and when the expenses of house and cellar rent, and the wages of journeymen, and the maintenance of apprentices, are
|taken into the account, the number of master chimney-sweepers is not only more than the trade will support, but exceeds, by above -, what the public exigency requires. The Committee also ascertained that the master chimney-sweepers in the metropolis were supposed to have in their employment journeymen and boys."|
The matter may be reduced to a tabular form, expressing the amount in money—for it is not asserted that the masters generally gained on the charge for their journeymen's board and lodging —as follows:—
It appears that about of the master chimney-sweepers were themselves working men, in the same way as their journeymen.
The following, then, may be taken as the—
This yielded, then, according to the information submitted to the Select Committee, as the profits of the trade prior to , an individual yearly gain to each master sweeper of ; but, taking Mr. Tooke's average yearly profit for the classes of tradesmen, , , , , , and respectively, the individual profit averages above
The capital, I am informed, would not average above guineas per master sweeper, nothing being wanted beyond a few common sacks, made by the sweepers' wives, and a few brushes. Only about had horses, but barrows were occasionally hired at a busy time.
In the foregoing estimates I have not included any sums for apprentice fees, as I believe there would be something like a balance in the matter, the masters sometimes paying parents such pre- miums for the use of their children as they received from the parishes for the and maintenance of others.
Of the , &c., of sweepers, under the systems, I shall speak in another place.
It may be somewhat curious to conclude with a word of the extent of chimneys swept by a climbing boy. respectable master-sweeper told me that for years he had climbed or days weekly. During this period he thought he had swept chimneys as a week's average, each chimney being at least feet in height; so traversing, in ascending and descending, feet, or miles of a world of soot. This, however, is little to what has been done by a climber of years' standing, of the little men of whom I have spoken. My informant entertained no doubt that this man had, for the years of his career, climbed half as much again as he himself had; or had traversed feet of the interior of chimneys, or miles. Since the new Act this man had of course climbed less, but had still been a good deal employed; so that, adding his progresses for the last years to the preceding, he must have swept about miles of chimney interiors.