It was the early Romans who first constructed the chimney and flue, to allow the passage of smoke to exit through the roof. During the next few centuries, a central wood fire burning on hearth stones in the middle of the room was more common. By the 16th century a fireplace and chimney became more widespread, and in the 17th century citizens were even assessed by a hearth tax. The size of a house determined the amount of tax paid, and was calculated by the number of chimneys present.
With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, coal became the main fuel for domestic heating. When overcrowded cities began to produce foggy smoke from chimney fires. The job of a chimney sweep was essential to avoid fires erupting in the home. When the interior of a chimney became choked or partially blocked with a build-up of soot, chimney fires could occur. Coal creates a sticky soot which often does not come loose easily, and chimney edges need scraping where soot builds up.
People needed sweeps to keep their chimneys clear. They had brushes with long handles to which the sweep screws extension poles as the brush goes up the chimney. But sometimes the brushes got stuck! The best way was to send little children or ‘climbing boys’ to dislodge the soot. The smaller the boy the better because some chimneys were very narrow – some as small as 8 inches square. Master Sweeps would buy young children from orphanages and take in young homeless children from the streets. These were between the ages of 5 and 10, although most were under the age of seven, and some were even as young as four. These boys were used to climb up chimneys to clean out deposits of soot. The chimney sweep master taught them the trade while being responsible for feeding, clothing and housing them.
Working conditions for the climbing boys was harsh and cruel. It was a dangerous and filthy job for the boys to undertake, especially without the protection of safety clothing and respirators. Many suffered from job related ailments, such as twisted spines and kneecaps, deformed ankles, eye inflammations and respiratory illnesses. Many also suffered from the first known industrial disease ‘chimney sweep’s cancer’ caused by the constant irritation of coal tar soot on the naked skin. Sadly there are recorded instances where these climbing boys choked and suffocated to death from inhaling the chimney dust or from getting stuck in the narrow and convoluted chimney flues. Casualties were also frequent as many boys were maimed or killed from falling or from being badly burned.
In 1842 Parliament passed a law prohibiting sweeps from employing children to go up chimneys – but this did not stop them using their own children to do this horrible work. Some used their own children (both boys and girls) as young as four or five years old to go up chimneys. Finally in 1864 after many years of campaigning an Act of Parliament finally approved by the House of Lords, outlawing the use of children for climbing chimneys. Lord Shaftsbury’s Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers established a penalty of £10 pounds for offenders. The Act had wide spread support from the police, public and courts which finally signalled the end of ‘climbing boys’.