14 Jul 2022

Let’s Talk about Chimney Boys – The Harsh Truths about Child Chimney Sweeps


For most people, the image that comes to mind when you say ‘child chimney sweep’ is the scene from the film version of Oliver Twist. It’s a funny scene but it also hints at the harsh reality for the chimney boys. It did include, but wasn’t limited to, simply lighting fires under them to make them work faster. The work was definitely nowhere near as jolly as it’s portrayed in Mary Poppins!


Why boys (and some girls) were used as chimney sweeps

These children, who could be as young as 3 years old, were usually orphans or came from impoverished backgrounds and their parents had sold them because they needed the money. While 3, 4, and 5-year-olds could be used, 6 was considered to be the prime age for the work as they were then strong enough. Chimney sweeps used children for this job simply because of their small size: they could fit into the narrow and enclosed spaces that adults couldn’t.



Chimney Sweep boy



The harsh reality of child chimney sweeps


Harsh is an understatement given that the children were totally reliant on their master sweep – employment, food, and clothing. Given that the chimney boys worked under a master sweep, they were often called apprentices. Not an accurate description as the master sweep was often also their legal guardian so the children were tied to them no matter what.

It was such a commonly accepted practice that local parishes would pay the master sweeps to take on waifs and strays to teach them a trade. When this happened, they were obliged to give the child on-the-job training, a set of clothes, and have them cleaned once a week.

For the ‘lucky’ boys, who found a way to survive for 7 years, they could become a journeyman sweep (i.e., they did the same work but could choose their own master sweep) and, perhaps, then a master sweep.



master boy sweep


The increased demand for chimney boys

By the turn of the seventeenth century, the use of chimneys rather than open fires had increased dramatically. At the same time, more people were moving to larger towns and cities for work so the increased population meant more chimneys and, therefore, more chimney sweeps. It was also around this time that a hearth tax was introduced. This meant that more chimneys = higher taxes. As a way to get around this, complex mazes of interconnected flues were built so that multiple fireplaces led to a smaller number of chimneys. This made the flues much narrower and more compact meaning that only children were able to fit – no adults. The small space combined with the deposits of soot meant that there was barely any space for the chimney boys to navigate.



Working conditions in the chimneys

The chimney boys were working in a tiny, tiny space of only 9 x 9 inches. For comparison, this is smaller than a piece of A4 paper… We’ll just leave that to sink in for a moment.

Even with their small frames, the chimney boys would often have to ‘buff it’ while cleaning the chimney i.e., climb up naked using only their knees and elbows to force themselves up. If that wasn’t bad enough, the walls of the chimney were still very hot from the fire (and possibly still on fire) so the boys would end up with their skin stripped raw from the combination of the heat and friction.



children chimney sweeping



It was also possible that the chimney boys could end up stuck and, in some cases, couldn’t be rescued. They suffocated and died, which was treated with so little regard that the coroner would record their death as “accidental”. The lucky ones could be helped out with a rope but were still likely stuck there for hours.

To survive, the boys needed to be as strong and as agile as possible.



stuck child sweep

The death of two climbing boys in the flue of a chimney ‘England’s Climbing Boys’ by Dr George Phillips.



The impact on the chimney boys’ health

Unsurprisingly, given the physical demands placed on their child bodies, the boys would suffer from significant health issues as they grew. This would include bone deformities and lung problems and, as such, they were unlikely to even reach adulthood, let alone old age.
Soot getting into their eyes would cause intense and painful inflammation in short term and, in the long term, it would eventually lead to a loss of sight. The soot was also responsible for one of the first known industrial cancers that would viciously attack the boys in their adolescence.
The practice of using chimney boys in this way continued unchecked until circa 1875 when legislation was introduced to curb the practice. It was still some time after this that the practice was halted in its entirety.
These days, we use far safer, modern ways to sweep chimneys. Feel free to contact us to make an appointment or get some advice – we’d be happy to hear from you.