Being a chimney sweep in the Victorian era was a poor existence for many children who were required to clean chimneys for a living. Some of the boys who carried out this work were as young as 3-4 years old and had to work in sooty, unhealthy conditions. Their small bodies and frame made them the perfect size for entering and cleaning the chimneys. Some of the chimney stacks were so narrow that it really was an impossible task for the majority of adults. Some chimney sweeps were orphans or kidnapped and used as slaves to clean chimneys and then returned to the streets once they grew too big. This was normally around by the time they were 10.
A Horrible Experience for Children
For many children starting out chimney sweeping at such a young age, it was a very painful and upsetting experience. When first starting the job the inside of the chimney would often damage all parts of the youngsters body leaving open wounds and blood on their scraped arms and legs. The bosses of these children would often watch as the emerged back out the chimneys covered in soot and blood from the scrapes and cuts that had picked up when inside. They were usually quickly cleaned up with salty water and sent on to the next chimney. The bosses would even underfeed the children so that they would better fit down the chimneys!
After working on the chimneys for a while the boys would start to develop toughened areas of skin (calluses) over the damaged skin which would make the job somewhat more bearable as their skin would not damage quite so easily. Many of the children died or received serious injuries in the chimneys either getting stuck or falling great distances. It is reported that some homeowners would be completely unaware of chimney sweeps being inside of their property, leaving the child stuck in the chimney exposed to smoke and fire. Breathing in soot everyday also caused lung damage to the majority of the chimney sweeps. It is argued that the children were in most cases needlessly used, as the work could be carried out by adults using brushes just as easily.
The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act
In 1840 The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act stated that it was no longer legal for those under the age of 21 to climb or enter a chimney for the purpose of cleaning it. Although this was the law, many were still forced into the chimneys! Finally in 1875 The Chimney Sweepers Act required that all chimney sweeps are registered with the police and their work had to be supervised or they would be punished, helping bring this awful form of child labour to a stop.