The Life of a Chimney Sweeper

Prior to the middle of the 19th century chimney sweepers were boys small enough to climb up flues. Life was predictably harsh for these young workers: lungs clogged with soot, eyes burning, and fires lit beneath them to encourage efficient cleaning.

Say what? The expression “Light a fire under you” apparently hails from this experience of kids scuttling up chimneys in fear of being roasted alive.

Because children were frightened of climbing into cramped, dirty spaces, their soot bags and brushes dangling from their wrists, their masters would light a fire beneath them. When a chimney sweeper’s head popped out the chimney top, the fireplace was considered cleaned.

Even after the job was done, chimney sweepers lived in cruel quarters. After being sold as indentured servants, their masters were responsible for housing and food but as was often the case, chimney sweepers begged for rations. Their soot bag performed double duty as a nighttime blanket, and the children suffered from severe neglect until their health gave out and a new chimney sweep replaced them.

The famous mystic and 19th century poet William Blake wrote a touching poem entitled The Chimney Sweeper several years after the 18th century invention of extendable brushes. Use of children wasn’t outlawed until the 1864 Act of Regulation for Chimney Sweepers, but this didn’t prevent artists from portraying children as tragically romantic figures. A1930s new year’s postcard shows the most historically ludicrous scene with children tumbling over the top of a chimney, smiling and laughing as if they are busy at play–a luxury chimney sweepers never had.

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15 thoughts on “The Life of a Chimney Sweeper

  1. That is truly incredible. How did the children stop from falling unconscious from the smoke when the fire was lit under them? For all our societal complaints, we really have come a long way in the last 100 years.

  2. One more reason why I don’t believe in economic libertarianism or the laissez faire philosophy toward business. Without laws and regulations there is nothing that some business owners won’t stoop to for a profit.

    1. I don’t think many made it past childhood. Very sad. Infant mortality was off the charts then too, especially throughout the 18th century.

  3. Never heard them described as ‘sweepers’ before. Is that an older term? In London in the 50s they were called sweeps, including by my Victorian grandparents. I’d be interested to know when the term changed from ‘sweeper’ to ‘sweep’. Don’t want to get it wrong.

    1. That’s an interesting question, Elin. I’ve always heard sweeps too but William Blake’s poem used sweeper so it led me to believe maybe sweeper was more in usage at the time, unless, of course, sweeper was poetic license because he liked the sound better.

      Court documents from the Regency use “chimney sweeper” but again, maybe “sweep” was more a street term? I’ve seen books as old as 1740 that use sweeper/s. “Sweep” didn’t appear in any of my searches up through the 18th century. From the limited searching I’ve done “sweep” starts popping up around the 1840s in both literature and court documents.

    1. Hi Ray,

      Your question got me curious about whether children working in such harsh conditions under masters were regulated in hours worked. My immediate answer was no because most children and adults in history worked long hours regardless of the work they did. A quick google search said as much about chimney sweepers. Here’s an article that may elaborate: https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-History-of-Children-at-Work-The-Poor-Life-of-An-Apprentice-Chimney-Sweep

  4. My great-great grandfather was a chimney sweep in Victorian London. I can find practically nothing on him at all. Could you point me in the right direction as to where I might be able to look to learn more? Thanks.

    1. Hi Luke,
      I’d love to help but my knowledge of Victorian London is a bit shabby. I’m afraid I’d probably point you down crooked alleys and dead ends. Best of luck with your search!

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