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.