Tag Archives: children

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.


Portrait of an English Schoolboy

One rule about schoolboys you must observe: they are unruly.  Early attendees of schools such as Eton, Oundle, and Rugby were under no fear of their headmaster’s stern hand.  Rather, these beastly tyrants annihilated each other in what is affectionately remembered as “mob rule.” 

Excepting the shy, sensitive boys, early pupils ran roughshod over each other, erecting traditions such as fagging, carousing about the local countryside, and fighting amongst themselves in pint-sized coups. 

Ah, the terrors.  Or, rather, not so much this anymore . . .

A Visit to the Boarding School, George Morland, 1788

This bad behavior, in part, spawned from the public schools’ need for fee-paying students.  During the early Georgian period, most young children were educated at home with a governess or, in the case of a male, a tutor.  After discovering that the acceptance of non-paying scholars did not allow for suitable growth, the schools decided to develop a platform with the express purpose of readying noblemens’ sons for university.  This occasioned the worst sort of student who had no mind of being a student at all. 

Lordlings, accustomed to the pomp and bluster associated with their future status, reigned over their schools like mini-dictators.  They brought with them personal tutors, rented local lodgings, and lived under no direction but their own, looking for trouble at all hours.  George III, on the occasion of meeting an Eton pupil, was known to ask, “Have you had a rebellion lately, eh, eh?” 

As most children are wont to be hellions without supervision, these boys were no different.  Learning Latin–the primary course of study at the time–by no means exhausted their minds.  Subjects outside the classical curriculum such as science, mathematics, and geography were considered “extras” or private studies to take up on Saturdays.  The Dissenting Academies, two of which were located in London, began in the Restoration period as pedagogical institutions for dissenting clerics and, unlike other schools, were taught exclusively in English.  They exposed their students to the most progressive educational atmosphere available at the time.  Daniel Defoe attended Newington Green and other notables such as William Godwin (founder of philosophical anarchism) and Richard Harley, Earl of Oxford, cut their teeth on the curriculum at the Dissenting Academies.

An 18th Century Classroom

The middle to latter part of the century saw reformation within the school administration, altering the frat boy lifestyle.  One of the major changes was boarding.  Under supervision, however poor, the boys were no longer able to let rooms in town and drown in their cups till dawn.  Gambling and drinking (and wenching for the older boys) were still mainstays of their education—a custom which would serve them well when they later joined Gentleman’s clubs like White’s, Brook’s, or Boodles—but partying was now conducted under the eyes of the headmaster.  Although sports were disapproved of by some headmasters, organized games likes cricket and football also diverted the boys’ rampaging energy.  Matches within and between schools brought the kind of structured rivalry we know and love today.