On this day in 1875 the Chimney Sweepers Act gained Royal Assent, which required sweeps to be licensed and made it the duty of the police to enforce all previous legislation.
In the 18th and 19th centuries it was common for children to be employed by chimney sweeps as apprentices. These were usually boys from the local workhouses or children that were purchased from their parents and trained to climb the chimneys. Boys as young as four years old climbed up the hot flues that could be as narrow as 9 inches square. The work was dangerous, with children getting stuck in flues and suffocating. The poor conditions began to cause concern, with pamphlets describing the nature of the work bringing it to the public conscience. The fate of one such boy is described below:
"After passing through the chimney and descending to the second angle of the fireplace the boy finds it completely filled with soot, which he has dislodged from the sides of the upright part. He endeavours to get through, and succeeds in doing so, after much struggling as far as his shoulders; but finding that the soot is compressed hard all around him, by his exertions, that he can recede no farther; he then endeavours to move forward, but his attempts in this respect are quite abortive; for the covering of the horizontal part of the Flue being stone, the sharp angle of which bears hard on his shoulders, and the back part of his head prevents him from moving in the least either one way or the other. His face, already covered with a climbing cap, and being pressed hard in the soot beneath him, stops his breath. In this dreadful condition he strives violently to extricate himself, but his strength fails him; he cries and groans, and in a few minutes he is suffocated. An alarm is then given, a brick-layer is sent for, an aperture is perforated in the Flue, and the boy is extracted, but found lifeless.”
Suffocation was not the only hazard that young chimney sweeps suffered, with general neglect being rife and . stunted growth and deformity of the spine, legs and arms being common
Therefore, late in the 18th century, efforts were made to improve the conditions of the young chimney sweeps. The first major piece of legislation was the Chimney Sweepers Act 1788, which stated that no boy should be a bound apprentice before he was eight years old. His parents’ consent must be obtained, the master sweep must promise to provide suitable clothing and living conditions, as well as an opportunity to attend church on Sundays. The clause inserted into the Bill requiring the Master Sweep to be licensed was voted down in the House of Lords, and without proper policing, the Act had little effect.
In 1834 therefore, the Chimney Sweepers Act 1834 was passed to yet again try to stop child labour as it was evident that many boys as young as six were still being used as chimney sweeps and their conditions had changed little. The act stated that an apprentice must express himself in front of a magistrate that he was willing and desirous, that masters must not take on boys under the age of fourteen, that an apprentice could not be lent to another master, that the master could only have six apprentices, that boys under the age of fourteen who were already apprenticed, must wear brass cap badges on a leather cap and that apprentices were not allowed to climb flues to put out fires.
In 1840 the Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation 1840 were passed, making it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to sweep chimneys. These where however largely ignored. The Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act 1864, c37. tightened controls significantly, by authorising fines and imprisonment for master sweeps who were ignoring the law, giving the police the power of arrest on suspicion and authorising Board of Trade inspections of new and remodelled chimneys.
In 1863 the publication of 'The Water-Babies', a novel by Charles Kingsley, did much to raise public awareness about the gross mistreatment of children in this kind of employment through its central character, Tom, a child chimney sweep. Parliament responded the following year with a new Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act 1864. This attempted to tighten controls significantly, by authorising fines and imprisonment for master sweeps who were ignoring the law, giving the police the power of arrest on suspicion and authorising Board of Trade inspections of new and remodelled chimneys. This was ineffective despite its humane purpose.
In 1875 a twelve year-old boy named George Brewster died in a chimney at Fulbourn Hospital, causing a scandal. As a response Lord Shaftesbury seized on the incident to press his anti-climbing boys campaign. He wrote a series of letters to The Times and in 1875 pushed another Bill through Parliament. The Chimney Sweepers Act was passed in 1875 requiring Master Sweeps to be authorised by the police to carry on their businesses in the district, this providing the legal means to enforce all previous legislation. George Brewster was the last child to die in a chimney. As a result George Brewster was the last child to die in a chimney.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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