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Chimney Sweeps

a history of the chimney sweeping profession

Legend has it that in the year 1066 (approximately) King William of Britain was saved by a chimney sweep, who pushed him out of the way of a runaway horse and carriage.  As a reward, the king invited the chimney sweep to his daughter's wedding. Ever since it has been considered to be good luck to have a chimney sweep at a wedding or special event, or even visit your house. In addition, the king declared all chimney sweeps to be lucky, and allowed their profession only to wear top hats, which was a custom previously reserved for royalty and the gentry. It then became lucky for a sweep to wear 13 buttons on his jacket, and legend has it that a sweep can cancel out any bad luck.

Sweeps in 17th and 18th century Britain 

As a fire burns to warm a house, soot is produced. Some of this fine powder escapes to the atmosphere, some is deposited on the inside of the chimney. For a chimney to work efficiently, this soot must be removed. Access to a chimney is restricted by its size. Most chimneys can only be cleaned by either very small people or by using special equipment.

The Job
In seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain, small people were the cheaper option. Orphaned children as young as four were sold by orphanages to master sweeps to clean the chimneys. It was also legal to capture vagrant, homeless children and force them into slavery. The children would be sent up into a chimney to clean the soot from the chimney walls with their hands or with scrapers. It was normal for the children to become scared and reluctant to climb. Common practice was to light a small fire using straw or paper in the fire place to force the chimney sweep to the top. This is where the phrase "to light a fire under you" comes from.

The Risks
The value and usefulness of a chimney sweep depended on his or her size. The ideal chimney sweep would be young and poorly fed. Every day they risked becoming stuck in a narrow chimney, being choked, or falling to their death. Breathing problems, cancer and deformed limbs were long term risks. Physical and mental injury would have been common.

The Campaign
In 1803 the "Society for Superceeding Climbing Boys" was formed with the intention of finding equipment to clean chimneys without using children. Such equipment was invented by George Smart and improved by Joseph Glass in 1828. However it was still cheaper to use children and the equipment did not become popular. A bill to stop the use of children under 10 as chimney sweeps was defeated by the House of Lords in 1804. The Hon H. Bennett tried but failed to pass to pass bills to stop abuses of chimney sweeps between 1817 and 1819. In spite of many campaigns and notable opponents (including William Wilberforce and the Earl of Lauderdale), little was done to end the exploitation of young children as chimney sweeps until 1840 when an act was passed forbidding anyone under 21 from climbing chimneys. This act had little effect as penalties were small. In 1864 Lord Shaftesbury introduced an act which imposed a £10 fine (a large amount at the time) on anyone breaking the rules. The penalty had widespread support in its enforcement from the police, the courts and the public. This act finally signaled the end of this particular form of cruelty.

In Conclusion
It took many years of hard campaigning and many years of suffering and death of chimney sweeps, but eventually the cruelty of sending young children up chimneys ended. Today, most chimneys are cleaned by equipment similar to that developed by Joseph Glass in the early nineteenth century.

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