On this day in history : 7th August 1840 – The practice of sending children up chimneys in order to sweep them is banned in Britain….

Climbing boys (and sometimes girls) were technically chimney sweeps’ apprentices…. Master sweeps would often be paid by the Parish to teach orphans and pauper children the trade…. Once signed over by the authorities or guardian the child would be bound over to the sweep…. His obligations were to teach the craft, provide food and a second set of clothing, make sure his apprentice washed once a week and attend Church on a Sunday…. It was also stipulated a child could not be sent up a chimney that was on fire…. Apprentices were not paid for their work….

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The Temperance Sweep from ‘Street Life in London’ – LSE Library via Flickr

It was a cruel, harsh and dangerous occupation…. Children as young as four would be sent up chimneys that could be flues as narrow as 9 x 9 inches…. It was not uncommon for the climbers to get stuck; death by suffocation or burning in the hot, soot encrusted chimneys happened all too often…. Soot, being carcinogenic, caused chimney sweep’s cancer (soot wart) – which affects the scrotum….and was found in boys as young as 8-years-old…. This disease has the distinction of being the first ever recognised occupational cancer….

These children were seldom treated kindly by their masters – in fact they were frequently viewed as commodities….to be sold to other sweeps – fetching between 7 shillings and 4 guineas….

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A master chimney sweep and his apprentice – public domain

In 1840 the Revised Chimney Sweeps Act was brought in, raising the minimum age of apprenticeship to sixteen…. However, it was widely ignored as there was no way of enforcing the legislation….still children, many under the age of ten, were forced to climb chimneys….

In 1863 Charles Kingsley’s ‘The Water Babies’ was published and raised public awareness to the plight of children being mistreated through this type of employment…. A new Chimney Sweeps Regulation Act came into force in 1864 – but once again it was ineffective….

1875 saw the Chimney Sweeps’ Act….making is compulsory that all chimney sweeps had to be licensed…. This time the enforcement of the law was overseen by the police – effectively bringing an end to the exploitation of children in this way in Britain….

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The Little Chimney Sweep – public domain

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