If the only background knowledge you have of chimney sweeps comes from the movie Mary Poppins, you may be inclined to think it’s a glamorous job filled with song and dance. When lovable Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke, decided to teach the Banks’ children the tricks of the trade, their magical trip to the rooftop was filled with joy and excitement. You may be surprised to learn that sending children up the chimney didn’t originate with Mary Poppins and it wasn’t always an enjoyable ride.
Orphaned Children - The First Chimney Sweeps
Small children between the ages of four and eight served as chimney sweeps during the 1700’s and 1800’s in England. Because chimney flues were only 7 inches square, children were the only ones small enough to enter. Often children as young as four-years-old were forced to clean chimneys. But, they didn’t do it out of free will.
Children Forced to Serve - Indentured Servants
During that time, master sweeps visited orphanages to buy children to train as chimney sweeps. If children were not readily available for sale, they scoured the streets for abandoned children or purchased children from the destitute. These unfortunate children became indentured servants and cleaned chimneys in exchange for room and board.
Before Child Labor Laws
Children were forced to climb up the inside of the chimney with a brush and metal scraper and were not allowed to come down until their heads had reached the top of the chimney. Many balked at the idea as the chimney was dark and tight, but master sweeps had a solution for that. To force children up the chimney a fire was often built in the fireplace. Sometimes children were poked with long sticks to force them to climb the chimney.
From Dawn to Dark
These children, often referred to a ‘climbing boys’ began their day at dawn as they walked the streets to announce their services by crying ‘weep! Weep!’ They worked until late afternoon.
After a day of chimney sweeping, children slept with their bags of soot, often in a dark room or cellar. Sometimes, one bag was emptied to provide the child with a blanket for warmth during the night. Bathing was a rare occurrence and children spent years covered in soot.
Death, Disease and Injuries
Many children either fell to their death or suffered from twisted and injured legs and feet. Respiratory ailments befell many as they worked without the aid of facemasks or ventilation. Many child chimney sweeps died in adolescence from Chimney Sweep’s Cancer, says Chimney Solutions.
An End to Child Chimney Sweeps
This deplorable practice ended in 1864 when the House of Lords approved the Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers. The act outlawed the use of children as chimney sweeps and set out stiff penalties for violators, says Weller’s Chimney Sweeps.
Coincidentally the invention of brushes and rods and the ball, rope and brush method of cleaning chimneys emerged at approximately the same time. This eliminated the need for entering the chimney, making child chimney sweeps obsolete.
Early Adult Chimney Sweeps
As child chimney sweeps disappeared a new profession emerged, but it still didn’t embody the respect and romance associated with chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins. These men worked tirelessly cleaning chimneys by day and the town privy at night. Most relied on the cast offs of funeral directors for their clothes, explains Charlie’s Chimney Sweeps and Masonry. The black attire was worn to conceal the soot from chimneys.
The Banks’ children may have enjoyed their magical journey up the chimney, but remember that’s only in the movies. Real child chimney sweeps weren’t whisked off to a magical world and certainly didn’t take part in singing and dancing.