Death Trap for chimney sweeps: The Early Years of Horror

Do you know that complicated flue and smaller chimneys were potential death traps for the children?

In 1666, the Great Fire of London took place. After that happening, the buildings were replaced. Fire codes were installed. These endeavors helped in fire safety but made the chimney flues’ configuration much more complex. Those buildings were mainly four-storeyed carrying smaller chimney flues than the previous ones.

It means that a chimney that is of 9” by 14” could stretch to 60 feet or more with several corners, and many turnings for accommodating the living space. The chimneys got clustered on the roof, and they used to release the smoke high away from the certain building.

The chimney flues were constructed with many twists and turns as they were raised surrounding the living area and also linked to other flues within the particular building for sharing a single chimney opening. The matter of combining many flues into one chimney top was more often done after the change in the hearth tax in 1664 because it assisted in lowering the chimney tops’ number. If a single roof consisted of more than 2 chimney tops, the tax was taken for each roof.

As the chimneys became smaller for burning coal and there was an increase in the number of twists and corners in the flues, the flues accumulated ash, creosote, and soot rapidly in comparison to the straight larger chimneys. The need for cleaning had increased. Yearly, three to four times of cleaning were done. It was because the fumes coming from the coal could kill people and animals if they were allowed to gather in the house.

The chimney flues were claustrophobic, pitch black and full of soot and dirt. It was extremely tough to go in there. The master sweeps made little children climb up in those chimneys. They had to climb down after finishing the tedious and hazardous task. The children used to get stuck in the perplexed merges, twists, turns and gathered soot, and often couldn’t make it to the roof. Often, they go to the wrong chimney and get suffocated there. Hence, they died mercilessly there.

The poor and powerless children became the apprentice chimney sweeps:

From the year 1773, the master chimney sweeps used to keep approximately 2 to 20 children under their supervision depending on the business requirement. The government used to pay three to four pounds for each kid to the master sweep during the apprenticeship agreement signing. The pathetic condition of the poor parents forced them to find a place for sending their children or just watching the kids starve helplessly. The master sweep used to take the child directly from the parents in return of a few shillings. This was also known as an apprenticeship. The parents might never saw their kids again or knew if they were still surviving.

Even, master sweeps used to snatch the homeless children from the streets and forced them into the apprenticeship. Even, government sanctioned this practice depending on the theory that kids were better made to work than letting them become criminals. Many people thought that the masters and the children were male. But, it’s partially true as many girls were also made to climb up chimneys, and if they managed to survive and enter adulthood, they used to become journeymen and eventually master sweeps.

The legal agreement for the apprenticeship was like bonded slavery. As per the agreement, it was the master’s duty to provide the child with food, shelter, clothes, a weekly bath, access to church during the training period. On the kid’s part, the agreement claimed that the poor child joyfully did as per his/her master’s order, didn’t caused harm to the master and revealed his secrets, lend his/her gears and misused his resources, and worked the full time without any pay. There was no limit on the number of working hours per day included in the agreement. Again, the agreement stated that the child would not engage in game or drinking frequently. The child would get money (few coppers) either from the masters who would decide if the child worth it, or by begging from the families whose chimneys they had cleaned.

A sign of relief was seen in smaller cities in a few countries where the children were treated with better food, extra clothes, and shoes, a weekly bath, etc. on a whole.