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Monday, 3 October 2011

Britain’s tiny chimney sweeps

This CBBC Horrible Histories video graphically illustrates the plight of Britain’s child chimney sweeps or ‘climbing boys’. Girls were used to clean chimneys as well as boys, but most of the child sweeps interviewed by the Children's Employment Commissions of Queen Victoria’s reign were boys.

As early as 1803, machines were invented for sweeping chimneys, and societies were set up to promote their use instead of children. Lord Shaftesbury (the 7th earl) spent many years trying to stamp out the use of child sweeps. But for decades, children died after becoming stuck in chimneys, or were burnt, or became ill from the soot, which was cancerous.
Although the Horrible Histories video mentions that using child chimney sweeps was banned in 1864, in fact this law was a ‘dead letter’ and was widely ignored. Shortly after the 1864 Act, in England there were still 2,000 climbing boys aged between five to ten years. It was not until 1875, when Lord Shaftesbury’s Act was passed, that police were given powers to properly regulate the chimney sweeping trade.
Now, humanitarians such as Jonas Hanway first tried to limit the use of child sweeps in 1788 – almost a century earlier. The Children History Forgot tells the shocking story of why it took so long for society to stop this shameful practice.

A child chimney sweep of the 1860s. John Leech, ‘Pictures of Life and Character’, Punch (Bradbury & Evans, 1863).
Oliver Twist narrowly escapes being apprenticed to a chimneysweep. Illustration by George Cruikshank, Charles Dickens’s The Adventures of Oliver Twist, (Chapman & Hall Ltd, and Henry Frowde, circa 1905).

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