A Life of Grime

It seems hard to believe now that we use to send our children out to work. Child labour was prevalent and common place in the Victorian Era. Here are some of the jobs that we used children for: coal mining, factory working, matchmaking, agriculture, pickpockets, textiles, pottery making, chimney sweeps, hat making, rat catcher and domestic servitude.

Victorian child labour covered a broad spectrum of occupations. One of the most well known jobs, through popular culture, was the role child chimney sweeps. The life of a chimney sweep in Victorian times was nothing like what you see in Mary Poppins though. It was a brutal and tough existence for child chimney sweeps. Their small frames made them a popular choice for going down the narrow chimney stacks.

A Life of Grime

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Being a chimney sweep may have been the most dangerous job for children in the 19th century, especially when the child first started doing the job. Being sent down the chimney the first several times would cause the child’s arms, elbows, legs and knees to be rubbed and scraped raw. At times their knees and elbows looked like there was no skin at all on them. The boss would then wash their wounds with salt water to harden them up and send them down another chimney without sympathy. Calluses would form after a while which made the task a little more bearable but there were many other dangers too.

Falling was another major threat for chimney sweeps or getting stuck in the stacks. Both could cause very easily death. The constant breathing in of soot caused irreversible lung damage in many children. Needless to say, the lifespan of Victorian chimney sweeps rarely made it to middle age. Thankfully these days, we can enjoy all the benefits of a real fire without such awful conditions. For Defra approved wood burning stoves, visit http://www.stoveworlduk.co.uk/DEFRA-Approved-Multi-Fuel-Woodburning-Stoves.

Orphans were often taken and put into this job with no choice and then put back on the street when they grew too big for the chimneys. It was even known that bosses would kidnap children but such children were normally too big for the job by the time they just 9 or 10 years old. To keep the children thin enough to climb the stacks, bosses would often under feed the children. It was a sad fact that advances had meant brushes were readily available but bosses were slow to switch to these methods.

Things began to change with the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788 in which it became unlawful to use children under the age of 8 to work as chimney sweeps. The boss also had to offer proper clothing and decent living conditions. Children also had to be free to attend church on Sundays. However, laws were not being upheld and children as young as 6 were still being used to sweep chimneys. The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act of 1840 made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb up a chimney for cleaning.

When, in 1875 a 12 year old boy died after his boss made him climb the chimney at Fulbourn Hospital, a man named Lord Shaftesbury had had enough and so had the public. He proposed a new Act that would cancel out previous Acts and it was called the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875. This Act made sure that all chimney sweeps had to be registered with the police and their work had to be officially supervised.

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