Children and chimneys

From the late 18th century children formed a rising proportion of the population almost two out of five people by the mid-1820s. It was common for them to work to supplement family incomes. Orphans and abandoned children came under the care of the Poor Law, but were usually put into the care of employers who provided for them in return for their work.

Child labour

Parliamentary concern over the exploitation of child labour in the 19th century is usually associated with factories. In fact the beginnings of such concern was focused on the 'climbing boys' recruited by chimney sweeps or apprenticed by parish authorities to climb into and clean chimneys.

In the 1760s, Jonas Hanway, a wealthy London merchant and philanthropist, campaigned extensively to improve working conditions for sweeps' apprentices. Eventually, an Act of 1788 specified a minimum age of eight years old for apprentices, but this and other regulations were never enforced.

Finding a solution

In the early 1830s, as Parliament became more preoccupied generally with the exploitation of child labour, the Chimney Sweeps Act was passed in 1834 outlawing the apprenticing of any child below the age of ten. Furthermore, no child was to be actually engaged in cleaning chimneys under the age of 14.

Chimney Sweeps Act

In 1840, a revised Chimney Sweeps Act raised the minimum age of apprenticeship to 16. As with earlier legislation, this was largely ignored due to the absence of any means of enforcement. Children younger than ten were still being made to climb chimneys.

In 1863 the publication of 'The Water-Babies', a novel by Charles Kingsley, did much to raise public awareness about the gross mistreatment of children in this kind of employment through its central character, Tom, a child chimney sweep. Parliament responded the following year with a new Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act. This was ineffective despite its humane purpose.

In 1875, a successful solution was implemented by the Chimney Sweepers' Act which required sweeps to be licensed and made it the duty of the police to enforce all previous legislation.

Biographies

You can access biographies of

Jonas Hanway
Charles Kingsley

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

Did you know?

Master chimney sweeps claimed in evidence to a House of Commons committee in 1819 that they would lose custom if they used the €˜machines€™ available for cleaning chimneys, and that householders usually felt that the job was much more effectively done by young children

Related information

Historic Hansard

The House of Lords debates the Second Reading of the Chimney Sweeps Bill 1834