For many months of the year England has been a cold, dank, and dreary place. Residence of the great cities like London have always been looking for ways to keep warm and toasty. For much of history the best way to accomplish this was through the use of a fireplace. For many reasons, fireplaces require chimneys; for further reasons, chimneys must be kept clean. Que lighting, enter stage right. Introduce a young boy – the chimney sweep.
A typical London chimney was narrow, only about 9 square inches. This was for a good reason. A narrow chimney helps create a draught of fresh air which washes over the hot coals of a fireplace and keep things warm and toasty. It also means chimneys were extremely difficult to clean; and they had to be cleaned.
A dirty chimney flue built up layers of creosote and or soot. Not only did this material restrict airflow in the chimney, it was also extremely flammable! Dirty chimney flues were gigantic fire hazards, and fire was a massive danger in the tight, closely packed city of London.
Children were the only people small enough to fit inside a chimney and effectively clean it. “Climbing boys,” as they were often called were usually recruited around six years of age. These boys lived hard lives and received no pay. They worked under a “master sweep,” who taught and managed the boys. He also gave them food and a place to live.
Chimney sweeping was a dangerous profession for a young boy. Hazards included suffocating, burning to death, or getting stuck permanently inside the chimney. Chimney sweeps were also victims of the first cases of industry related cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma was common in boys who managed to survive into adulthood.
Chimney sweeping was a brutal profession. Luckily in 1875 the Chimney Sweepers Act was ratified which passed wide and, pardon the pun, sweeping regulations. Police were finally given the authority to regulate the chimney sweeping industry and quality of life in the profession improved across the board.