At the time this poem was written, chimney sweeps were mostly comprised of child laborers who had an extremely difficult life and were unprotected in British society.

Children Sweeps

In the modern day, our view of chimney sweeps has undoubtedly been influenced and affected by portrayals in popular media. Perhaps the most famous example of what we may now associate with the word “chimney sweep” is the cheerfully lovable character “Bert” played by Dick Van Dyke in the 1964 film Mary Poppins. The musical song “Step in Time,” (linked here: “Step in Time” clip from Disney film Mary Poppins (1964), is an eight minute long musical number showing adult chimney sweeps singing and dancing, with Mary Poppins and the children in her care joining in. All members on the roof are covered, cutely, in soot and dancing cheerfully with their brooms.

The reality, however, was far grimmer for the adults, but was particularly terrible for the young children pressed into chimney-sweep service. Young boys, and sometimes girls, between the ages of four and eight were placed into the service of a master chimney sweep. Technically titled “apprentices,” these children could be orphans, from workhouses, or essentially sold in servitude by their parents. After the design of chimneys became narrower and more rooms within the home had their own fireplaces, adults were no longer able to physically fit inside the chimney to sweep out the soot and debris, hence the utilization of children.

 1870-sweeps

The children were often forced to go into the chimneys naked and shower the soot down onto themselves before sweeping it outside. Because they were exposed to this carcinogenic soot constantly, children often had extreme issues with their health and respiratory system. The standard size for a chimney at this time was approximately 9 inches by 14 inches; because of this narrow size, children could be easily trapped within the chimney and it was not uncommon for them to suffocate or burn to death. (Chimney)

The following image, published in an 1834 edition of Mechanics Magazine, demonstrated the difference between the safer, mechanical method of cleaning chimneys that had been developed and the child-labor chimney sweep method. Unfortunately for many children, both chimney sweeps masters and those who availed themselves of chimney sweep services preferred using children.

Cross-section of a seven flue stack in a four storey house with cellars. An 1834 illustration from Mechanics' Magazine, designed to show the contrast between mechanical sweeping and children sweeping chimneys. * A- is a hearth served by vertical flue, a horizontal flue, and then a vertical rise having two right-angled bends that were difficult for brushes. * B- is a long straight flue (14in by 9in) being climbed by a boy using back elbows and knees. * C- is a short flue from a second floor hearth. The climbing boy has reached the chimney pot, which has a diameter too small for him to exit that way. * E- shows a disaster. The climbing boy is stuck in the flue, his knees jammed against his chin. * G- How a flue could be straightened to make it sweepable by mechanical means * H- A dead climbing boy, suffocated in a fall of soot that accumulated at the cant of the flue.
Cross-section of a seven flue stack in a four storey house with cellars. An 1834 illustration from Mechanics’ Magazine, designed to show the contrast between mechanical sweeping and children sweeping chimneys.
* A- is a hearth served by vertical flue, a horizontal flue, and then a vertical rise having two right-angled bends that were difficult for brushes.
* B- is a long straight flue (14in by 9in) being climbed by a boy using back elbows and knees.
* C- is a short flue from a second floor hearth. The climbing boy has reached the chimney pot, which has a diameter too small for him to exit that way.
* E- shows a disaster. The climbing boy is stuck in the flue, his knees jammed against his chin.
* G- How a flue could be straightened to make it sweepable by mechanical means
* H- A dead climbing boy, suffocated in a fall of soot that accumulated at the cant of the flue.

 

It was not until the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875, which required the registration and supervision of all chimney sweeps combined with legislation making schooling mandatory, that the practice of using children as chimney-sweepers declined dramatically.

 

 

Sources
 
“ History of our Craft.” History of the Chimney Sweep. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2014. <http://www.ruchalachimney.com/history.html>.
“Chimney Sweepers.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 1 May 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimney_sweep#CITEREFStrange1982>.
 
“Chimney Sweeps- the Grand London House.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 1 May 2014. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/schoolradio/subjects/history/victorians/chimneysweep/london_house>.
 
Strange, Kathleen. The climbing boys. London: Allison & Busby, 1981. Print.