Child Labour


Moon over back drive

The moon stayed up late this morning. I am indebted to Laurie Graves at Notes from the Hinterland for the information that such a moon is called ‘Wolf’.


Recent work on opening up our fireplace in order to burn logs in a swan’s nest basket, has prompted me to research the history of chimney sweeps. There is much information on

This illustration shows a 19th century Italian master sweep and his apprenticed boy

With particular reference to the small children sent up chimneys in UK, Wikipedia tells us that: “Boys as young as four climbed hot flues that could be as narrow as 81 square inches (9×9 inches or 23×23 cm). Work was dangerous and they could get jammed in the flue, suffocate or burn to death. As the soot is a carcinogen, and as the boys slept under the soot sacks and were rarely washed, they were prone to Chimney Sweeps Cancer. From 1775 onwards there was increasing concern for the welfare of the boys, and Acts of Parliament were passed to restrict, and in 1875 to stop this usage.[6] Lord Shaftesbury, the philanthropist, led the later campaign. Chimneys started to appear in Britain around 1200, when they replaced the open fire burning in the middle of the one room house. At first there would be one heated room in the building and chimneys would be large. Over the next four hundred years, rooms became specialized and smaller and many were heated. Sea coal started to replace wood, and it deposited a layer of flammable creosote in the inside surface of the flue, and caked it with soot. Whereas before, the chimney was a vent for the smoke, now the plume of hot gas was used to suck air into the fire, and this required narrower flues[7] Even so, boys rarely climbed chimneys before the Great Fire of London, when building regulations were put in place and the design of chimneys was altered, The new chimneys were often angular and narrow, and the usual dimension of the flue in domestic properties was 9 inches (23 cm) by 14 inches (36 cm). The master sweep was unable to climb into such small spaces himself and employed climbing boys to go up the chimneys to dislodge the soot. The boys often ‘buffed it’, that is, climbed in the nude,[8] propelling themselves by their knees and elbows which were scraped raw. They were often put up hot chimneys, and sometimes up chimneys that were alight in order to extinguish the fire. Chimneys with sharp angles posed a particular hazard.[9] These boys were apprenticed to the sweep, and from 1778 until 1875 a series of laws attempted to regulate their working conditions, and many first hand accounts were documented and published in parliamentary reports. From about 1803, there was an alternative method of brushing chimneys, but sweeps and their clients resisted the change preferring climbing boys to the new Humane Sweeping Machines.[10] Compulsory education was established in 1870 by the Education Act 1870 but it was a further five years before legislation was put in place to license Chimney Sweeps and finally prevent boys being sent up chimneys.[11]” 

Now, we have never sent a child up a chimney, but we have sent one under the floorboards.  In 1985 we had some reason for needing to access the nether regions of our house in Gracedale Road. I cannot now remember what.

Sam was in fact rather chuffed to be given the responsibility and the opportunity to explore. Carrying a torch he slid down the hole.

Sam under floorboards 1 – Version 2

Here he is on the descent,

Sam under floorboards 2 – Version 2

and as he emerges with whatever he went down for, and the bonus of a packet of Wild Woodbines.

This evening we dined on Jackie’s sausages in red wine, and Becky’s creamy mashed potato, tasty bubble and squeak, and peas. Jackie drank sparkling water; Becky and Ian, Leffe; and I finished the shiraz.


  1. I remember when the Archaeologist was sent through a tiny gap in a wall in the loft to check some wiring after we moved into the house in Sway. Probably totally irresponsible of Dad but Gordon loved it

  2. I sure wouldn’t go down into a crawl-space again. I went into one at an old job and found nothing but scorpions – not my cup of tea I must say!! [and I’m too fat for a chimney]. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the shout-out, Derrick. The Wolf Moon was beautiful in Maine, and it was beautiful in England, too. Sad to think about those poor boys cleaning the chimneys. And, hooray for brave Sam!

    1. Many thanks, Van. It is fascinating that something which all our children grow up knowing can be unknown in so many other parts of the world. That is what prompts me to pop in bits of history.

  4. There’s a touch of Constable in your photo of Sam – which seems fitting given the history lesson you have just imparted. (Sadly ignorance and inhumanity is not just something that belonged ‘back then’. Nowadays we still condone child labour in exchange for cheap mass produced goods.)

  5. I had no idea, Derrick. Thank you for sharing this history with us. Having claustrophobic tendencies, the thought of going into a chimney or under the floor boards, gives me the willies! Though Sam looks quite content.

  6. I’m with Jill on this. I get claustrophobia quite badly and will nit go into a confined space unless I KNOW I can get out. But how horribly we treated children back then. And now I remember “The Water Babies” by ………..Kingsley. (I think) That was about a chimney sweep.

        1. I’ve just started this morning. There are some brilliant passages. I keep being tempted to quote them. And yes, life was cheap, and the divide between rich and poor almost insurmountable – except for Pip in Great Expectations 🙂

    1. Oh goodness, I haven’t thought of that book for ages. My mother had us kids read it aloud to each other when we were ages 7-11. I haven’t read it again. Like Gwendoline, I am prompted to pick it up again. It will be an entirely different story, when read as an adult.

    1. I thought perhaps the last two or three paragraphs were, a fun read that is; however, I thought the reminder of the cruelty to children in the 17th & 18th centuries was far from it, I do hope and assume that is what you meant.

  7. Great interesting story Derrick, certainly a different world with the lack of legislation’s in those days. I thought Wild Woodbine was a packet of cigarettes ?

    1. I was given a pack for my 15th birthday, from my mother, (they were her smoke of choice); she told me she knew I was having a puff on the sly, and if I intended to smoke do it openly!
      You could buy them in a pack of 5 or 10, if memory serves me.

  8. When I read, or think, about how some of my ancestors, must have been treated, it is a wonder that I was ever born.
    My paternal grandparents were born 1865, and my grandmother was a domestic servant in the 1870’s, which wasn’t much of a life in Victorian times I believe! My grandfather was more fortunate. He went into a trade.
    The ‘Upper Class English’ were callous to we of the lower classes.

  9. Wow – Quite a bit of info in there, Derrick. One of my clients is about 65 and has similar ( not chimneys but trains) harrowing stories of his youth in Philadelphia. I can’t even begin to imagine. Funny how you relate it to your pics of Sam – makes a great story!

  10. Most of the child labor photos here are from textile mills. I’ve heard of the poor sweeps, that the one who survived wee stunted as well. Not sure we’ve come a lot farther…

  11. A fascinating history thanks Derrick. I once wrote a play about a boy stuck up a chimney. It actually won a competition would you believe, and I got a thousand dollars!

  12. Hard to imagine how horrible life must have been for those boys. Of course, life is pretty ugly for countless children today. We humans are such a bizarre mix of compassion and cruelty.

  13. Yes such a horrible time of child labour and our history here in the UK is not good is it for its record of child labour.. The horror of those young boys in hot chimneys, and those in the cotton mills, under the machines getting scalps torn out.. Young boys sent down coal mines too.. ,,

    And in far away lands children’s lives are exploited still in many ways today.. xx

    Good to know your own young deep explorer came out smiling.. And Woodbines.. LOL… My hubby remembers them.. And would go to the shops to by 3 at a time.. LOL.. for his Dad.. And in later years take up the habbit.. Thankfully long since kicked.. 🙂

    Great post Derrick..
    Sue xx

  14. Interesting. @ …but sweeps and their clients resisted the change preferring climbing boys to the new Humane Sweeping Machines, we’ve come a long way, thank goodness. But in some respects, we haven’t 🙁

  15. I remember hearing about the chimney sweep boys in English Lit class, and I was so appalled. It is hard to think back before child labor laws and labor laws in general. Very interesting article….Thank goodness for progress!

  16. I had the same thought as Jodie: funny how you related the story of mistreatment of children to you sending Sam under the house.

    I had recently heard a podcast on this, on one of my favourite podcasts called Stuff You Should Know. Their episode on chimney sweeps talked about the many ways in which sweeps could die, including getting stuck inside the chimney, at an angle that causes suffocation. Even though rescue crews came, the boys would die because of their position in the chimney. As a girl, I heard about chimney sweeps. They were always pictured with a brush on a very long pole. I assumed that was the entire operation: ramming the brush into chimneys. I never thought about sending people inside chimneys.

  17. Fascinating details make your picture so vivid and real. I’m afraid it got me thinking about the children in Bangladesh dismantling toxic ships on the beach. And all the other children still labouring around the world in horrific conditions.

    1. Thank you very much, Rachel. There is so much of this in the world – including child soldiers, for goodness sake. Thank you very much for the reading and the reminder.

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