Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Climbing Boys

      The climbing boys, and sometimes girls, were technically called chimney sweeps apprentices, and were apprenticed to a master sweep, who being an adult, was too large to fit into a chimney or flue. He would be paid by the parish to teach orphans or paupers the craft. They were totally reliant on him - they or their guardians had signed Papers of Indenture, in front of a magistrate, which bound them to him until they were adults. It was the duty of the Poor Law guardians to apprentice as many children of the workhouse in their care as possible, so as to reduce costs to the parish. The master sweep had duties: to teach the craft and its mysteries, to provide the apprentice with a second suit of clothes, to have him cleaned once a week, allow him to attend church, and not send him up chimneys that were on fire. An apprentice agreed to obey his master. Once his seven year long apprenticeship was completed he would become a journeyman sweep, and would continue to work for a master sweep of his choice. Other apprentices were sold on to the sweep, or sold by their parents. Prices ranged from 7 shillings  to 4 guineas.
Antique postcard of child chimney sweeps.
      It was generally agreed that six was a good age to train a boy. Though Lord Shaftesbury once encountered one of the age of four, they were considered to be too weak. A master sweep would have many apprentices, they would start the morning by roaming the streets calling out "Soot -Oh, Sweep" or another cry to let the house-owners know they were around - this would remind the owners of the dangers of un-swept chimneys. When engaged, the master sweep would fix a cloth over the fireplace, and the climbing boy would take off his boots and any excess clothes, then get behind it. The flue would be as tall as the house and twist several times, and its dimensions would be 14in by 9in. He would pull his cap down over his face and hold a large flat brush over his head, and wedge his body diagonally in the flue. Using his back, elbows and knees, he would shimmy up the flue in the manner of a caterpillar and use the brush to dislodge loose soot, which would fall over him and down to the bottom, and a scraper to chip away the solid bits, as a smooth chimney was a safe chimney. Having reached the top he would slide back down at speed back to the floor and the soot pile. It was now his job to bag up the soot and carry it back to the master sweep's cart or yard.
      Soot was valuable and could be sold for 9d a bushel in 1840. An apprentice would do four or five chimneys a day. When they first started they scraped their knees and elbows, so the master would harden up their skin by standing them close to a hot fire and rubbing in strong brine using a brush. This was done each evening until the skin hardened. The boys got no wages but lived with the master who fed them. They slept together on the floor or in the cellar under the sacks and the cloth used during the day to catch the soot. This was known as "sleeping black" The boy would be washed by the mistress in a tub in the yard, this may happen as often as once a week, but rarely did. One sweep used to wash down his boys in the Serpentine. Another Nottingham sweep insisted they washed three times a year, for Christmas, Whitsun and the Goose Fair. Sometimes, a boy would need to be persuaded to climb faster or higher up the chimney, and the master sweep would either light a small fire of straw or a brimstone candle, to encourage him to try harder. Another method which also helped stop them from "going off" was to send another boy up behind him to prick pins into the soles of his feet or buttocks.
      Chimneys varied in size. The common flue was designed to be one and a half bricks long by one brick wide, though the often narrowed to one brick square, that is 9 inches (230 mm) by 9 inches (230 mm) or less. Often the chimney would still be hot from the fire, occasionally it would actually be on fire. Careless climbing boys could get stuck with their knees jammed against their chins. The harder they struggled the tighter they became wedged. They could remain in this position for many hours until they were pushed out from below or pulled out with a rope. If their struggling caused a fall of soot they would suffocate. Dead or alive the boy had to be removed and this would be done by removing bricks from the side of the chimney. If the chimney was particularly narrow the boys would be told to "buff it", that is to do it naked, otherwise they just wore trousers, and a shirt made from thick rough cotton cloth.
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The Chimney Sweeper: by William Blake
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.


There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved, so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."


And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;


And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.


Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.


And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

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