Soot -Oh, Sweep


When one thinks of a Chimney Sweeper, the first image to come to mind is the romanticized character of Bert the Chimney Sweep from Mary Poppins, the happy-go-lucky figure who always had a song to sing. But “The Chimney Sweeper” from William Blake’s’ Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience shows us a darker past to the profession and what some British boys faced as an occupational death on a daily basis.

These boys, often orphans or born into poor families, were sold to a Master Chimney Sweep’s service under the “Poor Law” (Parliament). The Master Chimney Sweep then became custodian of the child and was only required by law to feed, clothe, and provide a shelter for the child. These custodians then took the children and taught them the trade of Chimney Sweeping. This involved the children having to climb into and up the chimney in order to remove the built up tar and soot inside of the flue. This was often done naked in order to gain a better hold while moving up the flue, save for a brass cap the boys were required to wear to protect their head, as required by legislation passed by Parliament (Simeral 19).

As one might imagine, this lead to serious health issues if not death for the children. The children would develop Black Lung (asthma) from the soot, burns and sores from climbing inside the chimneys,  weakened eyes, deformed bodies, as well as stunted growth (Simeral 19, Mayhew 351). But as Blake points out in his poems, death was a common thing for these children. Suffocation from soot, or smoke if the soot had caught fire, while inside the chimneys was common, as was falling or burning to death. At times, a child would become stuck and unable to remove themselves. If this happened, the child would most likely die while waiting to be extracted by a bricklayer (Mayhew 351). The few children who managed to live through to the end of adolescence and were released from their indentured servitude were often too deformed and uneducated to do any other occupation (Simeral 23). There was also the chance that they would have developed Chimney Sweep Cancer, which formed in the scrotum and was fatal (Waldron).

There were attempts to push legislation in order to protect these children starting in the 1760s and the first bill passed in 1788 (Parliament). But this was often ignored and rarely enforced. Other bills followed, often rising the required age before being sold from six years of age to eight, ten and eventually fourteen. Mechanical inventions were invented to do the job, but were fought against by the Chimney Sweepers, claiming the boys did a better job and their clients preferred the children (Parliament). Literature, such as Blake’s poems and The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, brought to light the treatment of the children to the public. In fact, a committee appointed by Parliament reported that “the horrors of a factory child life paled” (Simeral 22) in comparison to that of the life of a chimney sweep child. It was not until 1875, when Parliament finally passed a bill enforcing all of the previous bills, that the use of young children as chimney sweeps came to an end.

Works Cited

N.d. Photograph. WikipediaWeb. 17 Oct 2013. <;.

Manning, Peter, Susan Wolfson, David Damrosch, and Kevin Dettmar.The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. 5th. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc, 2012. Print.

Mayhew, Henry. London labour and the London poor : a cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work. London: Griffin, Bohn & Co., 1861. Print.

“Reforming society in the 19th century – Children and Chimneys.” UK Parliament. UK Parliament, n.d. Web. 17 Oct 2013. <;

Simeral, Isabel. Reform Movements In Behalf Of Children In England Of The Early Nineteenth Century: And The Agents Of Those Reforms…. New York: Columbia University, 1916. Print.

Waldron, H.A. “A Brief History of Scrotal Cancer.” British Journal of Industrial Medicene. 40.4 (1983): 390-401. Print.