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 soot is carcinogenic, and as the boys slept under the soot sacks and were rarely washed, they were prone to chimney sweeps’ carcinoma. From 1775 onwards there was increasing concern for the welfare of the boys, and Acts of Parliamentwere passed to restrict, and in 1875 to stop this usage. 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. 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, 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. 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. Compulsory education was established in 1870 by the Education Act 1870 but it was a further five years before legislation was put in place Tor icense chimney sweeps and finally prevent boys being sent up chimneys.
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.
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, who 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 might happen as often as once a week, but rarely. 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 light either 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” (asphyxiating) was to send another boy up behind him to prick pins into his buttocks or the soles of his feet.
Chimneys varied in size. The common flue was designed to be one and a half bricks long by one brick wide, though they 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, and 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.