The trials of a Chimney Sweep

I don’t know about you but there are times that I feel quite proud of being a hoarder. Well, perhaps not ‘proud’, more often it’s ‘relief’ when I find something that I have hoarded in days gone by that now becomes useful. My ‘Boss Lady’ does not agree with this concept but puts up with it. Today, as I type, I feel vindicated. I started this morning trying to get my brain in order to write a fictional story for my ‘beejaytellingstories’ blog. In searching for ideas I found a loose page from the Cambridgeshire Family History Society magazine of August 2003. I was an active member of CFHS for many years and I still am a horder. Over the years I have had to slim down various bits but this singular page was obviously worth keeping. The contents were/are great for a fictional story and the ‘beejay’ blog will host such a story – but not yet. The factual story that I have discovered comes first – and here it is:-

The story in the magazine tells us that the Cambridge Chronicle of 13th February 1875 recorded an inquest regarding the death of George Brewster, aged 14, the son of a sawyer residing in Cambridge Place. George, it appears, worked for his father whose name is quoted as William Wyer (referred to as the father but, in fact, what we would now call a ‘surrogate parent’) and had been sent by him into one of the flues at the Lunatic Asylum (at this time officially called the County Pauper Lunatic Asylum). Wyer had called after him (George) after a few minutes, but receiving no reply, had eventually pulled him out and tried to revive him with the help of a doctor, but the boy died, suffocated by soot. The jury had returned a verdict of manslaughter against Wyer.
The account of that trial was published in the Cambridge Chronicle of 27th March 1875.
The prosecution sought to prove Wyer had broken a law that banned young persons under 21 entering chimneys or flues and boys under 16 entering houses where the chimney or flue was to be swept. Wyer had been advised of this law by the police in 1864. It was also stated by George’s brother was, in fact, under 12 although he was ‘supposed’ to be 14.

I dug a bit deeper and found the following:

CHIMNEY SWEEPERS ACTS—CASE OF GEORGE BREWSTER — QUESTION HL Deb 16 February 1875 vol 222 cc391-3 391 that records that:

The Earl of Shaftesbury said he wished to call the attention of Her Majesty’s Government to an inquest held at Cambridge on the body of George Brewster, a boy between 14 and 15 years of age, who lost his life in a flue up which he had been sent by a master-sweep for the purpose of sweeping it. [The noble Earl read the report of the inquest on the deceased from The Pall Mall Gazette, in which the facts were narrated, with the result that the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against the master.] It was high time that an end should be put to such practices. The year before last there was an atrocious murder—for it was nothing else —of a child aged 10 years, who had been sent up a chimney at Gateshead—and they did not know how many other poor children might not have been sacrificed in the same way even since that time. In the metropolis, with its population of nearly 4,000,000, there was no such thing as a climbing boy employed in the sweeping of chimneys, and, on recent inquiry in the great city of Glasgow, which contained upwards of 500,000 inhabitants, he was informed by the Chief Constable that there, too, such a mode of chimney-sweeping was now unknown. Why, then, should it be resorted to in smaller places? It was perfectly scandalous and abominable that any case such as the one at Cambridge should occur in this country. From the evidence at the inquest it would appear that the deceased boy was suffocated. Having been only a few minutes up the flue, he was taken out in a dying condition; and, notwithstanding that every effort seemed to have been made to restore him, he died within an hour from suffocation, caused by the presence of soot in the lungs and wind-pipe. He desired to know whether Her Majesty’s Government could give any further information with respect to the case, and whether they would institute an inquiry. He believed the existing law was sufficiently strong; but it could not be denied that, in a great many instances, when cases were brought before magistrates, the latter would not convict. If this were so, the action of the Government might be necessary.

Earl Beauchamp was afraid he could not add anything to the information which the noble Earl already possessed in regard to the case to which he had so properly called attention. “With the noble Earl, he believed the law to be sufficiently strong for the entire suppression of chimney-sweeping by means of climbing boys—there were already two Acts passed in the reign of Her Majesty for putting an end to the practice—and if the law was not sufficiently stringent for that purpose, undoubtedly it ought to be made so. He did not, however, gather from the facts stated by the noble Earl that any special inquiry was called for in this case. The law did not appear to have been in any way evaded: at the inquest a verdict of “Manslaughter” was returned, and therefore there had been no failure of justice so far, and there did not appear to be any reason for apprehending that there would be. He would ask for further information, but he did not know that any special investigation would be necessary. The matter was already under the cognizance of the magistrates, and he did not think that the interests of justice would suffer at their hands. At the same time, he thought their Lordships would agree with him that the noble Earl had done well to call attention to the matter, as no doubt his having done so would be attended with beneficial results.

Looking at the story from a mondern stance makes one feel for them and feel grateful for the present environment here in the UK.
Those children were subjected to horrible conditions as young chimney sweeps. When we get our chimney cleaned by a professional chimney sweep, special tools are used which are proven to be effective.  The story above reminds us of the time in history when the job of cleaning a chimney was carried out by a child who would climb the chimney while holding a brush over his head.  The soot would fall down over them and down to the bottom of the fireplace.  The child would then slide back down the chimney, collect the soot, and hand it over to the master sweep, who, in effect, owned him.  What we must also remember is that small boys, usually 6 years of age, were purchased from their poverty stricken parents by a master sweep.  The children became the property of the master sweeps and were virtually always cruelly treated, essentially living the life of slaves in some of the worst conditions imaginable.  George above is a classic example of that.

Many times small children would get stuck inside the twisted chimney which caused serious health complications and sometimes death.  This practice of sending small boys up and down chimneys in order to ensure that they were free of harmful creosote deposits was the norm in England for approximately 200 years.

The use of child chimney sweeps became widespread after the Great Fire of London, which occurred in September of 1666.  When the city was rebuilt, building regulations were changed.  Fireplaces had to have narrow chimneys, as a part of an effort to stop a repeat of the devastating London fire.  As a result, it became the life of generations of small boys that they were made to wake before dawn and work mercilessly.  The children would climb up the chimneys using their elbows, back, and knees.  The master sweep would scrub their knees to harden them; but before calluses formed, the children were usually seriously bloodied.

There were many hazards associated with human chimney sweeps.  Children got stuck in the 18-inch-wide chimneys; sometimes it was due to climbing technique and when children had to go up chimneys which had turns, they became lodged between tight corners and walls of soot.  A second child would usually be sent into a chimney to rescue the first, and they would sometimes both die for various reasons.  On occasion, the walls of a home would have to be torn down to remove the child or children lodged in the flue.

These children received no wages, but they were beaten if they didn’t work well and quickly enough to suit the master sweep.  They received little food and usually slept in basements on top of the blackened bags used to collect soot.  As a result of their work, the children often had lung problems, and their eyes would swell, becoming sore and inflamed.  Many children became disfigured or had stunted growth because they were placed in such unnatural positions before their bones were fully formed.
Even young girls were sometimes used as chimney sweeps.

When the boys became adolescents, it wasn’t unusual for them to suffer from a painful cancer of the scrotum.  Chimney Sweep Cancer was unique to chimney sweeps and is the first recorded form of industrial cancer.  A child who worked as a chimney sweep rarely grew to live past middle age.
Efforts were made through the years to put an end to the cruel practice of using child chimney sweeps, but they failed until 1875.  The death of 12-year-old chimney sweep George Brewster became the catalyst which finally pushed through legislation that outlawed the cruel practice.

George Brewster became stuck in one of the chimneys in Fulbourn Hospital.  His master, William Wyer, had sent George into that situation.  A wall had to be torn down to free George from his narrow prison.  He died a short time later.  Wyer was charged and found guilty of manslaughter.  George Brewster was the last child chimney sweep in England to die in a chimney.



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