Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788: Child Labor Law That Allowed Eight-Year-Olds To Work Legally

The Chimney Sweep, 1843, by Angelo Inganni (1807-1880). Oil on canvas, 46.5x46.5 cm. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Mary Poppins might romanticize the role of chimney sweeping in Edwardian London, but in reality, there was nothing romantic about it. The profession employed not jaunty young men but enslaved children and forced them to work long hours in dangerous conditions. After the death of a young boy, England passed the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788, setting the legal minimum age for chimney sweeping at a whopping eight years old, but it took much longer to enact real change.

A Job For Children

For centuries, Londoners heated their homes with coal, a notoriously dirty source of energy that leaves behind creosote build-up and turned every chimney into a potential fire hazard. After a particularly devastating chimney fire that spread out of control throughout London and destroyed more than 70,000 homes in September 1666, the city got serious about chimney regulation, requiring them to be built narrower and cleaned frequently. 

These new requirements seemed maddeningly contradictory, however: How was anyone supposed to get inside these new, narrow chimneys to clean them? Only children could fit, but this was a time when that wasn't as much of a problem as you'd hope, so master sweepers simply approached families living in poverty and offered to take a hungry mouth or two off their hands. They typically selected young boys around six years of age and gave the parents a stack of coins in exchange for the child.