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

By | January 3, 2021

test article image
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.

test article image
(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

A Deadly Job

As you can imagine, the life of a child chimney sweep was no trip to DisneylandThe master sweeper made sure the child was fed, but it was meager portions, and provided him a place to sleep, but it was typically a damp basements with nothing but sooty, carcinogenic cloth bags to use as bedding. To toughen the child's knees and elbows, as was required of a chimney sweep, the master sweeper took a stiff wire brush to their skin. In time, thick calluses formed, but in the interim, the youngster had to endure raw, open wounds and the possibility of infection. 

As uncomfortable as life was outside the chimney, life inside was downright deadly. It wasn't uncommon for a child to get stuck, after which another young boy was sent down to rescue him, often only for them both to become trapped. In the best-case scenario, walls had to be torn down to free the children. All too often, nothing was freed but corpses.

It wasn't until 1875, however, when 12-year-old George Brewster died in just such a manner, that the public became outraged enough to do something about it. Brewster's master, William Wyer, was found guilty of manslaughter for ordering the boy into the chimney shaft, but he wasn't doing anything master sweepers across the city weren't doing, so the public pushed further for legislation to address the issue of child chimney sweeps.