On this day … 23 February 1818

Victorian climbing boys found dead in chimney
‘The death of two climbing boys in the flue of a chimney. Frontispiece to ‘England’s Climbing Boys’ by Dr. George Phillips’. https://www.historic-uk.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/sweeps-chimney.jpg

On 23 February 1818, according to the Preston historian Peter Whittle, it was decided at ‘a meeting held in the Town-hall, to propose the adoption of sweeping chimneys by Machinery, and thereby do away with the services of climbing boys, within the borough’.

In this, Preston was well ahead of the times, for the existing legislation merely required that the climbing boys were at least eight years old. This requirement was routinely ignored, for the master chimney sweepers required very small boys, and sometimes girls, to climb up the narrow chimneys. Also, the ‘Machinery’ mentioned was the articulated chimney sweeper’s brush, only recently invented, unpopular and unsuited to many flues at that period.

The ideal age of a chimney climber was reckoned to be six, much younger and they were not strong enough for the climbing, much older and they were becoming too big (the social reformer Lord Shaftesbury recalled meeting one aged just four).

Legislation in 1834 set the minimum age at fourteen, and the boys were not to climb flues to extinguish fires. This was tightened up in 1840, fixing the minimum age for sweeping chimneys at 21. Both pieces of legislation were again routinely flouted, and it wasn’t until the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875 that proper licensing of the trade was introduced.

Preston’s proposal of 1818 was to prove similarly ineffective, for, in a House of Lords debate in 1864, Shaftesbury recounted that ‘at Preston a boy was severely flogged by his master for refusing to go a second time into a hot boiler flue’.

A former caretaker at Whittingham Hospital included a detailed description of life as a chimney climber in the 1860s in a memoir he wrote at the end of his life:

Few writers have attempted to deal with the climber’s suffering, for none but the children who have sampled the torture know it. While working one’s way upwards huge blood-blisters would form on the left palm. As the blisters quickly began to form they seemed to grow until they felt as big as one’s head. When the soot began to work into the bleeding flesh the agony was intense, and being forced upward, assisted by such kindly advice as ‘You young ‘ellhound, I’ll cut your b—y liver out if you don’t hurry up’, developed nerves. The skin came off the knees, a slip of a few yards tore the shirt and scarred the back from buttocks to shoulder-blades. The toe nails broke, the heart beat like a trip hammer, an excruciating headache, with floating lights, comes on, and the purgatorial punishment continued up and down each chimney until one became acclimatised to the unnatural conditions.

… I have had almost every stitch of clothing burnt off me in hot boilers. In one boiler, where I had to take two wet bricks to kneel on, I tried to clean a side flue, but the lantern became so hot that I had to drop it, and work my way back quickly to save myself from suffocation. Later I returned for the lantern, but the pewter had melted and a few pieces of tin and glass were all that remained of the borrowed lantern.

Whittle’s History of Preston

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