28th April 1801. Climbing Boys.

The Philanthropist Jonas Hanway in 1773  had made some effort to abolish climbing boys to clean chimneys, but it was over 100 years before Shaftesbury’s Act in 1875 that the practice was banned.

Punch Cartoon 1863 by John Leech.

Punch Cartoon 1863 by John Leech.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, The future 7th Lord Shaftesbury and great campaigner against working boys, was born Today in 1801 and lived long enough to see his Bill become law.

However this was only after 12 years George Brewster, employed by William Wyer, whilst sweeping the chimneys of Fulbourne Hospital had died, requiring a wall to be pulled down in an attempt to rescue him.

Shaftesbury in September 1875 after much publicity by letters to The Times, finally got the practice banned.

Back in 1788 an Act, ‘for the better regulation of sweeps and apprentices’, resulted in a need for boys to be eight, and complaints had to be lodged with the local JP. However there was little enforcement.

Christian, Evangelist Socialists such as the Rev. Charles Kingsley campaigned through his 1863 Water Babies, against the practice of climbing boys, whose hazardous ascent of chimneys often ended in death.

Oliver Twist begging not to become a sweep. Cruickshank, Chapman & Hall c 1905.

Oliver Twist begging not to become a sweep. George Cruickshank, Chapman & Hall c 1905 edition.

These climbing boys often came from the workhouse such as Dickens’ Oliver Twist who was nearly taken on by Mr. Gamfield until the Magistrate intervened, as he had ‘laboured under the imputation of having bruised boys to death before’.(1)

The Chimney Sweep Act 1834, required the child to declare in front of a Magistrate his willingness and had to be aged 14. Also he wasn’t expected to extinguish fires.

Boys were still used despite George Smart’s invention of 1803, using extended hollow rods and a broad bristle brush.

This was improved in 1828 by Joseph Glass, but only gradually adopted: as the wit Sydney Smith remarked, ‘What is a toasted child, compared to the agonies of the mistress of the house with a deranged dinner’?


In 1937 in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon’ after Mr Puffit had failed to dislodge encrusted soot, the Rev Simon Goodacre ‘fired an ancient duck-gun up a blocked chimney, which brought down soot, masonry, bricks and birds and a clue in the mystery, a chain’.

No boy needed there!

The ‘Eros’ memorial in Piccadilly Circus, London, is part of the Shaftesbury fountain, the sculptor being Sir Albert Gilbert (1892). It was unveiled in 1893 eight years after Shaftesbury’s death and seven years after completion of his marble statue in Westminster Abbey.

(1) Strange 1982. P 132.

(2) Commemorated on a stamp celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Royal Society of Arts in 2004.

Ref: wikipedia.org/chimney_sweeps.

Ref: suewilkes.blogspot/british-tiny-chimney-sweeps/Pics.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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