Chimney Sweeps

Doncaster and the Climbing Boys,

by Eric Braim.

In the early stages of the industrial revolution young children were employed in textile mills and coal mines, often working long hours in unpleasant and sometimes dangerous conditions. Doncaster, being mainly a residential town, probably escaped the worst excesses of this form of child labour.

However the local paper of 3rd March 1787 reported on the laying of the foundation stone of a factory in Wood Street. The factory was for the spinning of cotton to supply the looms for which Edmund Cartwright had obtained a patent. The report stated that with the new looms it was supposed a child of 6 or 7 years would be able to do as much work in one day as could be done by the old method in a week.

Only a year after the factory opened, three girls were sent to the house of correction at Wakefield for not doing their work, either well, or the quantity they ought to have done, and combining together in enticing others to do the same. Apprentices to local tradesmen or shopkeepers were sometimes not much better off than factory children for they could be made to work long hours in exchange for poor board and lodgings.

Gradually conditions improved for young children in the mills and the mines. An act of parliament of 1833 prohibited the employment of children under 9 years in the mills, and an act of 1842 prohibited the employment of children under 10 years and women in the mines. An act of 1844 provided that children under 13 years should work a maximum 6 and a half hour day.

In 1853 when the Plant Works of the Great Northern Railway came to Doncaster, Edmund Denison, the company’s chairman, regarded it as his duty to see that a school was built for the education of his workers’ children. However, one lot of his children continued to work in appalling conditions – they were the ‘Climbing Boys’ who climbed inside chimneys to clear them of soot, and they fared no better in Doncaster than elsewhere.

The use of Climbing boys dated from the earlier part of the 18th Century. William Blake drew attention to their plight in his ‘Song of Innocence’ published in 1789:

One reason why the use of climbing boys continued unabated was that chimney sweeps carried out their business in the early hours and many householders may not have seen the climbing boys at work. Philip Bright, a Jeweller with premises at the corner of High Street and Scot Lane, had his chimneys swept in July 1822. The scullery maid was up at dawn to let the sweeps in. By the time Philip Bright came down to breakfast the sweeps had gone and so had much of his stock – the maid had not secured the door and 2 passing rogues had seized the chance to enrich themselves.

There were people in the town who felt strong enough about the climbing boys plight that in July 1817 a public meeting was held in the town hall at which it was unanimously agreed that the use of climbing boys was oppressive and cruel and should not be tolerated. It was decided to petition parliament to adopt such measures as would entirely preclude the necessity of employing children in the sweeping of chimneys.

In February 1818 a letter appeared in Doncaster Gazette giving an account of the climbing boys’ existence, based mainly on evidence given to a committee of the House of Commons the previous year. The legal age at which a climbing boy could be engaged was 8 years but many children aged 5 and 6 were purchased from their parents or purloined from the workhouse. Small children had to be used in cleaning some chimneys which were as small as 7 inches square.

The young boys at the commencement of their labours had a great dread of entering the chimneys but were threatened, beaten and sometimes driven on by burning straw beneath them. The boys were cleaned, at most, once a week and as a result, many suffered from ‘sweepers cancer’. At the end of their apprenticeships at the age of 16, the boys were brutalised in mind, deformed in body, of little further use in their trade and uneducated. Most of the evidence the committee received came from the London area but similar conditions probably existed in other parts of the country.

In an age of untrammelled free enterprise, builders built as they liked. It was not unusual for chimneys from two fireplaces to join into one flue. This caused great danger for climbing boys. In May 1823, a boy was sweeping at a house in Thorne where on ascending, got into the wrong flue, below which was a fire. The soot he dislodged flared up and he was burned to death.

As anyone can see, many of the town’s Georgian and early Victorian houses have chimney stacks that emerge through the roof at the ridge. This arrangement was partly for aesthetic effect and partly to reduce down-draughts in the chimneys. To bring the chimneys to the ridge position it was often necessary to arch, or ‘cant’ them across the house. Such changes of direction caused additional hazards for the climbing boys. It was also impossible to use a sweeping machine on such chimneys unless a soot door was placed at the bend.

In December 1829 a townsman wrote to the local paper drawing attention to the wretched state of the climbing boys who could be seen walking the streets of Doncaster, without shoes, stockings or clothes to cover their emaciated limbs, begging a crust of bread from their neighbours. The Society of Friends had obtained a machine for sweeping chimneys but in many cases it was inoperable and the number of boys had not diminished. The writer suggested the setting up of a philanthropic institution, similar to one in Paris, which would provide proper accommodation and education for the boys, financed out of their earnings. Help would also be given to finding the boys new jobs when they were too old to climb chimneys. The boys would be under the charge of a caring craftsman.

In 1832, Peter Deddear advertised he swept chimneys by machine. In 1833 he left for London and John Butterfield of St Thomas Street acquired his machine. The minimum age for sweeps’ apprentices had been set at 8 years in 1788. In spite of the Select Committee Report in 1817 and pressure from societies set up to improve the lot of climbing boys, no further progress was made until 1834, when an Act of Parliament raised the age to 10 years. The Act also made it illegal to send a boy up a chimney to put out a fire in the chimney.

In December 1836 George Emery, sweep, of St Sepulchre Gate, was charged with employing a boy aged 9. He promised to send the boy to the school of Henry Smith, a member of the society of friends, until he was 10. In 1838, John Sissons, a climbing boy nearly 16 years of age, ran away from William Butler, a sweep of Thorne. Apprentices who ran away from their masters could be sent to prison but in this case, which was brought at the instance of Henry Smith, Butler was charged with ill-treating Sissons. As a young boy, Sissons had been bound by the Parish of Thorne to John Pullen, a sweep. Pullen died and his widow married Butler who continued the business. One Sunday, Sissons was playing in Thorne churchyard when he was sent a message to go home for tea; because he was 10 minutes late in going home he was flogged with a cart-whip by Butler. He was flogged again on Monday because he showed his wounds to 2 neighbours. On Wednesday they were at a house in Hatfield and because he could not sweep as fast as Butler wished he was kicked on the back by Butler and struck over the eye. Sissons said he worked 6 days a week and only had meat on Sundays; 3 days a week he had to beg for food. Butler said it was customary in the trade for boys to beg 3 times per week. Edmund Denison, the Magistrate, said this was a most inhuman practice. Mr Denison said Butler had no power over the boy nor was it fit that he should have over any boys. He thought these boys were often very ill used both by their masters and the public. He fined Butler 20 shillings and Henry Smith said there would be no difficulty in finding the boy another situation.

An Act of 1840 made it an offence, punishable by a fine, to send anyone under the age of 21 up a chimney to sweep it and the minimum age for sweep’s apprentices was raised to 16. The Act proved to be difficult to enforce. Sometimes charges were laid by agents of societies for the welfare of climbing boys but local magistrates disliked these outsiders. Occasionally, rival sweeps initiated the action. In August 1843, William Green, a sweep, preferred information against Benjamin Butterfield, the elder, who had 2 sons: Benjamin, 30 and Edwin, 16. Green said he had seen Edwins head appear out of a chimney pot at Mr Ingham’s in the corn market. Butterfield claimed it was his elder son who had gone up the chimney. The magistrates found the charge unproved and the plaintiff had to pay the costs of the summons.

In August 1844, George Emery was charged by Thomas Holland, a rival sweep, that he compelled, or allowed, Frederick Tyas, 13, to climb a chimney. Emery pleaded guilty, but said the chimney could not be swept by machine. The magistrates said they would have to fine him £5.

In January 1848, Benjamin Butterfield was again in court on a charge that he sent a boy, John Bramley, aged 12, up a chimney at Dr Clarke’s house in Priory Place. Butterfield said that the boy had only swept up and his son, Edwin, had climbed the chimney. The Mayor said they would deal leniently with him and he would only have to pay 14 shillings and six pence expenses but the police were given instructions to watch people sweeping chimneys.

The following month the chimney sweeps met at the Horse and Jockey to form a society. Mr Smith, the chairman, said because of a great reduction in the price of soot and the extra labour in using the machine and other difficulties incident thereto they were obliged to raise prices to:

  • Gentlemen and Tradespeople – 1 shilling
  • Tradespeole – 6 pence
  • Working people – 3 pence
  • Those on Parish Relief – 2 pence

A favourite abode of chimney sweeps was in the purlieus of the Rookery, in far St Sepulchre Gate, just beyond the Horse and Jockey pub. Intermingled with their dwellings were insanitary lodging houses frequented by tinkers, grinders and itinerant labourers. Within 250 yards of the Rookery were 7 public houses and 7 beer houses – the area was noted for its Saturday night disturbances.

The Doncaster Gazette of 20th December 1839 reported: “The Rookery, that fashionable quarter of the town, one of the ancient fraternity of rooks there inhabiting has displayed an emblazonment of Lord Scarbrough’s heraldic bearings with the following notification:’Benjamin Butterfield, chimney sweep to R.H. the Earl of Scarbrough, Lord Leutenant of the County of Nottingham’.”

The 1851 census shows that there were 15 persons in the Rookery engaged in chimney sweeping. One boy was aged 8, one 9 and one 13. One boy aged 16 was described as Joseph, his surname was not known.

In 1852, Dr George Dunn, a campaigner for public health improvements, built the town’s first hospital at the junction of St Sepulchre Gate and Cleveland Street. In 1857 Dr Dunn was Mayor and turned his attention to the plight of the climbing boys. He decided to inspect their condition monthly. He made his first inspection in the Town Hall. He spoke to their masters about the boys’ education and physical condition and hoped the boys would be kindly treated and allowed to attend some school after their labours. He learnt that the machine was not much used in Doncaster and most chimneys were swept by boys. George Naylor said he did not employ any boys and had hoped the pernicious practice of allowing boys to ascend chimneys would have been abolished.

Dr Dunn spoke to the little sweeps, who were attired in their Sunday clothes, in another room. The boys appeared healthy and in a clean condition. The reporter was astonished to hear them admit that they were attached to their work. In January 1858, on the marriage of the Princess Royal, Dr Dunn gave a treat to 53 poor widows at St James’ Hospital, after which he provided 14 young sweeps with roast beef, plum pudding and beer. All said they went to school and some said they could write.

In February 1859, Dr Dunn, at a meeting of the local board of health, referred to the dangerous and disgraceful practice of employing climbing boys. He proposed that, in future, no houses should be allowed unless they were provided with chimneys which could be swept by machine. The 1840 Act had already incorporated a similar requirement.

In June 1860, Thomas Hatfield was fined £5 for sending his son Thomas, aged 10, up a chimney at Dr Martin’s Chemist in High Street. The boy became stuck in the chimney – his father left him and said his mother would have to get him down. The boy was released after 2 hours when workmen removed the chimney pot.

There is some evidence that climbing boys were brutalised by their hard life. In October 1863, Frederick Tyas, the climbing boy in the 1844 case, was fined £5 for gross brutality to James Maddox, 8 or 9 years old, who could not get up a chimney in Hudson’s Mews. Tyas got another lad to bite Maddox’s feet and when this didn’t work, Tyas pulled the boy down with such force that he was badly bruised.

In December, Peter Hall of Stockport, agent for the London, Birmingham, North Staffordshire and Midland Counties Societies for the Suppression of climbing boys brought several cases to court. He failed to get a conviction against Edwin Butterfield for sending his son, aged 9, up a chimney in Spring Gardens but Robert Smith was fined £5 for sending a little boy up a chimney in Gas Row (St Leger Place)Dockin Hill, the case was proved by Frederick Tyas. Walter Bradley was fined £5 for a similar offence in Church Street and Henry Butterfield was fined £5 for sending his son, aged 9, up a chimney in St Sepulchre Gate, both cases were proved by Tyas. In the West Riding Court, Hall was told by William Walker Esq. of Wilsic that they only heard solicitors and he thought the Act was an arbitrary one. Eventually the case proceeded and William Walker said he would leave the decision to his fellow magistrate. William Middleton admitted sending Alex Smith, aged 9, up 8 chimneys in Warmsworth but said most chimneys in Doncaster had slants and could not be swept by machine. He was fined £5.

The publication of ‘The Waterbabies’ by Charles Kingsley in 1863 helped to secure the passing of a new Act of Parliament in 1864. The 1840 Act laid down the minimum age of 16 for sweep’ apprentices but the Act had been circumvented by the employment of younger boys, ostensibly to carry tools and bags. Under the new Act it became illegal for anyone under 16 to accompany a sweep on his rounds. Instead of a maximum fine of £10 for contravening the Act of 1840, the new Act provided a prison sentence with hard labour.

 G.M.Trevelyan wrote that the chimney sweeps Acts of 1840 and 1864 were rendered dead letters by the callous connivance of private householders, local authorities and magistrates. Doncaster households had been prepared to turn a blind eye to the use of climbing boys but the 1864 Act was, at least, partially effective. The 1871 census shows that in the Rookery there were 10 sweeps and the youngest was 17. Two of the sweeps were women – Maria, widow of Thomas Hatfield and her daughter Hannah who was 24, they were assisted by young Thomas, who was now 21. Henry Butterfield had 3 sons, Alphonso, 22; Lorenzo,19; and Benjamin, 17 in the business.

In London and Glasgow the use of climbing boys was virtually eliminated but it continued in some parts of the country. In 1875 2 climbing boys died: 1 in a flue and the other after being beaten by his master. The latter case was taken up by the press. The 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, the great social reformer, easily persuaded parliament to pass an Act which ended the practice. Chimney sweeps had to be licensed annually and the police were given the job of regulating them.

One of the last climbing boys in Doncaster was George Dewsnap of the Rookery. In 1880, Baxtergate was shaken by an explosion which killed 3 people and severely damaged the shops of George Hanson, a gunsmith and the Misses Roberts as well as the Bluebell Inn. The explosion was caused by a joist which was built into a chimney igniting and leading to the collapse of a smouldering ceiling onto a safe containing gunpowder. George Dewsnap, 36, climbed the chimney to make the inspection. He said he had been apprenticed at the age of 6 as a climbing boy (to Benjamin Butterfield) and climbed 2 or 3 chimneys every week of his life.

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