Children at work: Birmingham’s Climbing Boys

child labour

In September, 1826, Aris’s reported the awful story of a child stuck in a chimney for more than five hours. The boy, a chimney sweep only seven years of age, was freed through the dismantling of part of the chimney stack. The child was found in a position in which he was totally incapable of moving more than his legs. The report expressed much regret that this practise, which condemns so many children to a degrading and destructive employment, should not have excited more successfully the benevolent attention and sympathy of our fellow townsmen.

Sympathy for the ‘climbing boys’ was generally slow in coming and, despite the invention of chimney sweeping machinery, legislation when it was introduced was resisted. The first regulatory act appeared on the statute books in 1834. This outlawed the apprenticeship of child sweeps under the age of 10, but no child under 14 was permitted to be engaged in the actual cleaning of chimneys. In 1840, the act was further revised, raising apprenticeship age to 16. This did not stop the use of climbing boys and local newspaper reports carry many reports of prosecutions.

Aside from the immediate dangers and horrendous working conditions of the climbing boys, the nature of their work placed them at a further disadvantage, compared with other apprenticeships. In a meeting held at Birmingham Town Hall in July, 1856, Mayor Hodgson raised the issue of what happened to the boys when they were too big to climb the chimneys. He stated that they were sent adrift to be taught some other business, without education and often with indolent habits. Hodgson added that whilst it by no means followed that because a trade was dangerous, it should therefore be prohibited; but the community had a right to step in when it was found that persons unable to defend themselves were forced into dangerous positions by unkind, harsh or drunken masters. There were also a number of local chimney sweeps in attendance at this meeting who stated that they had not used climbing boys for many years, because machinery was far more efficient for the job.

Prosecutions continued to appear for several more years in the press, most of the cases brought by the Society for the Protection of Climbing Boys. Most major towns had similar societies, Birmingham was by no means the first, and they played an important role in bringing about legislative change as well as offering immediate assistance to children who had been injured or traumatised by sweeping accidents.

 On May 20th, 1858 at the Erdington petty sessions, a sweep was fined £10 for a violation of the law passed to prevent ‘cruelty to climbing boys’. The following report of the boy’s statement is taken from the Birmingham Journal, May 21st, 1858

The boy, Salisbury, a poor, sickly, diminutive lad, said that on the morning in question he went with Daintree to Mrs. Griffiths’s house, and the chimney being small he had to strip naked to get into it; the mortar projected out from the wall, and he stuck fast, and could neither get up nor down. Daintree got up to the roof with a ladder and threatened to poke him down with a prop, and also threatened to light a wisp of straw under him. The poor little fellow at length wriggled himself out and descended. He had been with Daintree about three weeks and had been frequently struck and ill-treated by him; and on the following Saturday he had turned him out, nearly naked, and he had to lie in the Breeze yard, covered with sores and half famished.

The news of young Salisbury’s plight reached the Society, who took the youth into their care. It was they who brought the case against both Daintree, the employer and also Mrs. Griffiths, who had ‘knowingly permitted’ her chimney to be swept by an under age employee. She denied this charge, claiming she had been duped by Daintree, and the prosecution against her was withdrawn. However, another woman whose chimney had been swept by Salisbury was not so lucky, and was given a £5 fine, the sum of which was paid into the funds of the Society.

It was not until 1875 that further legislation finally began to have an impact, with the introduction of licensing for chimney sweeps.

Copies of Birmingham’s historical local newspapers are free to view on microfilm in the Local Studies centre at Library of Birmingham. Please support our local libraries and archives. 

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