The nineteenth century was notorious for employing children in various industries, most notably in factories and mines and as chimney sweeps. Master sweeps would take apprentices from around age 6, usually boys from the workhouse but also girls, and train them to climb chimneys.
From the late eighteenth century there was concern for the health and safety of chimney sweeps. A series of laws attempted to regulate working conditions and increase the age of sweeps. The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act of 1840 made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to sweep, although the Act was widely ignored.
MS 466/253 A Few Extracts from Memory, to the Association for the Suppression of Climbing Boys
This pamphlet was written in the 1840s by Richard Bennett of 23 Allison Street, Birmingham, for the Association for the Suppression of Climbing Boys, a campaign led by John Cadbury (1801-1889).
Born in 1816, Bennett had been a climbing boy and later became a master sweep.
In the pamphlet, he reveals the hardship experienced by climbing boys:
The sufferings I endured then and subsequently I would not again repeat for any amount of wealth. I was forced up chimneys in a state of complete nudity, sometimes two or three times a day, and my bed for those ten years consisted of straw and soot-bags.
Bennett became his own boss at the age of 19 and took on two apprentices. In 1841, he purchased chimney sweeping machinery from Mr Russell, a master sweeper from Cheltenham; the following year the 1840 Act of Parliament, the Chimney Sweepers and Chimney Regulation Act, came into being, and so Bennett let his apprentices go. A mechanical brush had been introduced in 1803 to replace climbing boys, although it was resisted by sweeps until later in the century; Bennett remarks that
in reference to the mode of cleaning chimneys by machines, that I can truly assert that they are worth more than their weight in gold.
Reform eventually took effect after the 1875 Chimney Sweepers Act, which required chimney sweepers to be authorised by the police to carry on their businesses in the district, therefore providing the legal means to enforce all previous legislation.