Tag Archives: child labour

Chimney Sweeps

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

BA&H: MS 466-253

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.

Appointments to view material held by Birmingham Archives & Heritage can be made via email at: archives.appointments@birmingham.gov.uk or by telephone on 0121 303 2468.

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Child Labour

Birmingham Archives & Heritage has an extensive number of apprenticeship indentures, especially from the 18th and 19th centuries. Indentures were legal documents signed by the apprentice and their master to agree the conditions of apprenticeship. They were originally drafted on a single piece of paper that was cut in half so that the legitimacy of the apprentice could be confirmed by putting the two halves together. Before legislation was introduced to prevent child labour, apprentices were usually children in their early teens, although many were younger, particularly those working in textile manufacturing. In return for cheap labour they were offered board, lodging and training.

BA&H: MS 871-5

MS 871 includes the indentures for five girls under the care of the Guardians of the Poor in the Parish of Birmingham in 1802: Sophia Tonks, aged 14; Maria Stretton, aged 13 ½; Catharine Stretton, aged 11; Ann Woodcock, aged 10 ½ and Maria Downes, aged 8 years old. All five were apprenticed to John Robinson of Nottinghamshire. Robinson’s father, George Robinson, had come to the area in 1737 and, with the help of his two sons, John and James, established a number of cotton mills along the river Leen on a stretch from Pamplewick to Bulwell. Many of the workers in textile mills were children and they were often ill-treated, forced to work long hours and inadequately fed (‘The Leen Mills’, Lenton Times, issue 4, June 1990).

Indeed, children as young as four could be found working in mills, usually as scavengers forced to go under the working machinery to retrieve parts and materials. From around the age of eight they would work as ‘little piecers’, a very dangerous job which involved leaning over the spinning-machines to repair any broken threads. At around age fifteen they would be employed to operate the machinery.

In 1800 there were approximately 20,000 apprentices working in cotton mills. In the same year that the five girls from Birmingham were apprenticed to Robinson, the Factories Act 1802, also known as the Health & Morals of Apprentices Act, was passed to prevent pauper children from working more than twelve hours a day at the mill. In 1819 legislation was introduced which prevented children from under the age of 9 working in cotton mills; this was extended to factories in 1833.

Appointments to view material held by Birmingham Archives & Heritage can be made via email at: archives.appointments@birmingham.gov.uk or by telephone on 0121 303 2468.