This edition of the Report from the Committee of the honourable the House of Commons on the Employment of Boys in Sweeping of Chimneys (1817) was published by the Parliamentary Committee established to investigate the conditions of children apprenticed to chimney-sweeps. The Committee listened to evidence from chimney-sweeps, a surgeon and a social reformer.
The report shows the conditions in which climbing boys worked between 1788 and 1817, and examines potential alternatives. The interview with the chimney sweep, an employer of child sweeps, states that he is keen to abide by the rules of the 1788 Act, but that he sometimes has to beat the boys to make them work properly. He says he would be willing to use a machine instead of a boy, but the servants in his employers’ houses complain that machines make more dirt than boys. He explains that, on occasion, fires were lit under reluctant children; but perhaps the most shocking piece of evidence shows how older boys were sent up chimneys after smaller boys to prick their feet with pins in an attempt to make them go further.
The committee’s main findings and recommendations stated:
that employers preferred smaller children because they could climb into smaller chimneys
- that girls as well as boys were used
- that physical punishment was used to force children to go up chimneys
- many boys developed testicular cancer from the soot in the chimneys, but many were unwilling to undergo an operation which would cure them by removing their testicles
- about a quarter of chimney-sweep employers did not provide washing facilities for their apprentices; washing would have made the cancer less prevalent
- poor parents effectively sold their children into the profession by demanding a payment from the chimney-sweeps
- parents lied about their children’s ages – smaller children were more desirable, since they could get into smaller spaces
- children were used as ‘climbing-boys’ from the age of four
children were not paid
- a machine could do the job just as well.
How does this source relate to William Blake?
In these pages we see that poverty drove parents to effectively sell their children into these conditions as commodities. The beginning of William Blake’s poem ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in the Songs of Innocence specifically states ‘my father sold me’, while ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ in the Songs of Experience begins, ‘A little black thing’, which has been interpreted as the child being seen as a commodity.
Blake shows an awareness of how sweeps obtained their apprentices by scouring the suburbs, and in the question ‘Where are thy father and mother?’ (Songs of Experience) he refers to the separation of parent and child.