In 1817, a Parliamentary Committee was established to investigate the conditions of children apprenticed to chimney-sweeps. They listened to evidence from chimney-sweeps, a surgeon and a social reformer. Shown here are pages from the parliamentary report produced by the committee.
What does the report show?
The report shows the conditions that climbing boys worked in between 1788 and 1817. The chimney sweep interviewed 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 do their work. He says that he would be willing to use a machine instead of a boy, but that the servants complain that machines make more dirt than boys. On occasions fires were lit under reluctant children, but perhaps the most shocking piece of evidence shows how older boys were sent up after smaller boys to prick their feet to make them go further; the older boys would have earlier had this done to them.
The summary (pp. 173-76) shows the committee’s main findings and recommendations including:
- 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-sweeps 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, as 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 may be interpreted as the child being seen as a commodity.
Blake shows 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.