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.
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:
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.