Was Britain the only country to use children to sweep chimneys?

Some German visitors were surprised to learn that we used to use children to sweep chimneys. Surely Britain was not the only nation to do so?

This article was first published in BBC History Magazine in 2011

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We certainly weren’t. Chimney sweeping became a profession with the increasing use of coal for domestic heating. Brick chimneys for wood fires were usually wide enough for an adult to clean, but coal requires a narrower flue.

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The poorly regulated urban expansion that began before the industrial revolution meant a proliferation of buildings with flues full of turns and angles – and these had to be cleaned to prevent chimney fires. This was best done by a small person with a brush for soot, and a metal scraper for harder tarry deposits.

By the early 1800s, sweeps used boys in Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and probably other places, too. In Piedmont, northern Italy, sweeps trained young orphans and beggars as climbing boys for work abroad, mostly in Switzerland and France. There is still an annual chimney sweeps’ festival at the village of Santa Maria Maggiore in the Vigezzo Valley in Piedmont.

Boys were also used in the United States, where, both before and after the abolition of slavery, they were often African-Americans. Elsewhere, such as in Scotland and Russia, the more usual method was to lower a weighted brush down the flue on a rope. Boys were rarely (if at all) used in Germany.

Most English sweeps’ boys were technically apprentices, sold or donated by workhouses, or even their own parents. They led miserable lives, some treated cruelly by their masters and all vulnerable to accidents, injury and carcinogens.

But from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, child labour was widely exploited elsewhere, too, such as in factories and mines. Social reformers took up the cause of the climbing boys, and lobbied for legal changes to protect them, precisely because they were so visible. The familiar sweep’s circular brush on the end of flexible rods, which could be screwed together and pushed up the flue, was invented in the 1820s by London engineer Joseph Glass for the express purpose of keeping boys out of chimneys.

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Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.