Chimney-sweeps in Victorian England


[Extracts from Kellow Chesney, The Victorian Underworld, Penguin, London, 1970.]

“Not all sweeps, of course, were blackguards, but the trade had a most unenviable name.

It was a career in which men were apt to start early in life. Some still began as climbing boys and it is easy to see how the conditions under which young sweeps lived might affect those who were tough enough to survive and continue in the trade. (There was probably a fair amount of human wastage; besides the risk of serious accident, respiratory disease and cancer of the groin were occupational ailments among climbing boys.) Apprenticeships were not sought-after openings, and from 1840 the indenturing of child sweeps was forbidden by law, so that masters often had to recruit small boys whom no one cared to protect. Breaking boys in to the work was not always easy, and sometimes scared children were driven up tight flues by pricking or scorching the soles of the feet. Moreover the narrowing of domestic chimneys and the growing number of high industrial smokestacks must have added to the rigours of a system which, though prohibited and fast declining, lingered long enough to remain a scandal up till the last quarter of the century.

Many masters must have been under strong pressure to ignore a feebly enforced law; for it was perfectly obvious that broad old-fashioned flues with their ledges and recesses could be far more effectively cleaned by a scrambling urchin than by a remotely manipulated ‘patent machine’. Nor are the masters to be blamed for the behaviour of customers who would not inconvenience themselves by putting out their fires in time for chimneys to be cool and clear of fumes before a boy had to climb them. Chimney-sweeping was a highly competitive business.

It seems unlikely that sweeps deliberately starved their lads to keep them undersized, as propagandists claimed. It is true that the boys had to be slight and wiry, but the work also demanded great energy, and a quick, strong boy was a valuable asset. On the other hand boys no doubt often went hungry in lean times and it is not difficult to believe that they drank gin and smoked and sometimes slept among soot-sacks in foul cellars. One may suppose that much of the same sort of brutish life went on in sweep’s households as among other ill-conditioned but not always unhearty folk on the barbarous fringes of society.

Yet the trade certainly had a well-maintained tradition of misconduct and brutality – and not merely in the way its apprentices were treated. About the best known mid-century sweep was James Cannon, the Walworth Terror, a ruffian whose outrages led to seventeen convictions for assault in ten years and culminated in a turn-up in which a couple of policemen suffered a terrible mauling at his hands. This last feat proved a mistake. At Quarter Sessions he received the unusually heavy sentence of two years’ imprisonment for the injuries inflicted on one policeman: but higher authority was now aroused and at the instance of the Treasury Solicitor the case was transferred to the Old Bailey where, partly maybe because of the general odium attaching to his profession, a jury found Cannon guilty on the capital charge of attempting to murder the other officer. He was condemned to hang. According to an eye-witness ‘the sweep seemed astonished at the verdict’ – as well he might, considering the leniency with which such offences were often treated. In the upshot, however, the penalty was commuted to penal servitude.

So far as crimes against property are concerned, chimney-sweeps whose thoughts turned to housebreaking had some important advantages. A climbing boy’s training was a first-rate preparation for cat-burglary, and the most sensationally agile thief of the century was a runaway sweep’s apprentice. Further, to a degree quite unique among the disreputable classes, sweeps had opportunities to enter premises worth robbing and study their lay-out and potentialities. Even if they did not want to attempt a robbery on their own account they were often in an excellent position to provide professional criminals with inside information – a very saleable commodity.

By far the commonest method of heating for houses, offices, shops and even warehouses, was by open grates which were most inefficient and deposited huge quantities of soot. There had necessarily to be a great deal of chimney-sweeping, so that, if only a small fraction of the sweeps ever had dealings with criminals, their influence on the pattern of crime would still have been considerable.

[above extract: Chesney, pp.56-59]

Though the commonest way of exploiting little thieves was to set them stealing in the streets, it was by no means the only kind of robbery in which children could be useful. A cool-headed, undersized boy, supple enough to wriggle in between window bars or through a small unprotected back window, was sometimes the best means of cracking a tight crib, and once inside he could open a barred door or shutters for his elders. Such a child was known professionally as a ‘snakesman’.

This was the role in which little Oliver Twist was to assist Sykes. That any housebreaker in his senses who had met Oliver should have employed him in that way must be put down to the demands of the plot. But it is Dickens’ relish for authentic detail that makes him show how using a boy at all was a second-best expedient (only adopted because no servant in the house could be got at) and then portray Sykes lamenting that young boy of Ned’s, the chimbley-sweeper’s’ whose master used to ‘let him out by the job’.

A sweep’s climbing boy, indeed, was the natural choice for such work. If they survived uncrippled, young sweeps sometimes gained astonishing agility from their apprenticeship and became well-known criminals on that account. There were many underworld legends about a housebreaker called (variously) Williams or Whitehead, who had been a climbing boy and who made perhaps the most remarkable English prison break of the century.

In 1836 he was in Newgate sentenced to death for burglary. There was an exercise yard for the condemned surrounded by sheer granite walls, near the top of which, fifty feet from the ground, was a chevaux-de-frise of revolving iron spikes, supported by a horizontal bar embellished with additional points. It was impossible for a human body to pass between the chevaux-de-frise and the masonry, and there was a further barrier above it – a row of long, sharp, inward-projecting spikes guarding the top of the wall. Above the corner of the yard, however, a water cistern stuck out from the blank side just below the revolving spikes. The turnkeys did not trouble to keep a continual watch on the place and Williams seized his chance. With his back and feet braced against the rough stone like a rock climber he worked his way up the angle of the wall, reached the cistern, and clambered on top of it. From there he got to the bar holding the chevaux-de-frise and painfully made his way along it, crabwise, round three sides of the yard until, badly lacerated, he came to a spot opposite and rather below the top of the Press Yard buildings. He then leapt some eight or nine feet to the roof and clambered over the leads of the prison and the adjacent buildings till he got above a near-by street. Seeing a woman hanging out her washing on a roof, he hid by a chimney stack, then followed her down into the house. The people inside were alarmed at his wild and bloody appearance, but when he pleaded with them they raised no alarm. (By this time, feeling was running strongly against the barbarity of hanging people for property offences.) He went out into the street and got clear away.

According to Williams’s old master, even this feat was less notable than his boyhood escape from apprenticeship: he had been sent up the chimney of a sugar refinery and when he came out of the top he swarmed down the outside of the bare brick stack thirty or forty feet to where he could reach an attic window and freedom.

Besides their climbing talents, chimney sweeps had many chances of getting to know the layout of households worth robbing. Also they had the advantage that in their trade it was quite usual to be on the move during the hours of darkness. Nevertheless, it seems doubtful if many sweeps or ex-sweeps were to be found in the higher flights of cracksmanship. For here, as in pickpocketing, obvious brutality and a rough manner were the marks of the inferior exponent. Suavity was what mattered, and that was about the last quality associated with chimney sweeps. A burglar might be agile and intrepid and an expert safebreaker and still be no great hand at his trade, for these were not – or very seldom – the first essentials. Before anything else a worthwhile haul had to be located and arrangements made to get at it; and it was in carrying out these preliminaries that more sophisticated and presentable cracksmen showed their superiority. Moreover, sensible robbers naturally preferred to avoid dangerous feats and go in and out by the door.

Broadly, the most satisfactory sort of housebreak was the inside job. That is, it was one that involved the servants.

[above extract: Chesney, pp.187-9]


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