Henry Kippin: the last chimney sweep of Hampstead
Explore – what it was like to be a chimney sweep or climbing boy
Discuss – how and why domestic heating has changed
Discover – the local nature of some families compared to others
• Science – changes in domestic heating and environmental pollution
• History – Victorian Britain: climbing boys and changes in the law on the use of child labour; Local history: three generations of a local family
• The life of a chimney sweep and the conditions under which Victorian sweeps worked
• The use of child labour and ‘climbing boys’ and the Chimney Sweepers Acts
• Find out more about the life of a climbing boy and ask children to imagine they are Tom in ‘The Water Babies’ and write about their life
• Visit the ABG and trace the three generations of the Kippin family, and then walk around Hampstead and see where they lived and how much of the original town remains
200 years ago, after a chimney sweep stopped his runaway horse and carriage, King George II issued a Royal Decree that sweeps are bringers of luck and should be treated with the greatest of respect.
This started the tradition that couples would arrange to meet the sweep at their wedding for good luck. Even today many couples invite a sweep to attend their wedding – a handshake for the groom and a lucky kiss for the bride.
In the medieval home they had open hearths so that smoke had to escape through windows and doors.
And then about 450 years ago people started to have chimneys in their homes. They didn’t need chimney sweeps because they burnt wood. But England started to run out of forests and had to save the timber for other things.
But what really made a difference, and why chimney sweeps were needed, was that people started to burn coal and coal creates soot which sticks to the inside of chimneys. If it isn’t cleared bits can drop down the chimney and cause fires; the chimney can also become blocked and the black smoke escapes into the room.
People needed sweeps to keep their chimneys clear and this was horrible work. They had brushes with long handles to which the sweep screws extension poles as the brush goes up the chimney. But sometimes the brushes got stuck! The best way was to send little children or ‘climbing boys’ up the chimneys and, as they went up (or down) the chimney, they dislodged the soot. The smaller the boy the better because some chimneys were very narrow – some as small as 8 inches square (create this shape on the floor for the children to see how small it is).
The Victorians loved inventing machines and they invented a machine to clean chimneys. When it became illegal to use children, chimney sweeps had to start using machines but they were expensive so chimney sweeps didn’t want to buy them. And they weren’t very good.
Because burning coal made the atmosphere dirty, if you hung your washing out it got dirty from the smoke coming from chimneys, it created a nasty air condition know as “smog” – a combination of “smoke” and “fog” which it resembled. This was an environmental hazard and led to the introduction of Clean Air Acts in the 1950s and 1960s, to the conversion of home heating to smokeless fuels like gas and oil. As a result fewer and fewer people needed chimney sweeps.
In Victorian times chimney sweeps were always dirty from cleaning chimneys, so people did not think very highly of them. They had little if any education and most of them could not read or write. Often they did not wash at all. One of the reasons may have been because they did not have running water in their houses.
People didn’t like dirty sweeps in their home and so often they had to work at night or very early in the morning so they wouldn’t disturb people in the house.
They didn’t earn much money and for a lot of the year they didn’t have much work – during the summer people did not light fires or think about their chimneys, and in the winter the fires were lit and the sweep could not clean them!
Some sweeps had regular businesses and people could call them to come and sweep their chimneys. However there were other sweeps who used to go through the streets calling “sweep, sweep” to try and attract casual business – these people charged less money.
Some chimneys were very small – only eight inches square. Going up chimneys was dangerous and the boys could fall and hurt themselves and even break bones. The insides of chimneys were rough and they could get cut, and then the dirt from the soot would get into their cuts which could become infected or the soot would get into their eyes. Because the work was so horrible it was difficult to persuade people to let their children become chimney sweeps and sometimes children would be stolen or kidnapped and sold to sweeps.
Some poor children didn’t even get wages. They got poor food, their clothes and somewhere to sleep. Often they slept on bags of soot which they had collected and wore rags. And they hardly ever washed. ‘The Water Babies’ by Charles Kingsley gives a good description of the life of a climbing boy called Tom.
In this story Tom, who has never used a mirror, sees his reflection and is scared by the dirty person he sees staring back at him.
Using children to clean chimneys came to an end because people thought using children to go up chimneys was cruel. People were horrified by what they read in Charles Kingsley’s book.
Many employers benefitted from the use of child labour, not only chimney sweeps. Children were also used in factories because they were small and could go between machines to clean them. A lot of people therefore want to carry on using child labour. There was considerable opposition to attempts by Parliament to stop the use of children working in factories and up chimneys. But bit by bit it became illegal.
In 1842 Parliament passed a law prohibiting sweeps from employing children to go up chimneys – but this did not stop them using their own children to do this horrible work. Some used their own children (both boys and girls) as young as four or five years old to go up chimneys. Finally in 1864 it became illegal for home owners to allow children under 16 into their homes to clean chimneys.
In Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist a particularly vicious chimney sweep called Gamfield wants to take Oliver as an apprentice. You can link to a copy of ‘Oliver Twist’ through this link to Project Gutenberg. Use Ctrl F and enter ‘Gamfield’ to get references in the book to the sweep.
Perhaps the most famous children’s story about a climbing boy is Charles Kingsley’s story of Tom in ‘The Water Babies’ which can also be read online via Project Gutenberg. Up to the end of what is the first twelve pages of the book (when Tom looks in the bedroom mirror and sees how dirty he is) there is a good description of the life of a climbing boy.
Decennial Censuses 1841 – 1911; GRO records of Births, Marriages and Deaths; Memorial Inscriptions (ABG grave numbers F19 and G22)
Henry Mayhew (1861-2). London Labour and the London Poor: Volume 2 (London: Frank Cass & Co) has information about chimney sweeps in the 19th century.
Feature by the group Friends of the Earth on London smog and the Clean Air Act of 1956
Article by Carolyn Tuttle on developments in child labour during the British Industrial Revolution
This page was last updated on November 30th, 2020.