Sweeps Festival 2016

A Master Sweep could be paid by the local community to take on orphan boys, and sometimes girls, from the workhouse. He could also buy other apprentices and even children, sold to him by their parents.

Sweeps Festival 2016Six was a good age to start the trade but children as young as four have been known. Apprentices received no wages but were fed. They slept together on the cellar floor on their soot sacks, known as “sleeping black”. A Chimney Sweeps Apprenticeship was seven years long. Their master had a duty to teach them their trade, provide a second suit of clothes, clean them once a week, let them go to church and not send them up chimneys that were on fire! Some masters only washed their apprentices three times a year.

Climbing boy would take off his boots and any excess clothes before entering the fireplace. The chimney stack would be as tall as the house and twist several times, and its dimensions would be 14in by 9in but sometimes 9in by 9in (230 mm by 230 mm). If the chimney was particularly narrow the boys would be told to take their clothes off and "buff it".

Sweeps festival 2016 2Using his back, elbows and knees, he would crawl up the chimney and use the brush to dislodge loose soot and a scraper to chip away the solid bits. Sometimes a chimney pot was not wide enough to get out, so they slid back down at speed to the floor and the soot pile.

Soot was valuable and an apprentice, who was expected to clean four or five chimneys a day, collected and took it to their master. New apprentices scraped their knees and elbows so the master stood them close to a hot fire and rubbed in strong salty water with a brush.

If Climbing Boys were lazy, another was sent up to stick pins in his feet or a fire would be lit below them. If their struggling caused a fall of soot they would suffocate. Dead or alive the boy had to be removed to unblock the chimney.

Charles Dickens, Sweeps and May Day
Charles Dickens has long been recognised as a social reformer. He was asked to stand for parliament more than once but realised he could help bring about more social change by writing one book than during a life time in parliament. Dickens dark humour can make the reader experience both laughter and discomfort, sometimes simultaneously. Over the page are but two examples:-

Oliver Twist
In chapter III of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens introduces the unsavoury character of “…Mr. Gamfield, chimney-sweep,”
Mr Gamfield wanted to take on Oliver as an apprentice as the five pounds offered would help pay his rent arears. He was cruel to animals “…bestowed a blow on his head, which would inevitably have beaten in any skull but a donkey's

He had a bad reputation “…having bruised three or four boys to death already,”Sweeps Festival 2016 3

Mr Gamfield thinks boys are obstinate and lazy and you need to light a hot blaze under them to get them down if they are stuck in a chimney rather than just smoke as that just sends them to sleep.

Sketches by “Boz,”
Chapter XX of Sketches by “Boz,” is titled The First of May.

“…many years ago we began to be a steady and matter-of-fact sort of people, and dancing in spring being beneath our dignity, we gave it up, and in course of time it descended to the sweeps…”

“A mystery hung over the sweeps in those days.” “No one (except the masters) thought of ill-treating a sweep…”
 “This gradual decay and disuse of the practice of leading noble youths into captivity, and compelling them to ascend chimneys, was a severe blow, if we may so speak, to the romance of chimney-sweeping, and to the romance of spring at the same time.”

The company saw the May Day Sweeps again in the evening “We never saw a ‘green’ so drunk, a lord so quarrelsome, … a pair of clowns so melancholy, a lady so muddy, or a party so miserable. How has May-day decayed!”

Rochester & Chatham Dickens Fellowship
For details of the Dickens Fellowship contact:
The Hon General Secretary Steve Martin 01474 834164 or stevemartin54@hotmail.com

For membership enquiries
The Membership Secretary
Rochester & Chatham Dickens Fellowship,
90 Taverners Road
Rainham, Gillingham,
Kent  ME8 9AQ
Email:  memsecrcdf@btinternet.com

For further information on Chmney Sweeps in the Victorian ages Click Here.

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