A call upon the climbing boys

chimney sweeps and climbing boys

There might seem to be a certain dignity in the evocation of history as a throwback medium of sorts to times of the past we seek out so often to decipher trails of glory in. And yet, not everything about what essentially passes as the historical tends to be the exalted entity that it emerged to be evidently by mere means of its sitting in the good ol’ days, as the colloquial reference goes so often. Because the past histories of today had been once the not always rosy realities of what marked the ‘present’ of those times, it is but only inevitable that a walk down the route well treaded by the world years, or rather centuries ago would throw open an album of such pictures in repulsive revulsion that we sure could not help but condemn. It is along such treacherous a trail of residing that the history of a 16th to 18th century England finds ugly depiction, across an aspect of society that has forever been exploiting of the poor and the underprivileged to eke out of them such jobs and tasks though while only menial have been still indispensable to the fulcrum around which more privileged lives, whether ordinary or affluent function in furthering of their own existences in rather comfort and convenience. As pertaining to their ‘job’ profile and identities as well of being ‘chimney sweeps’ has been this category of children of that period in history stretching well over a couple of hundred years, forsaking not just their childhood but often of entire lives altogether in climbing down the chimney route for perhaps the entire duration of their existences cut short abruptly and quite ironically as well by this very means of what occurred as their livelihood. For the ‘climbing boys’ of those times, life often ceased to be just as it started out through this assertion of almost superheroesque nature in sounding but that which entailed scrambling through the steep climb of what ensued as an uphill task already in charting out the very basis of their being.

Young boys, and sometimes girls as well, were ‘recruited’ in this profession as early as possible with apprentices starting out well within a mere three years of their existence and continuing well into their adolescence at times, though they would generally outgrow their purview of work by the time they were nine or ten. Apprenticed to a master chimney sweep who being an adult would not fit into the job requirements- quite literally at that- these visibly little breathers of life would be made to go up chimneys or flues to carry out as hazardous a task of sweeping clean the chimneys of the highly flammable black substance called soot that accumulated in them over their continued use through time. And while chimneys had been characterising housetops in Britain as early as the 1200s, it was particularly after the Great Fire of London in the late 1600s that the necessity of keeping these purging towers of home air clean and clear began to dawn upon one and all to avert any such untoward incidents from happening.

Even earlier though, in fact almost a century before the great tragedy unfolded in 1666, an ordinance had been created in 1582 that mandated chimneys to be cleaned four times per year- failing which the occurrence of a fire would earn the fine of 3 shillings and 4 pence. The chimney cleaning job itself emerged to be rather hazardous after the historic inferno incident of the 17th century that triggered a slew of changes to be incorporated into building of houses and their corresponding chimneys, leading the latter in fact to emerge as narrower versions of what they earlier had been. Needless to say, it was indeed such restriction of space along which chimneys needed to elongate out that made cleaning them all the more necessary as well as difficult. And it was in such premise of assertion that young boys emerged to be the aids upon whom this task of considerable essence came to rest, helped indeed by their small sizes to slip into chimneys while ‘harnessing’ their flexibility to clean them of the soot by wedging their frail bodies diagonally- and precariously as well in the flue. This requirement in lean and little dimension well fitting along the extent of the chimney narrowness therefore also meant that the master chimney sweeps would underfeed their apprentices so that they remain stunted in their growth so as to extract maximum years of (perilous) service out of them. All along the fore of this ‘career’ in cleaning therefore, it was exploitation that served as the guiding principle. Often orphans or paupers would be introduced into the craft, of course not in any sort of exploring their choice but as obligations indeed under signage of papers of indenture by the as impoverished parents of these unfortunate children that bound these younglets to the master sweeper until they were adults. The boys thus reigned in would generally be considered most apt for the act demanding of dexterity and strength indeed by the time they were six though even younger climbing boys had been accounted for in historical records and documents.

The very extent of danger involved with this menial task of immense importance would be apparent to anyone given the more than effective potential that continuous and prolonged exposure to the carcinogenic soot would entail but equally debilitating were the effects brought about by essential morphing and twisting of the physical structure of the ones destined to go down in life by climbing their way up through these suffocating spaces of ironic warmth. Typically wide- or narrow rather- of dimensions hovering around the 9 by 9 inches of compactness, any scrambling up the standard expanse of flues would have to be so much an exercise in ‘physical frugality’ that the climbing boys would have to essentially buff it out. Taking off thus their boots and any excess clothing, or embark instead on their journey completely naked, would be these capped climbers who would twist and turn themselves around all along the length of the tall warping structure with a brush to dislodge the soot and a scraper to chip away the bits before sliding back down to collect the fallen soot and carry it upon him to the master sweep for sale as a valuable commodity indeed. And while this mechanism of work in constriction would spell danger enough already for any human needing to fit themselves into the restrictions of this suffocating space, the many an accompanying or additional flecks of what mostly characterised the conditions of working, say a chimney still very hot from the fire or one that would even be on fire only accentuated the degree and extent of the inhumane assertion that this particular job essentially accounted for. The prospect of the child left jammed and stranded inside his domain of work was as real and common a situation entailing out of his skill at it, often suffocating therefore to a dreadful ‘accidental’ death as the verdict would tend to make out of.

All these sounds appallingly sad enough but even the events that set these young boys in history up for such a fate were equally and essentially mired in inconsiderate cruelty. To accustom newbies to the regular routine of scraping off four to five chimneys every day, they were made to stand close to a fire every evening so as to harden up their skin or by rubbing in strong brine with a brush. And when the ‘occasion’ indeed dawned of these inexperienced apprentices to make their way up chimneys faster and higher, they would be ‘encouraged’ by no less dreaded means of firing their way to the top. At other times, this pursuance took the form of pricking the buttocks or the foot soles by another boy of course upon the order of the master sweep who yielded indeed the tremendous power of commanding (obligated) obedience from his slaved apprentices.

Distressing in equal manner of assertion would be the living conditions these lesser lives came to find succour in as only an extension of the fate dictating enormously their small livings. Without any monetary remuneration for their services and left therefore at the mercy of the master sweep who provided them with the basic requirements of food, clothing and shelter, these lives of lesser years were doomed to sleep away their nights no any darker perhaps than the bleak reality of the daily existence in perilous uncertainty together on the floor or in the cellar under the same sacks and cloth imbued with the essence of their day to day existence amidst soot. Quite eloquently evocated has been this grim reality of the doomed destiny of these climbing boys as something called the ‘sleeping back’, apt indeed in the blacks of nothingness in which they dwelt. Rarely washed in their bodies as well as in the clothes and sacks, the young lives thus surrendered their bodies to the exclusive carcinogenic effects of the soot, day in and day out, whether in work or at rest dawning upon themselves therefore the distinction of availing the consequences of what had been the first reported form of occupational cancer, called chimney sweeps’ carcinoma. And while such dire straits of their lives and times warranted widespread derision across the realm of the arts and in the evolving societal context as well leading this whole dirty task in cleaning to be outlawed by the 19th century, the stark reality of life that the climbing boys were made to encounter in all their prominence through a good 200 years in history presents itself as a chapter in that turning of the leaves of the book of yore that is anything but a clean sweep for humankind. And yet, even in its more than apparently awful reputation as a profession unfit for human scouting, chimney sweeps has seen such interpretations of them in popular culture that celebrates them instead as a good luck omen! Call it irony or ridicule it as a farce but the chimney sweeps and particularly the climbing boys of a particular time in history only alludes to the idea of romanticism forever being so ingrained an exploration of life that has led us to topple even the heights of sadistic sarcasm.