Climbing Boys of the 1700 and 1800s

A climbing boy, usually apprenticed to a chimney sweep (although sometimes they were called a chimney sweep), was an occupation some children performed during the 1700 and 1800s. Climbing boys were frequently orphans and as young as three years old. Small size was a requirement for climbing boys. For that reason many outgrew their job by the time they were nine or ten, although some worked until they were fourteen years old. In order to stay a climbing boy longer, master chimney sweeps often underfed their charges so that they could continue to nimbly maneuver up and down the stacks that were often at times no larger than a mere 7 inches square.

Climbing Boys

Climbing boy with master sweep. Author’s collection.

One master chimney sweep was a woman named Mrs. Bridger, but commonly called Mother Brownrigg. She lived on Swallow Street in 1802 and employed several climbing boys. The life these boys led was typical of other climbing boys.

“She made the poor boys get up every morning at three o’clock and go out, without shirt, shoes, or stockings, to sweep chiminies; when they came home, they were forced generally to scour the stairs, and of every other kind of drudgery before they got their scanty meals.”[1]

A climbing boy’s job was to climb from the fireplace up the stock until they came out the top. As the moved along up the chimney stack, they removed the chimney soot using brushes or metal scrapers. Interestingly, the job of a climbing boy was not often differentiated from than that of a chimney sweep because chimney sweeps or their apprentices were the persons who encouraged the climbing boy to go up the stack. They accomplished this by poking, prodding, or even lighting a fire under the climbing boy’s feet, which would force him up the stack.

James Montgomery’s illustrated how dangerous a climbing boy’s job was in his book published in 1846 under the title, Thought on Wheels. Montgomery described the fate of one 13-year-old boy.

“Tempted by a promise of sixpence, [the boy went into the flue with a fire already burning]. Before he reached the top, however, the soot fell down in such quantities … the chimney was soon in blaze, and the poor boy struggled to the bottom through the flames, and was dragged out by the legs before he came direct upon the live coals in the grate. He was so miserably scorched, that he died, after lingering three weeks in excruciating torture.”[2]

There were several ways to climb up a stack. One climbing boy who later became a master sweep, described the process. “In wide flues you climb with your elbows and your legs spread out, your feet pressing against the sides of the flue.”[3] However, the task was accomplished differently in narrow flues. In narrow flues climbing boys used a technique known as slanting. One boy described how slanting was accomplished:

“You must have your sides in the angles, it’s wider there, and go up just that way. [Here he threw himself into position — placing one arm close to this side, with the palm of the hand turned outwards, as if pressing the side of the flue, and extending the other arm high above his head, the hand apparently pressing the same manner.]”[4]

Climbing was physically painful and dangerous, and there were several medical issues that plagued climbing boys. One issue caused by climbing up and down the stacks was raw, red skinless patches on the climber’s body. These raw patches remained that way until the climber developed calluses or until the climbers were hardened by the application of a strong brine, which was placed on them in front of a hot fire and with their master standing over them ready to use the cane if there was non-compliance. Moreover, bosses did little more than wash these skinless patches with salt water before sending the boy up another stack. One child remarked:

“Often … have I gone to bed with my knees and elbows scabbed and raw, and with the insides of my thighs all scarified.”[5]

Falls also occurred regularly to climbing boys, which resulted in deformed ankles, broken legs, and twisted spines. Eye and respiratory problems were another common problem that occurred because of seeing and breathing noxious soot and fumes. However, there was one problem that was deadly. It was called “chimney sweep cancer,” and it was caused from continual irritation of sensitive skin to coal tar. One story told about seeing one of these blackened boys and being completed frightened was once told by Napoleon Bonaparte‘s nephew, Louis Napoleon when he was four years old. 

Another major issue for climbing boys was getting stuck in a stack. One climbing boy who graduated to master sweep noted:

“I niver got … stuck myself, but a many of them did; yes, and were taken out dead. They were smothered for want of air, and the fright, and a stayin’ so long in the flue; you see the waistband of their trowsers [sic] sometimes got turned down in the climbing, and in narrow flues, when not able to get it up, then they stuck.”[6]

Chimney Sweep, Author's Collection

Chimney Sweep. Author’s collection.

One author wrote about the trials and tribulations of climbing boys noting:

“[T]he chimney-sweeper introduces himself through the narrowest apertures. Now and then, indeed, he sticks … like a fox in a trap; … It sometimes happens, that the poor boy has not time to raise his voice; his breast is oppressed, his young and delicate lungs are denied a necessary supply of fresh air, his strength gives way, and he dies of asphyxia … he is like a bird found dead in its nest — his hand is clenched and clammy — his little mouth is open, but never more will it give utterance to his joyous national song.”[7]

By 1817, a movement began to do away with climbing boys and an examination was conducted by the Committee of the House of Commons. The Carlisle Patriot reported there was great hope that in the next parliament session “a legislative enactment will enforce the use of machines.”[8] In the meantime, a Mr. Samuel Roberts delivered a speech at a meeting in Sheffield. He stated in part:

“There is a caste amongst us whose very name is a bye-word and a reproach, a caste branded and shut out from the society of their fellow creatures. Their appearance is disguising; and even the infant from the breast is taught to shrink from them with horror and affright. … [T]he poor helpless children employed as Chimney Sweepers’ Climbing Boys, the worst – the most oppressed of slaves!”[9]

Roberts went on to state that many climbing boys were stolen or bought. He also alleged that they were often taken as infants and transported to distant towns where there was no friend or relative to look after them. He then stated how master chimney sweeps thought about climbing boys by providing the following example:

“[A] Master-Chimney Sweeper was brought before the Magistrates, for so ill using one boy that he died, and another so as to endanger his life, the defence … by the Master was, not that the boy had not been cruelly used, the wounds on every part of his body too clearly proved that he had; No! he boldly asserted, that such sufferings were inseparable for the trade, and that no child could become a Climbing Boy without going through this painful and dangerous ordeal.”[10]

Another master chimney sweep attested to the truthfulness of the first Master-Chimney Sweep. In fact, the second Master-Chimney Sweep proved it by exhibiting his own son, “whose scars sufficiently proved that he had not been exempted from this common lot of Climbing Boys, only, that he had in consequence of either more care, or a stronger constitution survived the seasoning.”[11]

Climbing Boys. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Roberts noted that mistreatment of climbing boys occurred regularly and that it resulted in many boys running away from their masters. He also noted that some climbing boys claimed to be satisfied with their situations but then noted that “the very circumstance of some of these poor wretches expressing themselves satisfied in a state of misery and degradation, serves more forcibly than almost any thing else to prove their lamentable ignorance, and desperate condition.”[12]

Despite Roberts outrage, the position of climbing boy continued to exist, and, in 1840, the climbing boy’s horrid situation was brought up again by another English newspaper, the Clethenham Chronicle. The paper also had hopes that legislative attention would resolve the climbing boy’s plight and it focused on the continuing hardships faced by such children, noting:

“[T]he mortality caused by the hardships to which the poor climbing boy is exposed, must in the nature of things, be very considerable. He is turned out of his bed at three or four o’clock on winter mornings to pace the streets, with an empty stomach and shivering limbs — perhaps tormented by the fearful disease engendered by his trade; for there is a species of cancer to which chimney sweeps are peculiarly liable.”[13]

The Clethenham Chronicle also alleged that the occupation of a climbing boy extended “vagabondism and crime” because once a child outgrew his position and literally could not fit in the chimney, he was left adrift. “Ignorant, emaciated, starving, – what is to restrain these unhappy creatures form dishonest courses?”[14]

Once again, “the machine” was suggested as the answer. The 1840 Clethenham Chronicle then noted that there were some businesses who did employ machines rather than climbing boys. However, the paper then appealed to readers:

“This is an age of benevolent exertion, but it may be asked whether we are not in danger of overlooking the wrongs and miseries that surround us, in our anxiety to relive distant objects of compassion? There is some reason to fear that such is the case, and certainly, if the cruelties inflicted upon the happy beings whose cause is now leaded, are suffered to continue, we shall be justly liable to the reproach. We trust, then, our readers will give the subject their serious attention, for it is one of practical benevolence — one in which the happiness, the morals, and even the lives of hundreds are concerned. And how is the obligation of interfering in behalf of the poor climbing boys heightened, by knowing that in general they are utterly friendless — often unpitied orphans — sold by the parish into the hands of ruffian master, who work them like slaves and treat them like brutes.”[15]

In 1824, a society was formed called “The Society for the Suppression of Climbing Boys.” They offered a prize for any apparatus that would stop the “pernicious employment” of climbing boys. George Smart had invented a mechanical “chimney sweep” machine as early as 1805 that differed little from the brushes used by the climbing boys. He won the prize with his jointed brush that could turn. It was called a “scandiscope.” However, many people claimed Smart’s scandiscope was impractical and could not be used in their chimney, and, so, climbing boys continued to be in demand.

From about 1840 onwards, parliament passed several acts limiting or prohibiting climbing boys. But neither Smart’s machine or the legislation protected climbing boys or stopped the practice. In fact over twenty years later, the Carlisle Patriot noted that despite the legislation and the penalties enacted (not only against employers but also against households who knowingly employed climbing boys), climbing boys were still used regularly and no one seemed to care:

“So little are the terrors of the law respected, that climbing boys are employed to sweep the chimneys of municipal buildings, of churches, chapels, and even Government offices. Policemen allow the little fellows, arrayed in all the blackness of their illegal calling, and with the apparatus of their profession in their hands, to pass them unquestioned; while magistrates frequently become accomplices in evading the law. A better illustration of the utter worthlessness of the present Act cannot be found than the fact that builders, instead of of constructing chimneys so as to allow of their being readily cleaned by means of machine, introduce so many doublings and windings as to render the employment of children almost indispensable.”[16]

Chimney Sweep ca. 1840. Courtesy of Yale University.

As the 1800s came and went, climbing boys were still needed. The climbing boys may not have been as plentiful as before, but old houses still existed and many people found climbing boys were the only proper solution for cleaning their old chimneys. It seemed to them as if nothing or no one else could suffice. Because of the ongoing demand, in 1942, more acts were passed in relation to climbing boys and chimney sweeps. Details of the acts were published by one newspaper that read:

“This Act (the 3rd and 4th Victoria, c. 85.) which prohibits any young child climbing chimnies, came into operation yesterday. The second section provides, ‘That any person who shall compel or knowingly allow any child or young person under the age of 21 years to ascend or descend a chimney, or enter a flue, for the purpose of sweeping, cleansing, or coring the same, or for extinguishing fire therein, shall be liable to a penalty not more than ten pounds or less than five’ and by the 3rd clause no child under the age of 16 years is to be apprenticed to a chimney sweeper. The indentures, of chimney sweepers are by the 5th section to cease after Friday. The construction of chimnies and flues is provided for, and the penalty for deviation to be paid by every master builder or other master workman who build the same is fixed at no less than £10, or more than £50. The 6th clause gives the right to any person to appeal to the sessions upon entering into sureties respecting the same.”[17]


  • [1] The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Vol. 72, 1802, p. 1071.
  • [2] Montgomery, James, Thoughts on Wheels, Vol. II, 1845, p. 31.
  • [3] Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, Volume 2-3, 1851, p. 368
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] “The Climbing Boys,” in Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury, 30 January 1864, 5.
  • [6] Mayhew, 1851, p. 368.
  • [7] The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Vol. 35, 1840, p. 313.
  • [8] “Climbing Boys,” in Carlisle Patriot, 18 October 1817, p. 3.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] “Climbing Boys,” in Clethenham Chronicle, 14 May 1840, p. 3.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] “The Climbing Boys,” p. 5.
  • [17] “Climbing Boys,” in Staffordshire Advertiser, 4 July 1942, p. 3.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Comment