If only life for early chimney sweeps had really been as portrayed in Mary Poppins: a merry crew dancing on the rooftops of London.

The sad truth is that life for a chimney sweep, and especially young apprentices, was a hard and cruel one, filled with many dangers. In fact young boys during the 1700s and 1800s suffered the worst cases of child labour abuse in history.

Here’s a brief look at the hard life of past chimney sweep boys.

Apprenticeships

In early 19th century London, justices were given the authority to take children as young as six from poor families as chimney sweep apprentices. Malnourished and skinny, poorer children were perfect for sending up chimneys and their families were powerless to object.

Their job was to clean the inside of flues with hand-held brushes and to remove tar deposits with metal scrapers.

Hazards

Forced to sleep on sooty bags and with no opportunity to wash, years of grime and dirt build-up often resulted in testicular cancer. With no type of respirators, boys would often choke to death or eventually die from respiratory diseases.

After the Great Fire of 1666, London chimney systems became even more complex and tight. If a child refused to go up, as punishment a fire would be lit, forcing them up the flue, where they would often get stuck and burn to death. They were fed as little as possible to keep them small and many developed deformed limbs and twisted backs.

Changes

After many years of campaigning against such cruelty, Parliament finally outlawed the use of children as chimney sweeps in 1864.

Different types of cleaning methods were developed including canes and brushes that are still used today.

Sooty and Sweeps offers chimney sweeping in London and Kent.