The life of a London chimney sweep was disagreeable and hard, and usually fatal. From before dawn until afternoon, the "climbing boys," as they were known, passed through the city's streets announcing their services with cries of "Sweep! Sweep!" Most were under the age of seven, and many no older than four, since the flues of the time were often about seven inches to the side, and only a small boy could squirm his way (or be forced and prodded) up its sometimes convoluted length past the fire shelf that lay above the hearth.
Few sweeps lived into what we'd now call adolescence: many died of respiratory diseases complicated by malnutrition, or they succumbed to cancers, particularly "sooty warts," or cancer of the scrotum. They entered into the trade--if trade it can be called--from the orphanages and almshouses, or were bartered into a seven-year "apprenticeship" by their parents for between twenty and thirty shillings.
There were periodic attempts at reform; indeed, a relatively weak measure made its way through through Parliament in 1788, just before Blake published Songs of Innocence. A contemporary depiction of the life of a chimney sweeper was recorded in A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweepers, in London & Westminster. Shewing the Necessity of putting them under Regulations, to prevent the grossest Inhumanity to the Climbing Boys. With A Letter to a London Clergyman on Sunday Schools. Calculated for the preservation of the Children of the Poor, (London, 1785).
We may figure to ourselves, the boy called from the bag of soot on which he slept, oftentimes walking a mile or two to his work. We seldom behold his nocturnal toils, and combats with the literal powers of darkness; but in the day we frequently see him, blasted with chilling cold, wet to the skin, without shoes, or with only the fragments of them; without stockings; his coat and breeches in tatters, and his shirt in smutty rags; sometimes with sores bleeding, or with limbs twisted or contracted, whilst his misery is rendered more pungent by his task-master, who has no feeling of his sorrows!--You who have the hearts of men, and who have opportunities of seeing human misery, will contemplate the condition of these poor beings, and judge if this picture bears a genuine likeness.In documents of the time one occasionally finds sentiments of the kind voiced by Thomas Cooper, in A Faith Rhyme:
Ye could set free the Factory child,But there was little change in the plight of these children until the widespread introduction of gas heating. Until then, the use of mechanical devices for cleaning chimneys was opposed by those who profited from the trade. In 1819, debate in the House of Lords over the use of mechanical chimney cleaning was marked by tub-thumping bombast and raw nativism, the sort of anti-reform discourse that usually obtains in an empire feeling the effects of capitalist expansion and divine election. Lord Lauderdale represented a majority conservative opinion when, in opposition to the reforms, he spoke in Lords:
And thwart the chimney-sweeper, who made infants smart
And weep for years ...
The better way, in [my] judgment, would be to leave reforms of this kind entirely to the moral feeling of, perhaps, the most moral people, on the whole face of the earth. [A longer excerpt from Lauderdale's speech can be found here.]This was the backdrop for the "The Chimney Sweeper" poems of Songs of Innocence and Experience.