Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Child chimney sweeps




The history of chimney sweeping is bound up with the use of child labor. Although the profession is considered one of the oldest in the world, it was only within the last few hundred years that chimneys were built large enough to allow the sweepers inside bodily. And because boys were smaller and more agile than their adult counterparts, it was these apprentices who were sent up the shaft - often at their peril. Often orphaned or vagrant, children as young as 4 were made to scrape the soot from the chimney walls. To counter their reluctance, small fires were lit in the fireplace to force them up instead of back down - supposedly the origin of the expression "light a fire under" someone. Young chimney sweeps risked becoming stuck in a narrow chimney, being choked, or falling to their deaths. Breathing problems, cancer and deformed limbs were long-term risks. Physical and mental injury would have been common. Boys like these from the 1890s (pictured) were at risk of testicular cancer due to prolonged exposure to soot. An on-line project quotes an 8-year-old: "I never got stuck myself but some of my friends have and were taken out dead."

English laws in 1788 (requiring child chimney sweeps to be at least 8 years old), 1840 (mandating an age of 21), and 1875 (imposing a stiff £10 fine that was enforced by police) finally stopped the abuse. Adult chimney sweeps - who numbered more than 1,000 in London alone - were portrayed as heartless scoundrels in Victorian literature, until the employment of children stopped and their image changed to good-natured men like the character in the Mary Poppins series published in 1934 and dramatized in 1964. Journalist Timothy Sexton counters the "disneyfication" of the chimney-sweeping profession with the truth that apprentices - sometimes purchased from their parents - spent only a day in training, but weeks getting primed for the rough work by being rubbed repeatedly with brine and made to stand near an open flame.

An Italian child of 13 named Fausto Cappini (photo on this link if you scroll down) was electrocuted in 1931 when he touched a high voltage wire while signaling to his boss that he had finished his sweep of a chimney. A bronze statue of Fausto and all child chimney sweeps was erected in Malesco, Italy, in 1982. The following year, an informal gathering of Italian chimney sweeps was held in the nearby town of Santa Maria Maggiore that has since grown into an international festival that includes a parade. The shared history of the participants is shown in a local museum and they make an annual pilgrimage to the statue of Fausto, where they observe a moment of silence to honor the sacrifice of underage sweeps.

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