The jaunty image of the Victorian child chimney sweep is indelibly romantic, evoking the picturesque London glamorized in Mary Poppins. But the truth is that chimney sweep kids – and children living in Dickensian squalor, in general – usually led lives that were "nasty, brutish, and short," to quote the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
The history of chimney sweeps is, in many ways, the history of London itself. After the Great Fire of London gutted half the city in 1666, chimneys were rebuilt to minimize the risk of inferno. Their new, narrow, winding structures meant that children were the only humans small enough to fit through them. The horrors of child labor were, of course, legion; and the repercussions were dire for these small workers: they often suffered stunted growth, damaged joints, and even "Chimney Sweep's Cancer," which claimed countless lives
In other words, children chimney sweeps in Victorian England may seem whimsical, even today; but in reality, they represent a particularly dark chapter in the UK's past.
The dangers of chimney sweeping were well known, and as a result, there were few candidates willing to accept the risks the position entailed. So unscrupulous taskmasters got around the problem by "purchasing" children from their poverty-stricken parents, who were generally saddled with too many mouths to feed. Said transaction was a one-time thing: children received no pay for their work, and although they were technically sold-out as "apprentices," they were essentially slaves.
A child chimney sweep's working conditions were far beyond merely awful. Kids were customarily given a blanket designed for collecting debris; this usually doubled as filthy bedding. As stated, the job almost always stunted their growth as well; they had to remain crouched in unnatural positions inside the chimneys, which damaged their growing bones and joints.
And then there was the actual experience of cleaning, which was often terrifying. Chimney flues were "pitch black, claustrophobic... and confusing to navigate in the dark," as Owlcation put it. Even if the sweep successfully wriggled into the narrow portal, there was no guarantee he would make it out:
"If the apprentice climbed the whole chimney, cleaning it from hearth to rooftop, and exited a row of chimneys, he could forget which chimney he came out of. When that happened, he could go back down the wrong one, or go down the right chimney, but make a wrong turn at some merging of the flues. Children could suffocate or burn to death by getting lost on the way down, and accidentally entering the wrong chimney flue."
Most chimneys were no more than 18 inches wide, and twisted, to boot – and many young sweeps got fatally lost in their dark and winding structures. These children – who were sometimes as young as four years old – were frequently at the mercy of "cold-hearted masters [who] would light fires to spur [them] on to climb more quickly."
When a child did get stuck, a second child would sometimes be sent in to rescue him, and both would often perish. The walls of the house would then have to be torn down in order to remove said corpses.
The high rate of scrotal carcinoma in men who worked as chimney sweeps was first observed in 1775 by doctor Percivall Plott, who described the progression of what he called "Chimney Sweep's Cancer" in detail:
"It is a disease which makes its first appearance on the inferior part of the scrotum, where it produces a painful, ragged, ill-looking sore. The trade call it the soot wart. I never saw it under the age of puberty which is, I suppose, one reason why it is generally taken by both patient and surgeon for venereal, and being treated with mercurials. In no great length of time it penetrates the skin... and seizes the testicle, and when arrived at the abdomen it affects some of the viscera, and becomes painfully destructive.
The fate of these people is singularly hard: in their early infancy they are most frequently treated with great brutality and they are almost starved with hunger and cold. They are then thrust up narrow, and sometimes hot, chimneys where they are bruised, burned and almost suffocated; and when they get to puberty, become peculiarly liable to a most noisome, painful and fatal disease."
Because of the invasive nature of the condition, few people who contracted it lived past middle age. And those who didn't often developed lung cancer later on. (Sweeps inhaled countless toxic substances, so some form of cancer was often inevitable/simply a waiting game).