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 Practice Wasn't Abolished In Britain Until 1875
Even in its heyday, the practice of using child chimney sweeps was met with criticism. In 1788, a bill calling for regulation was passed, but rarely enforced. Various other attempts to curtail child labor followed, but all were largely unsuccessful until the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1834. Said law prohibited "masters" from taking on any boys under the age of 14 ... but it did little to lessen the suffering of older boys, or of sweeps in general.
Finally, the Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act of 1840 made it outright illegal for anyone under 21 to work as a sweep, but even this law was still widely disregarded. Business continued more or less as usual until 1875, when a 12-year-old sweep, George Brewster, got stuck in a chimney and died. His boss was found guilty of manslaughter, and widespread publicity incited a fervent campaign for strict regulations. Sweeps were finally protected under a bill that was aggressively enforced – though it was too late for the countless young laborers who had come before.