The terrors of the nursery

From ‘The Days before Yesterday’ by Lord Frederic Hamilton (1856 – 1928).

In the early “sixties” [1860s] the barbarous practice of sending wretched little “climbinglord-frederic-hamilton boys” up chimneys to sweep them still prevailed. In common with most other children of that day, I was perfectly terrified when the chimney-sweep arrived with his attendant coal-black imps, for the usual threat of foolish nurses to their charges when they proved refractory was, “If you are not good I shall give you to the sweep, and then you will have to climb up the chimney.” When the dust-sheets laid on the floors announced the advent of the sweeps, I used, if possible, to hide until they had left the house.

I cannot understand how public opinion tolerated for so long the abominable cruelty of forcing little boys to clamber up flues. These unhappy brats were made to creep into the chimneys from the grates, and then to wriggle their way up by digging their bare toes into the interstices of the bricks, and by working their elbows and knees alternately; stifled in the pitch-darkness of the narrow flue by foul air, suffocated by the showers of soot that fell on them, perhaps losing their way in the black maze of chimneys, and liable at any moment, should they lose their footing, to come crashing down twenty feet, either to be killed outright in the dark or to lie with a broken limb until they were extricated – should, indeed, it be possible to rescue them at all.

These unfortunate children, too, were certain to get abrasions on their bare feet and on their elbows and knees from the rough edges of the bricks. The soot working into these abrasions gave them a peculiar form of sore. Think of the terrible brutality to which a nervous child must have been subjected before he could be induced to undertake so hateful a journey for the first time. Should the boy hesitate to ascend, many of the master-sweeps had no compunction in giving him what was termed a “tickler” – that is, in lighting some straw in the grate below him. The poor little urchin had perforce to scramble up his chimney then, to avoid being roasted alive.

All honour to the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, the philanthropist, who as Lord Ashley neveranthony_ashley_cooper_7th_earl_of_shaftesbury rested in the House of Commons until he got a measure placed on the Statute Book making the employment of climbing-boys illegal.

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