Years before and during the Industrial Revolution, in order to learn a trade, orphans and children of impoverished families might be apprenticed or even sold to a tradesman, sometimes for less than the price of a dog.
In many cases these children became little more than chattel and their apprenticeship often became a form of cruel slavery.
In order to clean a soot-coated chimney, the usual practice at that time was to tie a broom, homemade brush, or even a live chicken or duck – it’s flapping wings acting as movable brushes – to the middle of a rope and with someone at either end, drag it up and down the dirty flue.
In the 1800’s, however, London had thousands of zigzag chimneys, and in order to clean them properly – or so the British thought – it was necessary to send a “climbing boy,” a small child armed with a brush and scrapper, directly into them.
Fire, undeniably, is one of the worst possible disasters that might befall any household, and – superstition often having a basis in fact – if a house were to burn and along with it all of the inhabitant’s worldly possessions, that, in fact, could definitely be considered bad luck. As flue fires were most often the cause of these disasters, it was then thought that once a chimney sweep entered a house and plied his trade that house would be immune from fire, thus it came to be believed that it was good luck to have a chimney sweep in the house.
Even to this day, upon seeing a chimney sweep, some people will come to touch him, hoping that a bit of luck might rub off on them.
Succumbing to consumption – tuberculosis – and the dreaded, deadly chimney sweep disease, sooty wart – cancer of the scrotum – luck had very to do with the life of a climbing boy as few were fortunate enough to survive their apprenticeship.
The abuse and exploitation of these children became the basis for civilization’s first child labor laws.
The first of these laws were passed by Parliament in Great Briton in the mid-eighteen hundreds.