In the film, Mary Poppins, chimney sweepers were the life of the movie. This film tells a story of two children of the wealthy Banks family who were expecting the arrival of their new nanny. Upon her arrival, they are pleasantly surprised by the amazing, magical Mary Poppins. While enjoying the fantastic adventures with their nanny and her chimney sweeper friend, Burt, and his chimney sweeper frends, the two siblings attempt to influence the cheerful attitude of their nanny, upon their busy, preoccupied parents. While on these adventures, the siblings have the time of their young lives as they sing, and dance with Mary and the cheerful chimney sweepers. Although, Mary Poppins portrays chimney sweepers as happy people, it then sets the stage for In William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper 1789 and 1794”, attention is brought to the horrid reality of chimney sweepers.
While movies, stories, poems and old tales portray chimney sweepers as uplifting, cheerful and kind spirits, the reality was not so uplifting. Instead of enjoying the work of cleaning dirty chimneys, the sweepers were suffering. The sweepers were a majority of young boys, sometimes young girls, who were either orphans or children of parents that sold them into the trade, “being as young as three years old”. While being forced into this work, the children served as servants to their master, who, being an adult, was too large to fit into a chimney. The duties of the chimney sweepers were climbing up and down chimneys, in order to clean all spots which caused the child’s “arms, elbows, legs and knees to be rubbed and scraped raw”. Falling or getting stuck in the chimneys were major fears of the sweepers, given that both could easily lead to death. For the fear and lack of motivation, the master would light the fireplace, giving the sweepers encouragement to get the job done or else they’d be burned alive.
Although this job seemed like it was a torturing and unfair sort of work alone, the long term effects were far more dangerous. While these sweepers would clean one chimney for hours and still endure the pain of scrapes and bruises, they would also endure large amounts of soot from the chimney at a time which caused severe lung damage and swelling of the eyes. Another result of this work was abnormal growth in the bodies once they had become adolescents due to the posture of working in such vile positions. They would not only clean just one chimney a day, but they would go from one to the next, as the houses were built so close together. Doing this had permanent long term effects on the children. In exchange for this work was a home, food, clothing and water. Though these provided essentials may sound fair, they were far from it. The children were “underfed so that they would be thin enough to continue going down chimneys.”
Background of chimney sweepers
It was not until the 16th century that the trend of fireplaces and chimneys began to start. In England, it was not out of the normal to have a fireplace in each room for the usage of a heat source. In 17th century England, “along with all the new fireplaces came a hearth tax, based on the size of the house and the number of chimneys the house had. To avoid these high taxes, builders would connect the flues of new fireplaces with those of an existing chimney, creating a complex maze of pitch black narrow tunnels inside of the home.” Being that the chimneys were created to be narrow and complex, cleaning methods would also have to meet the description. During this time period, coal also became a very popular substitute for burning wood in fireplaces. Because of this change from burning wood to coal, regular cleaning in the chimneys became necessary. The use of coal left large sticky soot deposits on the wall, causing chimneys to be severly dirty. If it was not cleaned properly or regularly, coal residue would remain and caused the chimney to backup and infuse the home with fumes that were extremely harmful to people living in the house. As coal became more of a need to people, frequent sweep cleanings became a safety necessity and was an order from Queen Victoria.
History of social criticism/ Law of chimney sweepers
Although chimney sweeping was prominent in that area, social criticism changed the way that society thought of chimney sweeping. Due to these detrimental effects of chimneys sweeping, laws were put in place to protect chimney sweepers. In 1788, a law was enacted against the use of young children under the age of eight as chimney sweeps. Because of this law, proper clothing, decent living conditions, and the permission to attend church services on Sundays were required from the master sweep. Although this law was put in place, it was being continuously broken. Children as young as six were still being used to do this labor. Therefore, a new law was established. Under this act, it was illegal to “force someone to or even allow a person under the age of 21 to climb up or into chimney for the purpose of cleaning.” (https://victorianchildren.org/victorian-child-labor/) In 1875, a 12 year old boy named George Brewster suffered and died in an accident after he was given the order to clean a chimney by his master at Fulbourn hospital. A dedicated social reformer, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury heard the story of Brewster and instantly became sympathetic towards his death. Shaftesbury’s mission was to put an end to all forms of labor child abuse. By doing so, he campaigned and even established schools to abolish the use of small children as chimney sweepers. Labor laws begged for reform and Shaftesbury “made every effort to arrange this bill that would limit the amount of hours children could work and and the minimum age that they could be employed.” As a result of his effort, The “Chimney sweepers Act of 1788” was also enacted. This act made sure that all chimney sweeps had to be registered with police and that their work had to be specifically supervised by the authorities. This act also indicated that all other acts already established had to also be followed.
Poem as lit crit
In William Blake’s, “The Chimney Sweeper”, Blake critisizes child labor and society that witnesses the terrible work of chimney sweepers and their misery but chooses to say nothing. Blake exposes the reality of the work by writing two poems. The change in these poems tells a story of an innocent and sweet child who looks forward to a rescue to a poor child who has already accepted their fate. While these laws were being established, yet broke, Blake chose another method. In one poem, he writes about Tom, the child who although is suffering from this labor, yet still manages to keep his innocence and dreams for a better day. The dream of the child is a symbol of his innocence. He dreams of an angel that comes to rescue him with a “bright key” . Instead of Tom being masked away in the dark from this terrible forced labor, he awaits eagerly for a savior.