Joho the Blog » [2b2k] Mr. Denham’s defense of child chimney sweeps

[2b2k] Mr. Denham’s defense of child chimney sweeps

From the summary of the remarks in 1819 of a Mr. Denham during the British House of Commons debate of a bill that would have limited the use of young boys as chimney sweeps — as young as four years old, stuck into chimneys 7″ square for up to six hours at a time [source]. How many modern arguments can you spot?

If chimneys could be swept by machinery cheaper and better than by boys, he could not conceive that the people of this country were so attached to cruel treatment merely because it was cruel, as to continue to sweep with children, when if would be better to sweep with machinery. If, as had been stated by an hon. gentleman, on the authority of the fire-offices, that machinery was safer and better, he should think it was quite enough to state this to the public in order to induce them to adopt machinery. When he found in this bill a series of clauses, empowering a single justice to convict on the evidence of a single witness, and the functions of a jury superseded, he could not help viewing it as extremely objectionable. He must see a strong case of necessity made out before he could vote for such a measure. … [H]e thought the good sense of the public was sufficient to correct the evil without loading the statute book with another penal law, every penal law being in his opinion a great evil. … It might be proper that children of tender age, either with their parents or as parish paupers, ought not to be bound out to this employment; but he thought that parents might in general be trusted with the guardianship of their own children; and he submitted, whether it would not be better that they should be employed in sweeping chimneys than in idleness, in the workhouse, or in the fraud and pilfering which was now so common among boys of tender age. With respect to the convictions for breach of covenant before a magistrate, he could not see why this, like any other covenant, should not go before a jury. He did not wish to give such enormous powers to magistrates…

One Response to “[2b2k] Mr. Denham’s defense of child chimney sweeps”

  1. This chimney sweep debate (& whether it should be handled by a single judge and witness vs. by a jury or by legistlative action in general) or should be left to parental judgement, hits home in my maternal family history. My mother’s maiden name, Rauch, is German for smoke, and her family for generations were in fact, chimney sweeps in the Black Forest and later in Latvia, but soon as he could my grandfather dropped chimney sweeping & became a basket weave. Athough the profession of chimney sweeper ensured one life-long work (as long as you were, like my maternal family were) small in stature (although we all later got fat!) it was anecdotally realized, later epidemiologically demonstrated that cancer was a common concommitant. Since virtually all chimney sweeps were boys and men, it was no surprise that that they all dreaded the otherwise rare, but common among chinmney sweep type (Not lung cancer, as you might expect) but testicular cancer! Even though my maternal grandfather quit before he hit 20, it was too late. By the type he was 50 he hat a bilateral orchiectomy (a castration) which saved his life, but not his sex life, for a few more years.

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