HC Deb 29 April 1864 vol 174 cc1940-4

said, he rose to call attention to the extensive employment of Climbing Boys in sweeping Chimneys, and the systematic violation of the "Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys" (3 & 4 Vict, c. 85); and to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to introduce any Bill during the present Session founded on the recommendations of the Children's Employment Commission (1862)?


said, he rose to Order. He wished for the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman as to whether the fact of an Amendment having been already carried to the Motion for going into Supply the House must not proceed to the Order which came next after Supply.


said, that an Amendment had been proposed to the Motion that the Speaker do now leave the Chair, and had been carried. It had been for some years the practice of the House, under such circumstances, for the Minister to move that the House should immediately resolve itself into a Committee of Supply, and that the Speaker should leave the Chair. Such a Motion had been made, and the business of the evening might thus proceed without interruption.


said, his attention had been directed to the subject to which his question related by an article in Good Words, the statements in which induced him to make personal inquiries in quarters where the best information was accessible. The result of these inquiries had been to satisfy his own mind that the humane and benevolent intentions of past legislation were to a very large extent frustrated, and that the practice of employing boys to sweep chimneys had been extensively re-introduced. In London, perhaps, the statute was not evaded to the same extent as in the provinces, but there could be no doubt that the number of boys secretly employed was on the increase. From 1788 till 1840 the House had passed various measures for protecting children against that barbarous employment. The last Act which they had passed being practically a dead letter, it was incumbent on them to pass an amending Act, or adopt some other course to stop the growing evil. In the metropolis and some other towns boys were employed, but only clandestinely. The practice of employing boys was increasing in London. In Marylebone alone eleven boys were employed, and only one of them by his father. The West End capitalists ought to blush at that fact, that it was chiefly in their centre of fashion and capital—in that part of the metropolis where Members of the Legislature chiefly resided — encouragement was given to a violation of the Act. A man named Muggeridge, who had been a chimney sweeper for forty-three years, had stated in evidence given by him on the subject, that those who made the law broke it, and that the owners of houses in Piccadilly, and other parts of the West End, required the services of climbing boys because they would not have their chimneys altered to suit the machines. At Manchester there were twenty climbing boys; and it was believed that if anything were to happen to a gentleman in that city who looked after the master sweeps, the number would soon be increased to sixty. It was stated that these boys were often sold for a pound. The comparative slightness and suppleness of the female form had caused even girls to be immolated by their own parents, when these latter, to use the expression of St. Paul, were "without natural affections." At Birmingham, notwithstanding the expenditure of £500 by a local society, twenty-two climbing boys were now employed, that number having increased from fourteen in the year 1861. It appeared from a case reported in the Cheshire News that a master sweep was charged with an attempt to force a boy to go up a chimney which had been on fire, and in which the fire was scarcely extinguished. Yet for such barbarous conduct the magistrates only imposed a fine of £3 to one fund, and £3 to another. According to the Report of a local association there were in Birmingham fourteen boys employed, two being under twelve years of age, two under ten, one under nine, and one only seven years old. In 1863 the same association reported that twenty-two children of tender age were employed in Birmingham as climbing boys. In Nottingham, according to the evidence of a chimney-sweeper, the law against climbing boys was a dead letter. The coroner, Mr. Brown, had given evidence of having held inquests on two boys who had died from injuries they had received in their attempts to go up a chimney. In Staleybridge it was found that boys were plied with beer, and that two boys had swept seventy-eight chimneys in two days. In a prosecution at the latter place the prisoner said to one of the sitting magistrates, "You know my boy sweeps your chimneys." At Wolverhampton, according to the evidence, the system was encouraged by the local officials, and the Act of Parliament was a dead letter, for the chimneys of the Town Hall were swept by boys. At Sheffield twenty-two, in Chester fourteen, and in Newcastle ten climbing boys were employed; and at Walthamstow the flue of the parish church had to be swept by a boy, who, owing to its peculiar formation, had to go into it head downwards. The barbarous practice was on the increase; and at Buckingham, in particular, it was reported that boys were preferred by most of the tradespeople, the gentry, and particularly by one of the Members for the town, though the other Member had used all the appliances of the law to put down the system. A master sweep at Nottingham described the manner in which the limbs of the poor children were hardened for their work. They were rubbed with the strongest brine, the master compelling them, by coaxing or by blows, to submit to the process a little longer. When the little sufferers first went out to work they returned with their flesh bruised and bleeding; but their wounds were again rubbed with the brine. Some children did not become hardened for years; and it was stated that four or four years and a half was a very good age to begin with them. By that fearful training their bodies were deformed and their backs often covered all over with sores. The "sooty cancer" also prevailed among these children, who had to sleep nine and twelve in a bed in the most fetid atmosphere. The abominations of negro slavery in South Carolina were surpassed by the daily miseries to which these defenceless young creatures were exposed. Mr. Ellis, a magistrate at Leicester, said it had been most painful to him to find that there was a regular system established in this country for the hire and sale of children for the purpose of carrying on that illegal and cruel occupation. What was the cause of that state of things? There was an extraordinary and inexplicable apathy on the part of the judicial bench to enforce the law in many places. It might be that there was some mysterious influence at work, or that magistrates sometimes thought their own houses were so built that it might be necessary for them to employ these boys; or, again, it might be that they had a distrust of informers, by whom cases of that kind were frequently brought forward. But in many cases, though the evidence was overwhelming, the magistrates hesitated to impose even a small fine. Perhaps, also, the law itself was defective. It was a remarkable fact that in Scotland no trace of the evil which existed in England could be found. That resulted most probably from the fact, that in Scotland there were superadded to the provisions of the Act 3 & 4 Vict., certain local municipal regulations empowering the police to interfere, and no person could act as a master sweep in Glasgow or Edinburgh unless he had a licence, which might be forfeited by misconduct. The Commissioners thought that great benefit would arise from the introduction into England of that system of licensing. In conclusion, he earnestly hoped that the Government would promise to adopt the recommendations of the Commissioners, or at least to take some steps for rendering the present law more effectual, and thereby remedy a great and growing evil, which was a reproach to the 19th century and a scandal to our common Christianity.


said, he regretted to say that the Report of the Commission, and the evidence on which it was founded, fully sustained the statement of the hon. and learned Gentleman, that there were very extensive violations of the law which prohibited the employment of climbing boys in the sweeping of chimneys. He would not go into the question in the then state of the House, and for this additional reason —the attention of the Government had for some time been directed to the Report; but a noble Friend of his (Lord Shaftesbury), at whose instance the Commission was issued, had expressed his wish and intention elsewhere to bring in a Bill on the subject. That noble Lord had been good enough to place himself in communication with the Home Office, and they were giving him all the assistance they could. As the subject, then, would come before Parliament soon, he hoped its discussion would be postponed till that period.