It often happened that when the boy was sent up the chimney was still hot from the recent use of the fire; and the poor little creature got severely burnt. It was proved beyond question or doubt that in many cases a boy who stuck fast in a still heated chimney, was found to be dead when at last he was dragged back to the hearth. The poor little creatures were dressed in a short gown of sacking, which was so covered with soot that it looked as if it never could be made clean again - and probably, indeed, no attempt was ever tried to make it clean again. The soot of one day's deposit was added to the soot of the former day, and after the first day or two the keenest unprofessional eye could not have detected any difference in the black accumulation. There was something peculiarly grim, pathetic and touching in Charles Lamb's description of the climbing boys as "these almost clergy imps." The faces of the poor boys were always covered and clotted with soot; and as the master sweep's countenance generally bore the same appearance, perhaps as a professional symbol, it was not likely that any great use was made of soap and water to give the climbing boy a short and futile interval of cleanliness. For years and for generations people went on taking no notice of the sufferings of the little sweeps; the ordinary householder grew accustomed to them - it is very easy to grow accustomed to the routine sufferings' of other human creatures - and it never occurred to most persons to ask themselves whether humanity could do nothing in the matter. The philanthropists, as usual, were the first to stir in the wretched business These philanthropists would not even be content to let the master sweep do what he liked with his own climbing boys. In some cases they were literally his own climbing boys; for it was shown in evidence that master sweeps of the worst class had sometimes, for the sake of economy, employed their own children in sweeping the householder's chimneys. Here again the philanthropists were not to be daunted; they insisted on the right of legislation to interfere between the parent and his child when the parent set his child to the filthy and dangerous work of a climbing boy. The philanthropists carried their way in the end; they set about rousing public opinion, and they did at last thoroughly rouse public opinion. A mountain of evidence was produced to show the horrors of the system.
It was proved that in many cases master sweeps had actually employed little girls to do the abominable work; and it was stated in Liverpool, and so far as we know never contradicted, that in one case at least a master sweep who had a wife, a young, small, and slender woman, passed her off as a boy and employed her in the climbing of chimneys. In many cases, as it was proved by uncontradicted evidence, when a poor child stuck fast in a chimney a master sweep declared that the boy was only shamming, that he was lazy and stubborn, and accordingly ordered a fire to be again lighted in the grate, so as to compel the unfortunate creature to mount the chimney in order to escape from the flames. Of course the extreme cases thus brought forward in the evidence did not even profess to be an illustration of the common ways of the trade. Many of the master sweeps were decent poor fellows enough : but there was the trade, under the same conditions as those which they had always known to belong to it; and when the respected and educated householder in the towns, when the county gentleman, and even the clergyman, made no objection to the practice, how was the poor sweep to find out that the employment of climbing boys was a disgrace to humanity? Such, however, it was; and so it was soon proved to be. The master sweep and his ways began to be a horror to the whole community. The Saracens, we read, used to frighten their naughty children into submission by threatening to hand them over to be dealt with by King Richard of England. In days that some of us can still remember many a rebellious infant was frightened into good order by the threat that he would be handed over to the master sweep.
All sorts of stories began to get afloat about children of high birth and delicate nurture who were stolen away and sold to the master sweep; and, indeed, the master sweeps began to play in legend and in romance something like the part that had been played by the gipsies. A long time had to be spent in energetic agitation before anything practical was done by Parliament; but at last in 1840 an Act was passed which abolished the whole system. For a certain time, however, after the employment of climbing boys had thus been proclaimed illegal and with a penalty on it, the practice was still carried on clandestinely, and, indeed, in some places, with little or no appearance of secrecy. It put the ordinary householder out of his way to be told that when his chimney smoked he must refuse the friendly offices of the master sweep, unless the sweep came provided with a properly made mechanical brush for the purpose; and some of these average householders, being wedded to old-fashioned ways, thought the new system was only all nonsense got up by those interfering reformers. Public opinion, however, grew and grew, and at last became so strong and general and keen-eyed, that the most old-fashioned and reactionary householder could not let his neighbours suppose that he was a party to the torture of an unfortunate climbing boy. The machines adopted for the cleansing of chimneys proved to be able to do their work in a manner far more thorough and satisfactory than the most energetic poor child, who wore out his life under the old system, could possibly have done. Then we began to construct our houses on the more rational principles; and the sanitary laws came to be consulted, even in the construction of chimneys; and there was no longer any occasion for the sacrifice of the childhood of thousands and tens of thousands of little climbing boys. Society, therefore, it was found out at last, not only did not lose but actually gained by the intervention of the philanthropic reformers. As we have said, the old system is now forgotten by the present generation; but it is quite worth while to revive its memory for a while, if only to tell the story of those poor little martyrs to civilisation who were once regarded as so necessary a part of our domestic system that people never thought anything about their martyrdom, and did not even consider such a form of employment an evil serious enough to call for a moment's thought.