For years and years we, in these countries, have grown out of that condition of mental devolopment which can be satisfied with the dogma that freedom of contract and the laws of political economy may be trusted with the management of the world. Of late we have had legislation to intervene between the right of the landlord to make what terms he pleases with the tenant. Legislation lately has shown no respect whatever for the supposed rights of the owners of house property in the great cities to let out their houses under what conditions they please to enforce. We have had Act of Parliament after Act of Parliament to compel the owners of property to look after the sanitary condition of the houses and the rooms which they let out to hire. It ought to be said that both the great political parties of England have shown themselves equally ready to recognise the new principles; and the Tory Governments have been just as ready as the Liberal Governments to interfere between the employer and the workman, the landlord and the tenant, the house-owner and the lodger, where the welfare of the public called for such intervention. Indeed, the whole question may be said to have been long since lifted out of the sphere of partizan politics. Of late years there has been a sort of rivalry, and by no means an ungenerous or unwholesome rivalry, between Liberals and Conservatives, as to who should do the most for the protection of those who otherwise could do little to protect themselves. Naturally as the working population grew in numbers, in education, and intelligence, they have been able to assert their claims with an effect of which their forefathers could never have dreamed.
Nor can it fairly be said that in later days the working population have made any unfair, or even unreasonable use, of their growing strength. Working men's associations and combinations have spread all over these islands, as they have in many other countries as well; and certainly we in these islands have no reason to say that the power of the working classes in their Trades Unions and their Leagues has often been misused. It is not so long since any combination of working men to come to a common understanding with regard to the hours they would work or the wages they would accept was an offence against the law, and was commonly treated as such, and followed by punishment of some kind, while, at the same time, the masters were perfectly free to agree among themselves as to the rate of wages they would pay, and the hours of labour they were to exact. At the time when Lord Ashley began his agitation the State did nothing whatever for the education of the working man and his children. Since that time we have had Acts of Parliament not merely establishing, but even enforcing systems of national education. The time is well within the memory of most of us, when it was a common saying that the principle of compulsory education was something altogether un-English, a sort of system which might suit Germans and such like, but could never be accepted among the freeborn population of Great Britain. The principle of compulsory education has done as much as anything could do to assist the working out of those enlightened laws which Lord Ashley did so much to call into existence.
Later on, a new and very peculiar interference between employer and employed was accomplished by Parliament. It did not strictly belong in date, or in actual conditions, to the factory legislation which Lord Ashley and his friends accomplished; but in its character it forms a proper part of the same great movement for alleviating the condition of the hardworking and the badly-used. It would be somewhat too grotesque to speak of an interference between capital and labour, where the capitalists concerned were only the master-sweeps, and the labourers were the little climbing boys who were employed to cleanse the chimneys. Yet there was no reform accomplished by the whole philanthropic movement more cruelly needed than that which concerned itself about the climbing boys; nor were the sufferings endured on the West India plantations more revolting to every humane mind than those which were inflicted on the poor little helpless mites who were sent up the chimneys in all the towns of Great Britain and Ireland. Many readers now will require to be told what the system was, which, in this instance, called so pitifully for reform. To many of the younger generation the name of the "climbing boy" may convey possibly no manner of idea. Young men and women of this day never saw a climbing boy, never heard the cry of "sweep" come shrilly into the morning air from the top of a chimney. The trade of the climbing boy is believed to have been unknown to any country but the two islands under the English Crown.
It seems to have begun in these countries somewhere about the opening of that eighteenth century to which we are accustomed to look back with an admiration which, intellectually, that century well deserves; but the intellect of the century did not apply itself over keenly to the study of the grievances of labour; and the romantic youths and maidens who watched the sun rise with poetic eyes, were not brought back to the practical rigours of life by the morning cry of the climbing boy. In most of our houses then the chimneys were high, narrow, and crooked, and at the opening of the eighteenth century statesmanship troubled itself very little about the sanitary conditions of house-building. It became after a while the settled conviction of all men and women who had what is called the practical mind, that there was only one way of properly cleansing a chimney, and that was by sending a little boy with a broom to climb his way through it and scrape down the masses of soot as he mounted up. The boy had to climb from the fireplace to the top of the chimney and to announce the accomplishment of his mission by crying out "sweep" when his soot-covered head and face emerged from the chimney-top. If the boy did not thus present himself to the open air and announce his triumph, who was to know that the lazy little fellow had not stopped his upward movement when half-way up the chimney and then begun to climb down again? The interiors of narrow chimneys are not provided with flights of steps for the convenience of climbing boys, and therefore the poor little creatures had to force their way up by working their elbows and knees against the different sides of the horrible structure. As a matter of course, their hands, arms, and knees were always abrased, and sometimes very severely injured, by this terrible friction with the internal masonry of the chimneys. Sometimes a chimney was so narrow that a poor little boy stuck fast in it, and could only be relieved from his awkward and dangerous position with much trouble.