What were the living conditions of children at the time of "The Chimney Sweeper" like?
Children, throughout history, have been apprenticed to blacksmiths, carpenters, and other tradesmen whose heavy-duty jobs would now be considered completely unsuitable for them. During the Industrial Revolution, however, child labor came into effect in a way that had never happened before, as towns exploded with factories in need of cheap labor. As production boomed, so too did demand; moreover, as families moved from the countryside into the cities, the cost of living increased even as the conditions worsened—a pattern recognizable to us in big cities today. In order to be able to afford lodgings close to their places of work, parents would put their children to work often fourteen-hour days in coal mines, factories, and more.
The chimney sweepers depicted in Blake’s poem are a particularly poignant illustration of the problem, not only because these were some of the youngest child workers, but because the increased demand for chimney sweeps was a direct result of the increased number of chimneys now pumping fumes into the atmosphere as a result of increased production. The poem underlines the fact that production booms come at an enormous human cost.
The 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act outlawed the employment of children under age nine, but only limited those between nine and sixteen to twelve hours of work per day. The fact that this was stipulated suggests that prior to this, many were working far longer. In effect, these rules were not really enforced until 1833.
The speakers in the two poems that Blake wrote with this name were prime examples of the way in which children were forced to work, often in treacherous conditions. The Industrial Revolution, which was characterised by new technologies and a certain social dislocation, meant that more children were working harder and with less care and safety than every before. For example, tending factory machines required a dexterity and alertness instead of experience which resulted in children manning these machines for very low wages. Laws at the time required parishes to provide for orphans and children by apprenticing them. However, many children were just given to factories and became little better than slaves. Children did not just work as chimney sweeps and in factories manning machines, but also in coal mines, where children as young as five would work for long hours underground, breathing in noxious fumes and carrying heavy buckets. Perhaps the most poignant symbol of child labour at this time is found in the chimney sweep, however. Children as young as four or five were used to climb the narrowest of chimneys where they could get stuck and face suffocation. Blake picked the chimney sweep as the focus of his poem that argues against a completely unjust situation of child exploitation.