What were the living conditions of children at the time of "The Chimney Sweeper" like?
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.