In Jane Austen's Emma, when Miss Bates and Mrs Weston meet Emma Woodhouse and her friend Harriet Smith at Ford's shop, Miss Bates tells Emma about all the things that have happened that morning. Not only had her mother's spectacles broken, but Patty (her maidservant) 'came to say the kitchen chimney wanted sweeping. Oh, said I, Patty, do not come with your bad news to me'.
Early in the eighteenth century, chimney sweeps in England began sending small boys (or girls) armed with brushes to climb up inside chimneys to clear them of soot. ‘Climbing’ was extremely dangerous. Children were sometimes sent up while the chimney was still blisteringly hot, or if a fire was still burning in the grate. A plank of wood was placed on the fire so the boy had somewhere to rest his bare feet. Cases are recorded where boys were forced to climb up burning chimneys to put out the fire. In 1817 it cost from 6d to 1s 6d to have your chimney swept; a child usually swept four chimneys per day. Apprentice climbing boys did not receive any wages, just their 'bed' (often just the soot bags) and food.
William Blake wrote about the plight of the climbing boys in his poem The ChimneySweeper, (Songs of Innocence, 1789):
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me, while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry, ‘Weep! weep! weep!’
So your chimnies I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
When Jane Austen was thirteen years old, philanthropist Jonas Hanway's Act to protect child chimney sweeps was passed by parliament. But the law was ineffective, and during Jane's lifetime humane societies such as the Society for Suppressing Climbing Boys, and reformers like Henry Grey Bennet fought to end the suffering of Britain's child sweeps and promote the use of chimney-sweeping machines instead.
‘The Little Chimney Sweep’, from Henry Sharpe Horsley, The Affectionate Parent’s Gift, T.Kelly, 1827.