Dublin’s 19th Century Sweep School

vicchimneysweepOne of the most deplorable uses of child labour in 19th century Ireland was for the sweeping of chimneys. A master sweep would obtain very young boys, some as young as seven, to train as apprentices. The boys were sent up the chimney flue to brush and scrape the soot loose. The dangers were numerous – suffocation from soot, getting stuck in the flue, falling from the chimney stack or even being badly burned. A contemporary commentator on Dublin city life wrote:

‘no class of the community has so much and so deservedly excited public commiseration as that of young sweeps, and we think the existence of such a trade is a reproach to the police of any state where it is permitted.’

However, it took a famous court case in Dublin to bring the subject into the public domain. It resulted in a master sweep being jailed for cruelty to his apprentice who he whipped repeatedly and burned with coals. The child was carried into court wrapped in a blanked and covered with ointment but died shortly after the trial. The sweep was sentenced to a public whipping and a huge crowd gathered to witness it.

This case led to the formation of the Society for the Protection of Young Chimney Sweeps in 1816. It emerged that many of the children were forced by their masters to engage in night-time burglaries as well. Once the children grew too big they were abandoned and left to fend for themselves.

Destitute children typical admissions to Dr Barnardo's Home in 1874

A ‘School for Young Sweeps’ was set up in Drumcondra, Dublin, to look after these abandoned young sweeps.  On Sundays, the children gathered at the school and were fed and kitted out with new shoes, shirts and caps. They were given bars of soap and a few pennies to get them through the following week. A basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic was provided as well. However, the school closed down after accusations by Catholic clergymen that the school was a front for the conversion of Catholic children to the Protestant faith.

The practice of using children to climb chimneys ended in 1864 when the Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers was passed.

14 thoughts on “Dublin’s 19th Century Sweep School

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  1. Religious conversion as against protection for young sweeps? Bizarre priorities. As for the master sweepers, if only such treatment were a thing of the past but when you read in the 21st century of slaves and the treatment thereof, it breaks one’s heart. Great post, Pam.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Something similar happened during the Dublin Lock-out in 1913. The starving children were to be sent to the homes of union members in the UK. Catholic church stopped it in case the kids were converted!

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      1. I thought of the Dublin Lockout, too, Pam. I remember the scene in James Plunkett’s ‘Strumpet City’ both in the novel and in the tv series. That book left a very deep impression on me as a teenager.


      2. Have just read the book and watching the video – my current wip is set against the backdrop of the lock-out. Fascinating time in Irish history – tends to get overlooked by 1916.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It’s one of my favourite books, Pam. My husband’s twin brother played the part of one of the constables on the quays during the Lockout scene, when the series for tv was being filmed. No matter how many times I watch it, I still can’t make him out.

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      4. That’s so cool. I was impressed that the tv series followed the book so closely. I was very pleasantly surprised with the book – the writing is excellent and the characters so believable. Poor old Rashers though – he met an awful end!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting! I was just telling my 8 year old son about child chimney sweeps when we stumbled across your blog. The School for Sweeps sounds like a very noble enterprise and it’s a shame the Catholics felt the need to shut it down (with no alternative, presumably).

    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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