Welcome to Perspectives, a blog of thoughts, commentary and observations ranging from autistic adolescents to intimate portraits of urban communities.

 

The Climbing Boys

As I wander around Glasgow admiring the striking buildings produced during the Industrial Revolution, I remember reading somewhere that the worst job ever was that of chimney sweep. Beginning at the age of six, these “climbing boys” were made to shimmy up the flues of chimneys, 14 inches by 9 inches wide, with several sharp twists along the way. To harden the sweeps’ knees and elbows against the awful scraping, their masters would stand them nightly before a hot fire and rub brine into their bodies with a wire brush. Often the sweeps got stuck in the chimneys and suffocated in the soot – or burned to death from the heat. Almost all developed bodily deformities, blindness and “chimney sweep cancer”, an excruciating and fatal disease of the scrotum. The coal whose dust they “swept” was itself mined by men working under conditions only slightly better than their own. Glasgow was built by the Industrial Revolution. Its wealth came from textile mills that were powered by the vast coal deposits nearby, as well as from international trade in, among other things, tobacco and slaves. Glasgow became one of the richest cities in the world – “the Second City of the British Empire” – and its story reflects the history of the industrial age. In many ways it has been an extraordinary journey, propelled by human ingenuity, inquisitiveness and imagination, as well as human greed. But as the chimney sweeps’ short and miserable lives bear witness, it came also at enormous human cost.

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Dateline: Glasgow