Sounding Childhood

"Chimney Sweeper's song"

"The Chimney Sweeper's song" was written by William Blake, published in his Songs of Innocence (1789), and later set to this music in The Illustrated Book of Songs for Children (1863).  Blake describes a very real and sad existence for some of the poorer children of the late 18th and 19th centuries who, due to small bodies and lack of family funds, would be sold into low-paying jobs of cleaning chimneys.  The narrator of this song talks about "little Tom Teddy" and the "thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack" who, released from their earthly coffins, have heaven to look forward to.  Indeed, children would die in chimneys, catching fire or suffocating.  Though most were boys, girls worked as sweeps as well; a poor family would send any of its children into jobs if needed.  Such children had no time for school, would grow up misshapen and often with lung or other cancers. It was a horrific existence, and one which socially conscious people would try to halt. After decades of dispute in the Houses of Parliament, the Earl of Shaftesbury was finally able to put an end to the use of children as chimney sweeps in his 1875 Shaftesbury's Act. 

For more, see Eileen Wallace, Children of the Labouring Poor: The Working Lives of Children in Nineteenth-Century Hertfordshire.  Hatfield, Hertfordshire: U of Hertfordshire P, 2010.


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