1794: Two sweeps, aged 8 or less, die in the same chimney


Histories of Victorian Britain are filled with tragic stories of young chimney sweeps. Recruited at age four or five and apprenticed to so-called ‘master sweeps’, these young boys endured long hours, horrendous treatment and atrocious working conditions. Chimney sweeps usually worked in the pre-dawn hours, after flues had cooled and before morning fires were lit. With hands and knees they were forced to shimmy up dark narrow flue spaces, packed thick with soot and debris. Regular inhalation of this soot caused many young sweeps to contract respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis. Some also acquired an aggressive form of testicular cancer, colloquially known as “soot wart” or “sooty balls”. Thomas Clarke, a Nottingham master sweep, told an 1863 inquiry:

“I have known eight or nine sweeps lose their lives by the sooty cancer. The private parts which it seizes are entirely eaten off, caused entirely by ‘sleeping black’ and breathing the soot in all night.”

Workplace accidents posed a more immediate danger for chimney sweeps. The English press of the late 18th and 19th century contained dozens of reports of the deaths of these ‘climbing boys’. Some fell from roofs or down chimney structures; others become lodged in flues and suffocated; a few were roasted alive after being forced up still-hot chimneys. One of the more tragic incidents occurred in Lothbury, near the Bank of England, where two young sweeps were sent into a baker’s chimney, one from each end:

“The [first] boy reported that the chimney contained a great deal of rubbish… not answering his master’s call, suspicion arose that he was either sulky or in a dangerous predicament. A stone in the cellar was accordingly taken up and the boy [was] found dead. The master called to the [second] boy who answered him by saying that he was so jammed in that if immediate relief was not given he should die, and this unfortunately was the case… The whole of this happened in ten minutes… Both the lads were very young and small, the oldest not more than eight years.”

Source: The Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 95, 1804. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1922: “Women’s colleges ought to be burned”, says See

a b see
Like those who rode his elevators, A. B. See knew how to push buttons

Alonzo Bertram See (1848-1941) was a prominent elevator manufacturer from New York City. Born in Yonkers, See started his own company in 1883 and began to ride the skyscraper boom to success and wealth. By the turn of the century See was a millionaire several times over and his business – the quirkily named A. B. See Elevator Company – was the third largest manufacturer and installer of elevators in the United States. New Yorkers rode in See’s elevators and so were familiar with his name – but knew little of him until the 1920s. In 1922 Adelphi College, a Brooklyn women’s college, started a fundraising drive and wrote to Mr See seeking donations. He responded in the negative, explaining his views bluntly:

“Of all the fool things in the world, I think colleges for women are the worst… College girls are slangy, they swagger, smoke cigarettes, have bold and brazen manners, paint and powder their faces, use lipsticks, wear high heeled shoes and dress indecently… When they graduate from college they cannot write a legible hand; they know nothing about the English language; they cannot spell… All women’s colleges ought to be burned.”

See’s letter found its way into the hands of the press. Coming shortly after the passing of the 19th amendment, guaranteeing voting rights for women, See’s views unleashed a flood of protest from women’s rights campaigners. As the New York Times put it, many women “hit the ceiling faster than they ever ascended in one of See’s elevators”. See, however, remained steadfast. When a prominent suffragette challenged him to a debate, See publicly declined, saying that:

“I never discuss anything logical with women. They can talk straight for about five minutes and then they go off the handle. They haven’t got the reasoning power a man has, and I wouldn’t think of debating with any woman on any subject.”

Apparently enjoying the notoriety, Alonzo See became something of a social critic. His two favourite targets were women and education, both of which he seemed to regard as a waste of time. When reformers sought legislation to outlaw child labour in 1924, See wrote agitated letters to the press, claiming that it was physically harmful to keep 13-year-old boys in school. Two years later he penned a lengthy essay on education, arguing that school causes some children to go blind and others to physically “waste away”. “Children must be rescued from their mothers and from pedagogues,” See wrote, and “women must be rescued from themselves”. The New York press published smirking references to See’s sexism for many years. In 1936, however, it was revealed that A. B. See had undergone an epiphany with regard to women and had “changed his mind on them altogether”.

Source: Various inc. New York Tribune, November 24th 1922. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.