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.”
In October 1852 Edward Horatio Girling, an employee at London Zoo, died after being bitten by a five-foot cobra. A post mortem on Girling’s corpse showed the cobra had bitten him five times on the nose. One of these bites had penetrated to the nasal bone and bled profusely. Girling was rushed to hospital by cab, a journey that took 20 minutes. While in the cab his head swelled to “an enormous size” and his face turned black. Once at hospital Girling was given artificial respiration and electrical shocks. Neither was successful and he died 35 minutes after arrival.
After ascertaining how Girling died, an inquest investigated how he had come to be bitten in the first place. Early press reports put it down to a homicidal serpent. One suggested the cobra had bitten its victim him with “murderous intent”, another had it lunging from the shadows while Girling was delivering food to the enclosure. It did not take long for the inquest to discover that Girling was responsible for his own demise. One of Girling’s work colleagues, Edward Stewart the hummingbird keeper, testified at the inquest. He claimed to be passing by the snake enclosure with a basket of larks when he saw Girling inside. Apparently showing off, Girling picked up the ‘Bocco’, a mildly venomous colubrid snake, by its neck. According to Stewart:
“…Girling then said ‘Now for the cobra!’ Deceased took the cobra out of the case and put it inside his waistcoat, it crawled round from the right side and came out at the left side… Girling drew it out and was holding the cobra between the head and middle of the body when it made a dart at his face.”
Stewart and other witnesses also testified that Girling was drinking ample quantities of gin at breakfast time. A zookeeper named Baker told the inquest “he believed that the deceased was intoxicated”. It was also noted that Girling had little if any experience with venomous snakes; he had only recently started working at the zoo after employment with the railways. Unsurprisingly the coroner found that Girling had died as a “result of his own rashness whilst in a state of intoxication”.