What was life like for an adult Victorian chimney sweep?

I'm looking into my family history at the moment and my great-great-grandfather is listed on an 1881 census as a chimney sweep. I thought this was a child labourer's profession and have never heard of an adult chimney sweep in the UK before.

What would life have been like for him? Was this an undignified profession? What was a chimney sweep's lifestyle like in Victorian Britain?

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    Its like a coal miner's, but with more singing. Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 17:05
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    @ClintEastwood from my research he was a miner before he become a chimney sweep, so its possible that he got bored and wanted a more musical profession :)
    – Charlie
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 17:06
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    It's dirty but your get to sing with odd children your ex is taking care of. And apparently they are very lucky.
    – coteyr
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 20:40
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    Life was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. (yeah I know, the previous commenters had already covered the Mary Poppins angle, I just wanted to type that word)
    – Marakai
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 22:44
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    As is the case in the vast majority of human history, for the vast majority of humans, the answer to "what was life like for [x]?" Is "short, cruel and forgettable." For that matter, the same description could also be applied to us [relatively] obscenely well off first world modern folks, who are all easily in the top tenth of a percent of humans by any measure. Your question could do with more specifics... unless you're looking for the generic answer that even the modern homeless are generally better off than the average person of previous eras. Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 6:23

2 Answers 2


Actually, by 1881 the use of children as chimney sweeps had been abolished in the UK.

In 1840, the UK Parliament had passed a revised Chimney Sweeps Act which had raised the minimum age at which children could be "apprenticed" to chimney sweeps to 16. Unfortunately, the act was never enforced, and it was widely ignored. Finally, the Chimney Sweepers Act 1875 had required chimney sweeps to be licensed and made it the duty of the police to enforce all previous legislation.

Although sweeping chimneys was a relatively skilled occupation (certainly compared with most common labourers), adult chimney sweeps in Victorian England, were poor men. The occupation was dirty, and continuous exposure to the soot led to a number of health problems.

As you might expect, sweeps commonly developed a variety of lung diseases. Furthermore the first industrially related cancer to be documented, was actually associated with chimney sweeps. Although more common in those who had worked as sweeps as children, "Soot Wart" or "Chimney Sweep's Cancer" was a form of of scrotal squamous cell carcinoma.


Adult chimney sweepers in Victorian England, were poor men, who had no other choices. And because the occupation was dirty, they were at the bottom of society.

As you wrote, it was a more common occupation for children who smaller and more suited for the job. An adult sweeper would probably have been a small man, who was too small and weak to get other higher-paying "heavy lifting" jobs.

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    I don't know about the last bit, he was a miner on the Isle of Man as a young lad and he work as a chimney sweep when he was older. He can't have been a weak man. Though there may have been a lack of mining jobs so he had no choice.
    – Charlie
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 17:16
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    MIning was a big business in the IoM, but there were a few setbacks (e.g. flooding) during the 19th century which closed mines for several years. Maybe that forced him to change careers. The Laxey lead mine was the deepest in the world at that time, and the Laxey water-wheel (still operational as a tourist attraction) remains the largest diameter water wheel in the world, at about 72 feet. Being small was an advantage as a miner - some of the IoM access shafts were only 4 feet square in cross section!
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 23:21
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    In fact, the employment of children as chimney sweeps had been banned in the UK in 1840. Unfortunately, this wasn't enforced until after a further Act of Parliament in 1875. By the time of the 1881 census, children would not have been employed as chimney sweeps at all in the UK (although I'm told the practice wasn't banned until much later in parts of Europe and the United States). Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 2:16

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