The Snowshall brothers of Alford were fourth generation sweeps, this time we go back to the first generation, John Snowshall of Louth, their great grandfather.
John Snowshall of the 65th Foot Regiment married Mary Brackenborough by licence at St James in Louth in May 1815. Marriage by license avoided the publicity and delay of marriage by banns and was not uncommon for soldiers. the couple were both in their early twenties. Their first son, also John, was baptised in Louth the following October, William was baptised in 1819 and their youngest son Henry in 1835, four daughters completed the family.
The earliest mention of John Snowshall (Snr) being a sweep is an advertisement in February 1821, placed in the Stamford Mercury.
There was clearly plenty of work for the sweeps, Louth was a growing town and John and Mary had four young children to provide for at this stage. The 1821 census recorded a population of 6,000 in Louth, the canal enabled corn and wool to be carried to London, Hull and various other Yorkshire destinations. In 1829 over 20 shoemakers, butchers, inns and tailors are listed in the trade directories, along with a carpet and blanket manufacturer, a soap manufacturer and a paper mill.
John Snowshall had chosen a controversial occupation, increased focus on the cruel nature of the work endured by young boys in the cities led to a raft of new legislation throughout the 1800s. In London high masters were doing very well from contracts with the wealthy, they had premises, dressed as gentlemen, visited their customers in a horse and carriage and often had a lucrative business selling soot to farmers. In the 1780s 150 established Master sweeps lived in London they employed 200 journeymen and around 550 climbing boys. Master’s with smaller businesses walked the streets seeking trade, they survived in much poorer circumstances than the high masters and had small children as apprentices to climb the chimneys. The first chimney sweeping act was initiated by one of the high masters, Mr David Porter, who petitioned parliament for regulation of the trade. In 1788 the act banned the apprenticing of children under eight. Unfortunately the act could not be enforced and the all important licensing of Master Sweeps had been omitted.
30 years later, in 1817, a report to the House of Commons on the Employment of Boys in Sweeping of Chimneys was published. It contains an admission from a sweep that he had to beat the boys to make them do the work, and that on occasion fires were lit under reluctant children, or older ones would ascend below the young to prick their feet and make them go further. Poor parents would “apprentice” their children to sweeps, effectively selling them and enabling unscrupulous masters to use the boys as tools of the trade, the younger the better.
A newspaper article in June 1838 confirms John Snowshall’s use of bound apprentices. A Louth police report reveals that a young man named William Chapman had been sentenced to two months in the House of Correction for absconding for a second time from his Master, John Snowshall. Colossal increases in poor relief at the end of the 18th century had led to scrutiny of the system, a high proportion of those receiving relief were children. Parish overseers, keen to alleviate these costs, bound the children to Masters as apprentices. Initially the masters were paid to take the children but that did change in the early 1800s. Private agreements were also made where poor parents effectively sold children into apprenticeship. in the case of Parish apprenticeships monetary pressures ensured that the suitability of the Masters and the supervisory checks were rarely undertaken.
The issue became a focus of the UK Parliament from the early 1830s. The Chimney Sweeps Act of 1834 outlawed the use of children under 14 in the occupation of cleaning chimneys, a revision in 1840 raised the minimum age to 16. The 1841 Louth census includes two young workers in the Snowshall household; Edward Jeffrey, aged 18, William Gaul was 15 years old, below the statutory age limit. John Snowshall’s two elder sons had left home by 1841. William married Harriet Elvin, daughter of a Blacksmith in 1836, the couple were 18, by 1841 they were living in Alford. William’s elder brother John married Ann Hastings in 1843, they also lived in Alford.
There is little beyond the census to provide an insight into John Snowshall’s life in the 1840s. One local sweep did advertise profusely, his adverts acknowledge the outcry regarding climbing boys.
In 1842 a further revision lifted the age limit for ascending a chimney to 21. It is interesting to note the concern in Lincoln about the wider implications of the legislative changes.
In four weeks from this day, all the young chimney-sweeps throughout the kingdom, under the age of twenty-one years, will by law be set free from their apprenticeship, and will be prohibited from climbing flues. We do not disagree with the philanthropic labours of those who have thus achieved the emancipation of these home negro-slaves – chimneys can be swept by machinery as well as by hand – but it is worth while to ask what is to become of the climbing-boys themselves? In Lincoln there are from a dozen to a score of lads, who will thus at once be turned at large upon the public, and as the climbing boys have either been obtained from cruel parents, or still more frequently, are the offspring of such intercourse as “seldom knows a parent’s care,” they cannot be expected to possess friends to provide for them. We call upon those, who have so long been claiming the character of the ‘ Chimney-sweeps’ friend,’ to come forward, and to devise some means of turning them to other occupations ; if not, need we be at all surprised, if sessions after sessions, they are hereafter brought to be transported as thieves at a cost of 15l. or 20l. a head, having been deprived of tbe only means of livelihood they ever possessed? You, who have wearied parliament with your petitions, now that they are granted, come forward to rescue the cast-off chimney-sweep from crime, or the genuineness of your philanthropy will be more than doubted. Lincolnshire Chronicle – Friday 03 June 1842
The above report reveals the deeply held Victorian values that these children must learn to work and earn a living through these apprenticeships. It may be down such concerns that the law was not enforced but the report below provides further insight into the difficulties for the police. Even in small towns such as Louth the law turned a blind eye to the practice:
Climbing Boys: Not withstanding the plain enactments of legislature against the dangerous and cruel practice of climbing chimneys by mere children for the purpose of cleaning them, these by pairs along with their masters hawk the streets [of Louth] from door to door, and urge it as a recommendation that the boys can most effectually sweep the chimneys. In one instance the Master explained to us that his boys were of the age of 16, and informed us that the law was now a dead-letter in as much as many respectable persons, including the magistracy had readily connived at the practice. Stamford Mercury – Friday 20 April 1849
Undoubtedly life as the son of a sweep was harsh, William and his brother John are likely to have worked for their father prior to leaving home. In 1851 16 year old Henry is listed as a sweep alongside his father. The Snowshall’s continued to live in Maiden’s Row and during the early 50s Henry can frequently be found in Louth press reports, in 1853 he was convicted of an unprovoked assault with a further report of a conviction for brawling and fighting in Eastgate in 1854, noted to be his 6th appearance in court. In 1855, following a second spell in prison, Henry joined the military, 29th Dec 1855 ,he would serve for 20 years, 10 years in India, in 1876, age 42 he returned to Louth to work as a chimney sweep.
In 1856 John Snowshall (snr) remains listed as a sweep in Kidgate Louth in 1856 but by 1861 John – now 68 and still listed as a sweep – and Mary were living in the South End of Alford close to their elder sons, William and John.