Lesson on 'The Chimney Boy's Story' by Wes Magee

Ian Coulson


This lesson uses the poem by Wes Magee as an introduction to further web research on child labour in the Victorian period. The teaching focus is Literacy, History and ICT, and the lesson is suitable for a Y8/9 class.

Previous knowledge:
Pupils should have some knowledge of the industrial revolution and the nature of urban society in the nineteenth century. Ideally the class should have studied some aspects of child labour in Victorian Britain. Experience of web research and effective note taking will also be useful.


The intention is that children studying this poem should match it against the historical evidence and comment on the effectiveness of the language and vocabulary used by the poet. As historians they should:

  • collect information from a range of sources and draw conclusions about the Victorian period;
  • understand that ways of life differed greatly across Victorian society
  • write or present a review using historical detail
  • understand that there are many representations of the Victorian period
Resources needed
  • Poetry Archive recording of Wes Magee reading 'The Chimney Boy's Story'
  • screen or whiteboard linked to Poetry Archive website, for viewing the text of the poem
  • the DFES schemes of work are a useful starting point for scheme of works covering children during the Victorian period. The scheme of works can be downloaded in Word and adapted according to need:

    Unit 11: What was it like for children living in Victorian Britain?

    Section 1: Who were the Victorians and when did they live?

    Section 2: What was life like for a poor child in the 1840s?

    Section 3: Who helped to improve the lives of Victorian children?

Teaching sequence of activities


Remind the class about child labour in Victorian Britain and how children did not have the same childhood that we have enjoyed and that children had to go out to earn a living as early as the age of six or seven.

Listen to the poem.


The aim of this lesson is to get the children to understand what it was like being a chimney sweep, or more specifically a climbing boy employed by a chimney sweep!

Using a contemporary image of a climbing boy, ask the class to sum up their working conditions using three or four adjectives. In pairs the pupils could describe the environment and the way the climbing boy must have felt climbing up a narrow chimney.

Play the poem, viewing the text on the screen.

Ask the class to choose four lines of the poem that really bring the experiences of the climbing boy to life. Model the first few lines and then ask the pupils to work in groups on their own section of the poem.

With the emotions of the poem and the use of language fresh in their memories, they should now find out what they can about climbing boys and chimney sweeps from the internet.

To avoid distractions on the internet it is worth restricting the class to some bookmarks to research the question: What was it really like to be a climbing boy?

The pupils could record their information in the form of a Powerpoint presentation. The three sections of the poem could be copied onto three Powerpoint pages;

  • The first step is to look at the web pages and consider what evidence will be useful to them as historians.
  • The pupils than create text boxes around the poem with images and evidence that adds historical sources to the poem, very careful consideration being given to the way captions are composed.
  • At the end of the lesson the pupils are then asked to judge the historical accuracy of the poem and the emotional impact of the language and imagery.

Useful websites include:

Children in Victorian Britain

These BBC Schools pages provide a good introduction to the issues around child labour in Victorian Britain. One of the sections and one of the games is about a climbing boy.

Worst Jobs in History

Time Traveller's Guide to Victorian Britain

History of the Sweep

Outrage at a child chimney-sweep's death


This will help remind pupils of the main events of the Victorian period

The class could also use other resources such as:

  • pictures of child workers and portraits of people such as Lord Shaftesbury;
  • information on Victorian chimney sweeps and children at work (eg contemporary engravings, extracts from contemporary authors, factory and mine reports);
  • biographical information on Lord Shaftesbury (eg textbooks, encyclopedias);
  • information on Victorian schools (eg extracts from stories, school logbooks, inspection reports);
  • information on Victorian leisure (eg games, toys, posters, books, songbooks of children at work in factories and mines) and contemporary fiction (eg novels by Kingsley, Dickens).

    Extension Activities

    The literature of the period can provide scenarios for role-play. This reinforces the learning by getting the pupils to reinterpret what they have learnt and present it in a different fashion.

    For example: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Role-play the scene between three characters, with Oliver arguing against being a chimney-sweep and Mr Gamfield trying to persuade the magistrate he should be allowed to take the boy.

    Further Reading


    The following extract provides all the background information you are likely to need to teach this topic. The extract comes from Charles Kingsley's "The Water-Babies" and working conditions for children in industrial towns in the nineteenth century by Emm Barnes (University of Manchester, 2004).

    From the seventeenth century, we know that chimneys became more widespread and well constructed in houses, and coal grew in popularity as a domestic fuel alongside the traditional use of wood. Coal makes a sticky soot which does not all come loose with the use of a brush; chimney edges need scraping where soot builds up. Master sweeps employed young boys who were small enough to climb the chimneys as apprentices. Some of you may have fireplaces in your homes, but in grand country houses there would be many chimneys since almost every room would need a fireplace for heating, and these would connect together in a complicated maze of completely dark tunnels. Cleaning the chimneys of a large house would be a long and tiring job. Master sweeps could earn considerable amounts of money for the work, but their apprentices did not earn much if anything, just receiving 'bed' (often a sack of soot on which to sleep) and 'board' (bread and sometimes a little beer) for their labour. Children were sold to sweeps for training, but many died before they could run their own sweeping business, from lung disease or from cancers caused by the soot. Most parents would be reluctant to sell their children into such a dangerous trade. Orphans however would be under the care of their parish workhouse, and this was where master sweeps usually found new apprentices when their climbing boys grew too big or too ill to work. In 1775, the British surgeon Percivall Pott showed that it was the coal tar in the chimneys, with which the boys got covered, which led to cancerous 'sooty warts'. This was the first cancer shown to be a result of exposure to particular chemicals at work. Efforts began to ban the use of climbing boys. Reformers argued that since careful use of longer and more expensive brushes could clean chimneys without the need for anyone to risk their health by climbing in the soot, there was no need to sacrifice boys to the job. The working conditions were known to be harsh: boys who got scared and did not want to climb, or who got stuck in a chimney, would sometimes be flushed out by lighting a fire underneath them, forcing them to climb higher. The working day was typically long, the pay very poor, and beatings not uncommon. There were only about 4000 boys working as sweeps at any one time, a small number compared with numbers of young children working in agriculture or factories. But conditions for these workers were so appalling that they drew particular attention and public sympathy. Many children working in other industries reported enjoying their work, and the rewards it could bring, but there were very few good things about being a climbing boy. The Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788 was designed to improve the working life of climbing boys. The law stated that master sweeps had to ensure that their apprentices did not work on Sundays, and instead were washed clean from soot and were sent to church. This was not well enforced by the police, so made little difference to the boys' lives. It was not until 1864 that Parliament outlawed the use of climbing boys, though some sweeps continued to use children until 1875 when it became law that all chimney sweeps had be licensed; licenses were not issued to any sweep who employed climbing boys. These laws were passed only after many calls for change, including from well-known writers such as William Blake (Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1794), Charles Dickins (Oliver Twist, 1838), and Charles Kingsley. The plight of climbing boys was brought to public attention by Charles Kingsley in 1863 when he published his children's story 'The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby'. Kingsley was an Anglican clergyman, and became chaplain to Queen Victoria, Canon of Westminster and Cambridge Professor of History. He was also a Christian Socialist, arguing for better conditions for working people and for social justice. He was a novelist for both adults and children, using his stories to try to persuade people that his views were right. 'The Water-Babies' has become a children's classic, even though parts of the story can seem rather strange: there is much revenge taken by 'fairies' against adults who beat children, for example. The story was made into a film in 1978, using animation for the part of the film where Tom is a water-baby. The story was changed a little in the process, showing Grimes stealing from Harthover House and putting the stolen things in Tom's hands when Grimes is caught so that the blame falls on Tom instead. Kingsley was angry that children were badly treated by their employers and were denied the chance to learn how to be good Christians. He sought reform in the laws governing children's work and education which would see more children receiving moral education. In his fairy tale, Tom is returned to the land world after learning how to be good, and becomes an important and wise 'man of science'. Tom has been educated and so can help to develop Britain's industry as a planner and thinker. Kingsley made the point that young lives and potential were wasted when poor children were used as cheap labour. Children died from the results of unsafe work, who might have grown up to do more important work in the world if they had only been given the chance and proper education.


    This website provides a complete assembly including a short play for pupils and some suggested areas for reflection. The play could be used successfully as part of a lesson.


    Concise background history

    Chimneys and Chimney Sweeps

    Benita Cullingford (Shire Publications)

    Chimney sweeping is an ancient trade dating from the twelfth century. This social history, covering five centuries, draws on source material from original manuscripts and autobiographies by master sweeps. Reference is made to the origin, development, demise and subsequent reinstatement of the chimney, the sweeping of which became central to a controversy lasting one hundred years. The book deals with all aspects of the trade – the lives sweeps led, the difficulties their apprentices encountered, the way they worked and the invention of 'sweeping machines'.

    Benita Cullingford is acquainted with prominent members of NACS (National Association of Chimney Sweeps) and her social history British Chimney Sweeps, Five Centuries of Chimney Sweeping was published in 2000 in Britain.

    Charles Kingsley's 'The Water-Babies', and working conditions for children in industrial towns in the nineteenth century

    Emm Barnes, University of Manchester, 2004

    This PDF provides a selection of sources. Ideally they can be copied and put in word file for the pupils to research. The whole document is too long for KS2 pupils but some of the material could be adapted.


    The Water Babies (1978)

    Charles Kingsley's classic magical children's tale of Tom, a twelve year-old boy who is apprenticed to the unkind Master Chimney Sweep, Grimes. Life is tough for Tom - while he sweeps, Grimes and his unpleasant sidekick, Masterman, busy themselves thieving. Live action and animation. Actors: Bernard Cribbins / Billie Whitelaw / David Tomlinson / James Mason / Joan Greenwood

    Director: Lionel Jeffries

    Run Time: 95 mins approx.


    Chimney Child. A Victorian Story

    Laurie Sheehan (Anglia Young Books, 1998)

    This book is about 10,000 words long. It is for children of seven to eleven.

    London 1873. Albert Browne, the son of a wealthy banker, is watching, horrified while a chimney sweep rubs brine on the bleeding knees of his new climbing boy, Vic. Alfred is sure that if they were there his parents would not allow this cruelty. But they are away and Albert is in the care of the butler, Jackson. After the chimneys are swept and the sweep and his climbing boy are on their way Jackson discovers that Mrs Browne's jewel box is missing. It must have been stolen by the sweep or the boy. Albert and Jackson chase after them. When they catch up with them the sweep tries to put the blame on Vic who runs off into the fog. He heads for the Thames and squeezes through a small hole at the bottom of a fence. Jackson and the sweep are too big to follow but Albert wriggles through the hole and continues the chase. Vic gets away but Albert is attacked by two mudlarks who leave him lying trapped in the mud. Vic comes back, gets a plank and manages to rescue Albert from the mud. Vic then takes him to an old coal barge where he can spend the night. Then events take a surprising turn. Albert discovers that Vic is not a climbing boy. She is a climbing girl and her full name is Victoria Wells. Albert has twisted his ankle and he is coughing badly. He is really ill. Victoria goes to get help but she is caught by a constable and thrown into Newgate. Meanwhile Albert manages to pull himself out of the barge. He limps through the London streets and, by a lucky chance, finds himself outside one of Dr Barnardo's homes. All is resolved in the end. The real thief is caught and Victoria proved innocent. This is a good story which moves at a fast pace. The main facts about child sweeps are brought out. The sweep in the story was imprisoned because in 1873 it was against the law to use children as sweeps. (A note at the end mentions Lord Shaftesbury's Act of 1875 which finally ended the scandal of the climbing boys -- and girls). The story also highlights the work of Dr Barnardo and the help he got from the bankers -- like Mr Browne in the story. An exciting story with a well researched background. There is also a historical note and a list of places to visit. And even a miniature historical detective story thrown in for good measure.

    Climbing in the Dark

    Nick Warburton (Oxford University Press, 1996).

    One of the Treetops series. For children of eight and over.

    Tess is twelve years old. It is her first day as a housemaid in the house of Dr Gooch. She is having a glass of milk in the kitchen with the kindly housekeeper Mrs Hutton when the cruel chimney sweep, Mr Fry, arrives with his new apprentice Will. Later Will falls down the chimney and knocks himself out and ends up in the bedroom of Harriet, Dr Gooch's little daughter. Mrs Hutton explains to Harriet just how badly Will is treated and Harriet agrees that he should not be handed over to Mr Fry just yet. She goes further. She says that he should be set free. How she does that with the help of Tess makes an exciting story.
    Although simply told for young readers this book contains a lot of information about the houses of wealthy Victorians as well as exposing the shameful conditions of the little climbing boys.
    We are given details of climbing up the inside of chimneys and how Mr Fry put vinegar on Will's knees and elbows and stood him in front of the fire to harden the skin so that he could grip on the chimneys.
    This is a good introduction to historical novels for the very young.

    Chimney Charlie: A Tale of Victorian Chimney Sweeps

    Roy Apps (Franklin Watts, 2003)

    This is another book in the successful Sparks series which looks at major events in British history through the eyes of fictional and real-life characters. Each book takes the form of a lively and exciting narrative, which contains a lot of interesting information about each event. Chimney Charlie tells the story of how hard it was to be a chimney sweep in the Victorian times. Cold and hungry Charlie is forced to clean chimneys against his will, until one day he gets stuck! but little does he know that it will be the luckiest day of his life...

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