climbing-boys

Death in Spitalfields, 1816
Little is known of William Moles. Of that which is known, little of it was good. He was one of about 200 Chimney Sweep Masters in London. A small number of these were prosperous Master Sweeps. About 1 in 7 made a respectable living. William was not one of them. He would employ climbing boys to clean the flues of the rich for one shilling a time. We know for a fact that one of his apprentices was a boy called John Hewley (or Hewling or Hasely depending on the source)

John would probably have lived in the same house as William and his wife Sarah. He would subsist in one soot- infested room of their house, sleeping on a black mattress. He may have been on his own or with other apprentices; although there is evidence that he was the only one. There were laws protecting climbing boys that William would have been aware of-these dated from the humanitarian efforts of Jonas Hanway in 1788.Under that law, sweep apprentices had to be at least 8 years old; John was six. They had to attend church every Sunday and be washed every week. Moles almost certainly ignored this part of the law as well, given what happened afterwards

Being a climbing boy was an odd sort of apprenticeship. Most children were indentured at 14; that is when climbing boys started to lose their job, being too large to scramble up chimney flues that were on average a foot square but sometimes less. Undernourished 6 year olds were to be preferred as apprentices-if they were not under size they could be starved. It was believed in the late regency that the Romans would starve hedgehogs to make clothe brushes and that this was a similar type of cruelty. Most came from the workhouses and would end their life there too. They only advantage was that they had money had an early age; Henry Mayhew in “London Street Life” suggested 2pence a day to spend as they wished; however, after 14, penury and unskilled labour was the norm.
By 14 the climbing boy had learnt a trade that had no transferable skills and had stunted growth and physically development so much that other employment was impossible

John Hewley was spared this future when he died at the hands of William and Sarah in April 1816. It seems that John died when he was cleaning a flue on behalf of Mr Moles. On April 2nd Moles and John went to the house of Elizabeth Ware in Fashion Street, Spitalfields. Elizabeth gave evidence that John was beaten about the legs by his master, presumably for his reluctance to go up the flue.

On 23rd April, at Chick-end in Spitalfields, John was sent up the chimney of Ann Chandler. John was already up the chimney when the witness saw him assaulted. He would know that there were ways of making him do so-mostly with beatings to the feet or the use of pins. While up the chimney he might have panicked and cried out that he was stuck. Then the master would try to “buff it”- pushing the boy upwards by using his shoulders on the poor boys feet, forcing the lad to try “slanting”-altering his body to fit the shape of the flue. John clearly got fully stuck; Moles tried to pull him down but in the process the boy fell on to the marble hearth, breaking his legs and dying a few days later. Staff at the London Hospital tried to save the boy by amputating a leg; it may have been in vain anyway; there would have been traumatic damage to John’s head as he was pulled out and that could have been the cause of death.

His legal team was led by Mr Adolphus- of duelling fame- claimed that it was an accident and the judge decided that murder could not be proved. Sarah Moles was dismissed but needed protection from the authorities, as a mob of 200 chased her through the streets. William Moles was found guilty of mistreatment of John. His apprentice’s body had previous marks of abuse, especially around the feet and legs.

He was imprisoned for two years. It was lucky for him that he cheated death by not stealing a horse.

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