Towards the end of my internship here at the Leeds Discovery Centre, I have been focusing on the numerous boxes of books that form a substantial part of the Henry Collection of ‘sweepiana’ (anything and everything to do with chimney sweeps).
The collector, Dr. Henry was an avid and extremely thorough (some might say, obsessed) collector, with many books containing just a single reference to chimney sweeps or sweeping. The majority of the collection I have been documenting spans the 18th and 19th centuries and it is fascinating to delve into these books and magazines to catch a glimpse of the different facets of English society as it was back then. Many of the publications include beautifully crafted engravings, some of which (in the more expensive editions) were then painstakingly coloured by hand using watercolours.
One of the books I came across early on in my internship, was a volume entitled Mrs. Montagu ‘Queen of the Blues‘. This book lacked the usual handwritten note by Dr. Henry on the inside, indicating a reference to sweeps contained in the volume, and this omission left me wondering why it was included in the collection. A little research unearthed a story that started in York, ended in London, with wealth, philanthropy, personal disaster and rumours of a kidnapping worthy of any Hollywood drama, sandwiched between.
Elizabeth Montagu (née Robinson), was born to wealthy parents in York, moved to London after her marriage, and there hosted a group of intellectuals who became known as the ‘Bluestockings’. This group included several prominent and powerful members of society and they would meet regularly In Mrs. Montagu’s house and discuss and debate the issues and politics of the day. The hostess herself enjoyed a reputation for holding her own during these debates, not an insignificant feat considering the general position of women in society at that time. Elizabeth Montagu must have been a formidable woman indeed.
But where does the link between Mrs. Montagu and chimney sweeps come in? Right where the rumours of kidnapping abound… According to several (all slightly differing) accounts, a young nephew of Elizabeth Montagu’s disappeared one day. Sometime later, she hired a chimney sweep to come to her house, and who did the poor, dirty urchin whose job it was to crawl up that narrow, sooty tunnel turn out to be? None other than her own nephew who had been kidnapped and forced into labour! How accurate this story is, may never be known, but what is certain, is that Mrs. Montagu provided a May Day breakfast feast for chimney sweeps every year until her death in 1800.
I can imagine that May Day morning scene; a group of young boys, scrubbed as clean as they have been all year, sitting in Elizabeth Montagu’s beautiful garden, stuffing down as much food as their bellies could hold before heading out excitedly to take their part in the May Day celebrations – the only day’s holiday for the sweeps in the whole year.
Elizabeth Montagu undoubtedly played an important part in changing some of the attitudes of society at that time, showing compassion to those less fortunate than herself, and raising awareness in the upper class circles she moved in, of the plight of child chimney sweepers.
By Izzy Bartley, Social History Intern.