The Henry Chimney Sweeping Collection: Victorian Employment and Humour

We often associate employment in Victorian Britain with notions of drudgery, hard toil, long hours and factory work but this wasn’t always the case! The content of the Henry Collection allows researchers a detailed insight into the ordinary and often extraordinary working lives of many Victorian ‘Street-Sellers’. 
As a result of Dr Henry’s fascination with Chimney Sweeping, the Ernestine Henry Collection at Leeds Museums and Galleries contains a wealth of original publications, pamphlets and periodicals about everyday life and employment in Victorian London. Some even contain original photographs of Victorian people at work! These include ‘The Crawlers’, ‘Covent Garden Flower Women’ and ‘Public Disinfectors’. Journals such as Old and New London, Street Life in London and a personal favourite of mine, London Labour and London Poor are among many that this collection holds.
Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and London Poor wrote a twenty-six issue long series of this pamphlet. Each issue gives detailed eyewitness accounts of the occupation and life of street sellers of certain goods and services. Some of these occupations we would recognise today such as ‘The Baked Potato Man’ and ‘The London Coffee Stall’ but others we may not; ‘The Street-Seller of Nut-Meg Graters’, ‘Street-Seller of Grease Removing Composition’ and ‘Doctor Bokanky, The Street Herbalist.’ Mayhew even relays the sounds of the Street-Sellers; ‘Eight a penny, stunning pears!’, ‘Chesnuts all ‘ot, a penny a score’, ‘An ‘aypenny a skin, blacking.’ These incredibly detailed accounts enable researchers to build a vivid image of everyday activities in a Victorian trading street.
Another unique aspect of this collection is the way in which sometimes dreary aspects of Victorian life, such as employment and more specifically the role of the Victorian chimney sweep, were counteracted with humour. The sheer volume of satirical literature apparent in the collection did surprise me. 
Although some authors in Victorian Britain wrote serious accounts of Chimney Sweeps’ experiences, sweeps were often the central punch line of jokes, witty stories and rhymes. The Humourist’s Miscellany; containing Original and Select Articles in Poetry on Mirth, Humour, Wit, Gaiety and Entertainment and also Fun for the Million or The Laughing Philosopher, consisting of Several Thousand of the best Jokes, Witticisms, Puns, Epigrams, Humorous Stories, and Witty Compositions in the English Language, intended as Fun for the Million are just two publications which present jokes related to the occupation of Chimney Sweeping. Judging by the amount of humorous literature in this collection alone it is likely that the Victorians certainly knew how to have a laugh!
A final but equally captivating aspect of working with the Henry Collection is the unique ways in which the objects tell the stories of their previous owners. As a social and gender historian I am fascinated by ordinary peoples experiences of the past. I have catalogued a large number of books, scrapbooks and archive documents in this collection which leave clues as to how such objects were exchanged and came to be in peoples’ possession. 
From the unique, personal, handwritten messages often included on the title pages of various works it is likely that at least some of these objects were given as gifts. The Comic Keepsake was offered to Mary Bolton, possibly as a birthday gift in 1835; ‘Mary June Bolton, presented to her by her Mamma, Sept 12th 1835’ and likewise, from a handwritten annotation written on the inner cover page, we know that The Christmas Annual belonged to Joe Shard in 1903. 
In a period when literature and especially bound printed works were not as easily accessible as the present day, is touching to observe the handwritten messages in the front of books, pamphlets and scrapbooks in the Henry Collection.

By Chloe Simm, Social History Intern

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s