This footage has gone viral online with the claim that it shows an 3 year old chimney sweep on the job:
Millions of people saw the footage, shared it online an were upset by it, as they should be… if it was real…
When I saw this I knew things were not as they seemed, it was staged, but convincing people of this was quite tricky, after all there’s film footage, it’s right there and it looks real.
Before we debunk the claim, we first have to find out more about the footage.
The source for the footage is the British Pathé archive, you can find the film by clicking here. They describe the footage as “Very young boy works with his father as a chimney sweep.” and date it to 1933.
That’s all they seem to know.
But what can we learn from the film itself?
The text on the shops suggests this was filmed in a German speaking country, we see “Luxus Geschirr” (luxury tableware) and “Eingang” (entrance).
But the pavement looked familiar to me, I’m specialised in Europe during the 1920s-40s and have worked on a project about daily life in Berlin in the 1920s and I’ve seen that pavement in other old footage and in countless photos.
That peculiar combination of big slabs and small cobbles seems to be rather specific to Berlin.
The tram in the background also looked like trams did in Berlin back then and a few friends of mine who live in that city agreed that the street was a Berlin street.
After some research I found this very familiar looking cover of a Polish 1929 magazine;
I am almost completely sure that these are the same father and son as in the film footage and when I found a clearer copy of the photo I was even more convinced;
In this photo we can also see the exact same pavement and when I traced the photo down to a stock photo company’s website it was described as “Ein Schornsteinfeger und sein Sohn gehen zur Arbeit. Foto, Berlin 1930er Jahre” ( A chimney sweep and his son go to work. Photo, Berlin 1930s), confirming the location.
We know the photo was taken in 1929 (or earlier) because that’s when it appeared in the magazine, which means it’s highly unlikely that the film is from 1933.
Either way, this is as close to the source as I could get.
So although we now know the film was indeed shot in Berlin roughly in 1929-1930, we still don’t know anything about the story behind it.
Everybody knows that children used to be chimney sweeps, we’ve seen them in the movies and read about them in Victorian books.
And let’s be absolutely clear about this; children, boys and girls, were indeed forced to do this terrible work, even very young ones, for a long time.
They were abused, exposed to cancer causing coal dust, were sometimes literally bought from poor parents and sometimes died in the most horrific ways imaginable.
But were they still a thing in 1920s Berlin?
Child labour was very common in Europe for many centuries, in the public mind this was especially part of the Victorian era, the industrial revolution seems to have made child labour more prevalent but also more dangerous and dirty than it had been before.
Children were cheap and could do some jobs grown-ups couldn’t.
But as the 19th century progressed people started to protest against this horrible practice, more and more regulations and laws appeared to protect children, in part thanks to the trade unions but also the many publications revealing the plight of the poor.
In Britain a damning report was published by a Parliamentary Committee that was established to investigate the conditions of children apprenticed to chimney-sweeps.
This brought some awful stories to light that shocked the public so much that in 1843 several specific acts were passed just for the protection of children working for chimney sweeps, forbidding any child under the age of 14 being engaged in cleaning chimneys, keep this in mind the next time you see one in a Victorian drama.
But even before that law existed, sweep apprentices often started work when they were six, as those younger were considered too weak.
So even chimney sweeps weren’t really using 3 year olds that much, even when they were still allowed to.
In Germany things evolved in a similar manner except earlier, the ‘Preußisches Regulativ’ from 1839 was one of the first or perhaps even the first regulation on the European continent to restrict child labour.
It was not specifically set up to stop children working but more focused on enforcing the also new compulsory education laws.
In 1903 the ‘Gesetz, betreffend Kinderarbeit in gewerblichen Betrieben’ (Law concerning child labour in commercial establishments) added a lot of restrictions to the type of work children were allowed to do and chimney sweeps were specifically mentioned.
Legal language is quite confusing, especially in German, especially from over a century ago, but the law made it illegal for children under the age of 10-13 to work in the chimney sweeping business, even if was just to help dad.
Yes, of course, just because there was a law against it does not rule out that some people might still have done it, but these laws were strictly enforced by the government and it was widely supported by the public, people had felt bad about little chimney sweeps for a very long time.
It’s rather unlikely that dad was using not just a child, but a toddler, breaking an 26 year old law regarding child labour that specifically mentions the job he’s being forced to do and that dad didn’t mind him committing this crime being filmed and shown in cinemas everywhere…
But there are a few other clues that what we’re seeing is just a bit of a fun in stead of an example of horrible child labour.
Everything about the child is miniature, not just his outfit but also the tools of the trade.
Ladder, brush, coring ball, they’re all tiny.
Which is odd because grown-up chimney sweeps use the same tools for the same chimneys, but bigger, some of these tools only work because they’re heavy and big.
The kid is a miniature chimney sweep but he isn’t doing a miniature job.
On top of that the tools we see are a bit outdated.
In the 19th century new tools were invented that involved extendable rods with brushes that could be used to clean an entire chimney from the fireplace.
This revolutionised the way chimneys were cleaned to this day.
They made using children no longer necessary, not only were they illegal, they were outdated and replaced by a better, easier and faster tool.
Another important thing to mention is that the chimney sweep was a good luck symbol at that time, especially in Germany.
People dressed up as them and send each other postcards showing children as chimney sweeps.
Dressing children up as adults has a long tradition, people still do it today.
Remember this kid?
Yes, he’s also not a real coal mine worker, more about that here.
And remember this chimney sweep?
He’s also not a real chimney sweep, the photo was taken in 1980, I remember 1980, there were no child chimney sweeps in my part of Europe back then.
More about that photo here.
So in conclusion;
- We have a toddler doing a job even ruthless Victorians chimney sweeps thought he was too young for.
- He’s doing a job in a country where it had been illegal for almost 30 years for kids much older than him to do that job.
- His dad does not seem to mind the world seeing him break the law.
- He’s using miniature tools that just wouldn’t do the job properly.
- A century earlier new tools had been invented that made climbing up chimneys no longer necessary.
- The public had opposed children being used as chimney sweeps en masse long before this film was made.
- Kids dressing up as chimney sweeps was extremely popular back then in Germany, they were a good luck symbol.
- Seeing a child playing a chimney sweep was so unusual people in the street stopped, stared and smiled and it ended up on the cover of a Polish magazine and in news footage that went around the world, almost as if it wasn’t something people were used to…
But the quest for the true story behind the footage has not come to an end just yet.
Who were the man and his son, what happened to them, could finding their identities help us understand the footage even more?
When I shared this article online soon my followers started doing some detective work as well and more details were soon unearthed.
Mr. Dommershuijzen found the tiny chimney sweep photo shared in several Dutch 1927 newspapers and one of them mentioned the dad’s name; Bohnhe:
But the name looked weird and was not found in any German 1920s address books, but Uwe Steinhoff found a certain Otto Böhnke, registered as a ; ‘Schornsteinfeger’, living at the Alte Jakobstraße 87 H III in Berlin in 1927.
Mr. Dommershuijzen then found found the couple mentioned in the ‘Moderne Welt’ magazine from 1926;
Here the little chimney sweep is mentioned by name; Horst Bohnke, which proves that Otto Böhnke is indeed his father.
With these names we managed to find them being mentioned in newspapers and magazines all over the world, it seems like little Horst has gone viral once before!
In the archives we found that in 1915 Otto Böhnke married Martha Blume, so now we know mum’s name as well, the family is appearing out of the shadows of history.
The search continues, we’ve learned so much in such a short time, who knows what we’ll find next?
Whatever happened to little Horst?
We’ll keep looking, but for now I think there’s more than enough here to say that the toddler was not actually working as a real chimney sweep but just coming along for a day for fun or for the benefit of a photographer or the newsreel crew.
But as with all my articles, this is a work in progress, if more is found, I’ll update the story.
- British Pathé
- AKG images
- Antykwariat POLIART
- UK parliament on children and chimneys
- Gesetz, betreffend Kinderarbeit in gewerblichen Betrieben (1903)
- Gesetz, betreffend Kinderarbeit in gewerblichen Betrieben [Kinderschutzgesetz], 30. März 1903 (PDF opening link)
- England’s climbing boys; a history of the long struggle to abolish child labor chimney-sweeping, by George Lewis Philips, 1949
- London Labour And The London Poor – Vol.2, by Henry Mayhew
- The Every-day Book and Table Book. v. 2 or Everlasting Calendar of Popular Amusements, etc, etc. (1827)
- Castle chimney sweeps
- Child labour Wikipedia article
- German child labour Wikipedia article
- Thanks for the translation & research Twitter volunteers!
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