A man recalls working as child chimney sweep

They did not have the best childhood memories when they became men Gottardo Cavalli

Many boys from mountain villages in both Ticino and northern Italy were sent away to the towns of Lombardy and Piedmont where they were exploited as chimney sweeps.

This content was published on January 7, 2009 - 09:15

They were typically forced by their parents to leave home in November and work for the winter in places like Milan before returning sometime in the spring.

These boys were often maltreated. Underfed and having to sleep in unheated quarters, they also suffered from homesickness and the fear of suffocating in the narrow chimneys.

A bill was passed in 1873 by the Ticino government banning boys under 14 years of age from being used as spazzacamini, but the practice still continued, as this excerpt from the notes of Gottardo Cavalli shows.

In 1915, Cavalli was the last boy from his village of Intragna to work as a spazzacamino. He first went to Mortara, southwest of Milan, with his father, who was also his master.

Cavalli's typewritten manuscript is on file at the cantonal archives in Bellinzona.

Into the unknown

"[...] I was nearly eight years old when I set off with my father. We boys looked forward to going, wanted to leave, off into the unknown, with no clue of what it was really like. But the mothers, including mine, understood.

I only realise now: She couldn't speak. We had boarded the train and as it started to depart she turned away; I didn't see her face again, and only now can I imagine what this parting meant to her...

...I was the last from my village to do this work; only two years, but that was enough to be able to describe the life and the physical suffering of these poor beings who had to crawl like moles inside every hole of the chimney, the boiler of the steam engines, the smokestacks, and who were so badly fed they were always begging for a piece of bread to still their hunger. They were poorly dressed and had to sleep in stalls on the straw or in the hay.

The cold was the worst enemy. We could only keep warm if we all pressed together and covered ourselves with the three or four sacks we used to transport the soot.

I often explain what it means to be a chimney sweep. A lot of young people don't believe me, but others do and a friend advised me to describe the life in detail. I have therefore decided to write everything down because these two years were full of stories, hardship, fear, hope, hunger. Writing is not difficult for me. I'm not an author but I don't have to invent a story. Everything is true – I don't have to make anything up because these memories permeate my being.

Arrival of winter

...It was daybreak and the whole city was set in motion with everyone on their way to work; on foot, a few by bicycle or pushcart, but not by car. The voice of my father calling out "spazzacamino" drowned out all other sounds. The housewives came to the window or door: the chimney sweep is here, a sign of the arrival of winter.

...We entered a house and my father adjusted my clothes. My jacket was a barracan (a heavy, black overcoat) without pockets which had to be tucked inside the trousers so that when the belt was tightened it could not pull up when coming down the chimney. A linen hood protected my head from soot and was fastened beneath my chin. I carried the rasp in one hand and the broom in the other.

...No one can imagine what it's like to be trapped in a completely dark hole, having to work your way up with your elbows and knees, 10 to 20 centimetres at a time.

...The narrower the chimney, the more you had the feeling of suffocating. All of the soot fell on top of you, and you couldn't go down because that's where your master was.

Wash down soot

...Out of one house and into another without anything to eat. You got used to asking for a piece of bread in each dwelling. It became a necessity. When we were no longer hungry, we asked for a glass of wine to wash down the soot. We acted as if we would drink it but we would leave the glass on the table for our master who would come by to pick up the soot.

...In the afternoon of the next day [Sunday], I wandered with my companions through the town...always followed by the curious stares of the children and their mothers, who would warn them, "be good or the chimney sweep will get you!".

On Christmas and New Year's Day we didn't eat any polenta...since we were, as was the custom, invited to the house of a count or rich person...we weren't allowed to wash our faces since we were said to bring luck. We had to sit at a table with a white tablecloth where all of the food was laid out...but no one said they understood us or our misery. The piece of bread or bowl of soup we received from the poor were worth a lot more since these people gave with their hearts, and didn't ask for anything in return. But the rich expected us to bring them luck and who knows what else.

...We began the long journeys by foot in late January. We didn't return to the town, but slept where we were – in stalls or on hay when we were lucky.

...From farm to farm, village to village, always the same. Our worst enemy was the cold. I only saw the snow once in those two years but fog and hoar frost were at home was a damp cold that you felt through to your bones.

Still today, 50 years later, I still dream that I'm in a narrow, dark and dusty gallery with my head wrapped in a sack. I feel like I'm suffocating and wake up. [...]"

Welfare policies

In many parts of Switzerland up until the second half of the 20th century, welfare policy provided for the placement of children from poor farming families.

The practice was particularly widespread in predominantly Protestant cantons. In Ticino, many poor children were instead sent to Italy to work as chimney sweeps.

According to estimates, this "welfare work" involved tens of thousands of children, particularly orphans, illegitimate children or those of divorced parents.

Many children were treated like slaves, humiliated, beaten and raped, but the authorities did not intervene.

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