An appeal has been launched to find the final resting place of a young chimney sweep – 143 years after his death.
Christopher Drummond was just six years old when he suffocated as he tried to clean out a chimney at Washington New Hall on September 28, 1872.
His master, chimney sweep Thomas Clark, was charged with manslaughter – and jailed for six months with hard labour – following the boy’s death.
“The practice of sending children up chimneys was actually illegal by the 1870s, but obviously still happened,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“Christopher’s death helped pave the way to stamping out the practice completely.
“Sadly, it was too late for him. He was just so young to die.”
Clark, a Gateshead-based sweep, was tasked by hall owner Sir Isaac Bell, a Liberal Party politician, with cleaning the conservatory and fernery flues.
Sweeping began at 9.30am on Saturday, September 28, with Clark using a traditional brush to clear away as much soot as possible – until hitting a problem.
“The flue in the fernery was blocked. Clark thought it may have been caused by a stone, so he sent Christopher 15ft up the chimney to take a look,” said Norman.
“The poor little sweep was barely six, but obviously small and nimble. Sadly, Clark deemed him perfect for the task of cleaning rich people’s chimneys.”
The poor little sweep was barely six, but obviously small and nimble. Sadly, his master deemed him perfect for the task of cleaning out rich people’s chimneys.Local historian Norman Kirtlan
Fifteen minutes ticked past and, when Christopher failed to return, his master jumped to the conclusion that the child was taking an illicit nap.
“Clark tied together some lathes and put them into the flue, for the purposes of stirring up his assistant to a little more activity,” a newspaper reported.
The prodding, however, had no effect so Clark asked a village lad, by the name of Winter, to climb the flue and find his missing sweep.
Winter discovered poor Christopher within seconds – stuck fast and gasping for air – and twice failed to free him.
“On the third occasion, Winter passed a rope around Christopher’s legs and dragged him out. It was found, to the horror of all, he was dead,” reported one paper.
Some local stories claim that Christopher was carried to the nearby Cross Keys pub, where villagers tried to revive the boy, without success. Official reports of his inquest, however, make no mention of this.
Instead, coroner Mr Favell was told Christopher suffocated after getting stuck up the chimney.
“The inquest was held at the Washington-based home of Robinson Todd,” said Norman. “After hearing what had happened, the coroner condemned Clark’s actions.
“Clark was arrested and charged with manslaughter. In early 1873, he appeared before Durham Assizes and was sentenced to six months in prison with hard labour.”
But that was not the end of the story – at least for Sir Isaac. Indeed, following the death of Christopher, he promptly moved down south to Northallerton.
“Bell had built Washington New Hall in 1854, but when Christopher died he just up and left – and the house remained empty for 19 years,” said Norman.
“Eventually, he donated it for use as a children’s home and, at his request, it was named Dame Margaret’s Hall, after his wife. It remained a home for years.”
But even though chimney sweep master Thomas Clark got his just desserts – and Washington New Hall helped many boys like Christopher – one mystery still remains.
“There seems to be absolutely no record of where Christopher was buried. Internet searches return nothing, and parish records are curiously blank,” said Norman.
“Perhaps, just perhaps, an Echo reader can help. It would be lovely to find out where this tragic little boy was laid to rest and mark his loss in some way.”
l Can you help trace Christopher’s grave? Email firstname.lastname@example.org Further discussions on the fate of the young sweep can be found on the Real Washington Facebook page.