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Brush up! Chimney Sweeping – a History

How sweeping began

There are few trades by hard working men, which fire the imagination as much as chimney sweeping. From chimney sweeping boys and girls of the 17th to 19th centuries, to ‘Ol ‘Bert from Mary Poppins, the sweep trade continues to fascinate people with the imagined depiction of cheerful, plucky sweeps working in an ethereal, alternative world of dark holes, high rooftops and non-stop sweat and grime.

Today, chimney sweeping is a sophisticated trade. Even so, sweeping is an ancient profession with a colourful history hailing back to Roman times. Sweeping was needed simply because of the invention of chimneys for domestic fires and with coal fuel as a heating source.

Despite the Roman invention of the chimney, largely for baking but to funnel off log fire smoke to outside roofs, it took centuries for the idea to become popular. Homes were heated by a central wood fire on hearthstones either in the centre or side of a room, later supported by smoke hoods. Smoke as a general rule escaped through doors, windows, or roof openings, despite the dangers involved.

Matters changed in the 16th century when development in medieval England saw the popularity rise of fireplaces and chimneys as distinct heating appliances and a safe location for indoor cooking. Chimneys quickly evolved from plaster and wood models to brick types. It soon became apparent that sweeping was needed to keep chimneys clean.

Sweeping took off in the 17th to 18th century period, as an established profession. The notion of snug fireplaces and chimneys became popular and there was increasing demand for more fireplaces in homes, to heat individual rooms. At the same time, citizens were subject to a hearth tax. The amount of tax depended on the size of the home, which also included the number of chimneys. Householders found the tax burden lifted by increasing flues for the extra fireplaces within the existing chimney spaces. These flues would often connect together in a complicated maze of completely dark tunnels. At the same time, the size of the flues decreased and became narrower.

Coal grew in popularity at this time and competed with wood as a fuel source. People began to realise that coal creates a sticky soot, not easy to dislodge with a simple brush. The edges of the chimney need scraping where the soot builds up. Fireplace cleaning was deemed a necessity and the soot and fumes were rightly seen as unhealthy. Chimney sweeps were in demand! People liked what sweeps represented. Their work brough fresh, clean air back into the home. This popularity soon had superstitious connotations and sweeps were associated with good health, hearth and home.

In those days, chimney sweeps didn’t charge for their services. Money was made by the sweeps selling soot to farmers and gardeners to be used as a soil fertiliser. This side trade existed until the late 1800s when chemical fertilisers were available. Some sweeps, of an enterprising nature, used special boxes to compress soot into bricks, also sold for extra income.

The Industrial Revolution saw the chimney sweep profession thrive in popularity. Victorian London endured soot covering surfaces generally, thanks to the widespread use of coal as a heating fuel. New buildings constructed with Portland stone didn’t stay pristine for long! Londoners inhaled foggy air from the chimneys, venting the many coal fires from the crowded housing of the city. It is said that Queen Victoria was so affected, that she ordered the regular sweeping of chimneys and flues. More than 1,000 chimney sweeps served the city of London at this time. The continued expansion of coal as a main fuel for domestic heating meant the trade still flourished.

A change in heating needs came in the 1960s when gas and electricity replaced coal as the primary source for central heating. Chimney sweeping as a profession was still needed – especially with the energy crisis in the 1970s when prices of fossil heating fuels soared. Many people went back to using domestic fires but fireplaces hadn’t been serviced for a long time, and there was an increase in chimney fires and carbon monoxide poisoning. Today, indoor fires are seen as an efficient and pleasant method to heat rooms, especially with the advanced technology of contemporary fire stoves.

Child Chimney Sweeps

Imagine a child climbing up the small, dark and dirty flue of a chimney. With their bare hands and feet, armed with a scraper or brush – with no safety rope. It’s alien to our way of thinking. Cruel, in fact. Even so, that’s what happened in Britain and other countries for many, many years. A flue in the Georgian period could be just 14in wide and only a child would fit into that space. It was incredibly dangerous and not unusual for a child to be injured or even suffocate to death.

“Soot! Sweep! Oh!” – the traditional cry of a chimney sweep when he appeared at the top of a street, touting for business. It was still night when they began work – 3am was the usual start time. The early morning round meant sweeping approx 30 chimneys before a bread-and-butter breakfast. It wasn’t just adults though, boys and girl sweeps had to work with their masters, despite the early start. These children swept chimneys for at least 200 years in Britain before legislation protected their welfare, following pressure from human rights campaigners.

Some of the youngsters enjoyed the work but far more suffered. It was the poor who felt the impact. Parents in poverty allowed their offspring to become sweep apprentices. The children lived with these men and rarely saw their parents. They were vulnerable to harm, depending on the moral character of the adult chimney sweep. There was no protection for them. Laws passed by parliament, to protect the children, were not taken seriously until the late 1800s.

Children fortunate to have a good master sweep would sleep within his family house. They’d get warm food and clothes. There might be special clothes for church on Sundays too. On the other hand, youngsters indentured to cruel adult sweeps would work non-stop, eat paltry food, and feared the wrath of their bad-tempered master, if they didn’t sweep efficiently. There are documented stories of these men sticking pins into the feet of boys and girls inside chimneys, forcing them to work quickly.

The worst cases were children climbing up chimneys, which were still alight, to put out the flames. A number of apprentices got stuck in the tight angles of the dark, sooty flues and suffocated to death.

Even with kind masters, the word was hard. Brine was applied to toughen-up knees and elbows for climbing. Young sweeps were often required to help clear toilets too at night, when master sweeps worked as ‘night watchmen’. Soot was sold to farmers and the sacks became a source of comfort for sleeping and storing things.

The reality of chimney sweeping was different to the public image. Sweeps, young and old, stuck out from the crowd with their soot-smeared faces and dark clothes. Some people feared the sweeps, seeing them as devilish. Others saw the sweeps as daring and romantic. A myth grew that a sweep would bring good luck if invited to a wedding day.

Technology develops

Geese were also used by chimney sweeps to clean chimneys. “The blacker the goose, the cleaner the flue” – was an old saying. The sweep would bind the legs together and toss the goose down the chimney. As the bird flapped its wings, soot would be knocked off the flue. It was a hard method to clean chimneys, as far as geese were concerned.

Technology took hold of the chimney sweeping process although it was a long time before it replaced children armed with scrapers. Alternative methods were first explored in the early 18th century. Joseph Glass, an engineer from Bristol, is credited with inventing the concept of canes-and-brushes equipment, which is still used to this day. The equipment could be pushed up from the fireplace to the chimney above. Early canes were made of malacca and imported from the East Indies. Brushes were made of whale bones, no nylon or polypropylene. Another method was the ball, brush and rope system from the continent. The lead or iron ball was lowered from the top of the chimney and the weight pulled the brush down, cleaning away any soot.

Despite these innovations, child sweeps were seen as the main ‘tools’ of the trade, and it took many years before master sweeps, and indeed the general public, were otherwise convinced. The debate raged on and on. An 18th century manor with 10 bedrooms would have many flues, and those against reform argued that only children could access these hard-to-reach areas. Reformers pointed out that machines were quicker and caused less mess, as well as the ethical concerns.

It was a tricky task registering a sweeping machine, if you did invent a device. The procedure before the Patent Law Amendment Act 1852 meant there were lots of documents, and a need for agreement from various officials – time consuming and costly. The new law made the process simple, which encourages inventions of machines. John Elim, of Hanover Square in London, was the first inventor to register a patent for a chimney sweeping machine on May 28th 1789. He called his new machine, with brushes attached to four frames, as an elastic brush. A competitor was Daniel Davis, of St Giles in the Fields, who came up with a box frame (July 4th 1796), rack with teeth and a large brush made of wire, sponge or elastic hair. It took many years before the debate between climbing boys (child sweeps) and technology was settled.

Sweeping – a changing trade

Radiators are a main source of heat in a contemporary home, often alongside indoor fires. They were invented in the mid 19th century but in days of yesteryear, it was a live, roaring fire that brought warmth to a home and usually in one room alone (although the installation of more flues gradually expanded heating-by-fire to other rooms in homes). Evidence of indoor fires have been found on the Scottish island of Orkney, dating about 3,000BC. A stone fireplace (hearth) was discovered, which would have been used for heat and cooking. There was a gap in the roof for smoke (dangerous, in fact) and this was the method until the Normans decided to move hearths to the side of rooms and invented chimneys.

At first, chimneys were made of stone (albeit wooden barrels were also used in the 14th century) but the designs evolved. Brick making, a popular trade in the 15th century, altered housing design and houses were reconstructed closer together after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Housing boomed in the 19th century with the industrial revolution and Britain’s empire ‘on which the Sun never set’. Any houses higher than one story needed a chimney sweeper.

The first chimney sweeps, as professional tradesmen, were recorded in the 16th century. John Scott from Ringstead was paid to sweep a kitchen chimney at Hunstanton Manor in Norfolk, in December 1519 – and paid two shillings. The trade expanded from countryside to towns and villages. In London, in the 17th century, sweeps were busy cleaning chimneys in homes for 150,000 Londoners. Poorer sweeps at this time sent in a petition about working conditions, ignored by authorities despite the sympathy of James I. It took the work of reformers, much later on, to bring about real change.

Reformers

Here are three brief bios of three reformers who helped to change the law so that children no longer worked as chimney sweeps. Their actions protected the welfare of youngsters and probably saved young lives too.

David Porter: He was a wealthy chimney sweep with property. David also had influence in getting better working conditions for the trade. His own father Stephen died from chimney sweeps’ cancer at the age of 38 but not before teaching the profession to both David and his brother.

David became a master sweep in London after gaining experience as a rural travelling sweep. His business boomed and he practised high standards in his work, leading to the formation of a ‘friendly society’ to promote the chimney sweep trade. David didn’t go to school and he taught himself reading and writing. He became concerned about the welfare of child chimney sweeps and wrote a little book on the subject in 1792, called ‘Considerations on the present state of chimney sweepers’. He believed that children, not machines, could sweep chimneys but the youngsters needed to receive proper welfare. David died aged 73 on May 31 1819.

Lord Shaftesbury: He pushed for legislative changes to help child chimney sweeps but the laws were largely ignored, such as the 1840 Act intended to stop the employment of boys under 16. As public opinion changed, he was more successful in 1864 in banning master sweeps from taking on young apprentices.

Elizabeth Montagu – She enjoyed respect from people of all classes, which gave her leverage to push for social reform. Elizabeth was born to wealthy and well-connected parents on October 2 1720. Her position meant that she became a top party host in London and she’d entertain the city’s sweeps on May Day each year at Montagu House, her mansion. The climbing children enjoyed a roast beef meal, with plum pudding, and dancing afterwards. A shilling coin was given to each of them as a gift. Elizabeth Montagu supported the efforts of David Porter (as above) and other reformers. She died in 1800.

Fashion

It’s not hard to imagine the look of a traditional chimney sweep. Soot-smeared face, cheeky grin, dark clothes and hat perched to the side of the head. A long brush, of course and various handkerchiefs tucked into pockets. We’ve come a long way since then in terms of visual appeal – chimney sweeping is, in fact, a serious business.

Nevertheless, chimney sweepers have changed their garbs throughout the ages. If you were a sweep in the early 1600s, you’d have worn knee-length trousers and a loose shirt. Shakespeare even mentioned the visual look of sweeps, comparing them to dust, in ‘Fear no more’ in his play, ‘Cymberline’ (1609).

Fear no more the heat ‘the sun;
Nor the furious winter’s rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers come to dust.

Another depiction of that era was an engraving of a master and apprentice by Marcellus Lauron of ‘Selsey and his boy’ in 1687. The boy wears a laced jacket and the older man some leggings with a short tunic. It’s said that in the 1700s, sweeps wore slippers so they could remove them easily to get up chimneys with bare feet.

Some sweeps in the early to mid 18th century wore sheepskin but later judged it expensive and not practical. Second hand rags and clothes from markets made up the garb of the 19th century. Yet some masters wanted their apprentices to ‘look the part’. For marketing purposes if nothing else, to attract prospective customers. The masters gave the young sweeps some trousers, a tunic, waistcoat and jacket. Any item of clothes, which would boost their professional appeal. The flipside was making the children look poor so the customer would feel sorry for them – and hopefully give free gifts such as extra shoes.

Modern day sweeps wear clothes entirely fitting to their trade: practical, hard wearing and respectable. As the chimney sweeping profession has evolved, so has the chimney sweep’s sense of self respect. Chimney sweeping is a worthy trade, which literally protects or saves lives. Chimney sweeps are friendly folk but their apparel will likely reflect the seriousness of their professionalism.

Tools of the Trade

Brushes and rods are the main tools used by every chimney sweep. Technology advances all the time and that’s of benefit to both sweep and customers. Some brushes are rotary powered, for example, so every nook and cranny of a chimney gets cleaned. There are also various vacuum systems utilised. Other tools help for inspection, cleaning and repairs. IT advances in equipment are fascinating. Sweeps can use video cameras and scanners; and computer aided diagnostic electronics. The result is that chimney sweeps today, more than ever, delivery comprehensive, reliable and high quality chimney sweeping services for customers.

Top Hat and Tails

Top hats and tails are a popular, traditional costume for chimney sweeps. Why? There are different accounts. One legend says that an ancient English king wanted to honour a sweep who saved his life, pushing him away from a runaway horse and carriage. The king allegedly gave sweeps the right to wear top hats – normally reserved for the royalty and gentry. A different myth has it that sweeps got their clothing as hand-me-downs from funeral directors. It gave a sense of respectability to a dirty job.

19th century lingo

“Eat your prog in that ken before tackling the notchy hole.” Confused? That’s the special lingo used by chimney sweeps in the 19th century. Colourful and to-the-point, sweeps in the Victorian era had their own language, which helped reinforce the notion that they lived in their own sooty-dark and mysterious world.

Try and practise these phrases:-

Hole – chimney

Ken – house

Prog – food

Scorch – beat with a brush

Switch – sweep’s brush

Tuggy – sooty cloth

Sweeps Luck

The culture of chimney sweeping has been associated with ‘good luck’ for centuries. Folklore says that a medieval king declared all sweeps lucky after he was saved from a runaway horse, by a sweep (as told elsewhere on this website). Another myth recalls a sweep who fell from a roof but his foot got stuck in a gutter, leaving him hanging upside down. A young woman, betrothed to another, pulled him in through a window. They fell in love and married. The myths have evolved so that some people consider it ‘lucky’ for a sweep to visit your home or attend your wedding.

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