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A History of Chimney Sweeps

When someone mentions the job role of the chimney sweep, generally the image conjured up by the imagination is that of an 17th or 18th century man or child in black attire, covered in soot from toe to cap.  And this may be the era that many believe the profession began, as coal was beginning to be used as a source for heating, and chimneys were becoming a standard feature in most homes.

This, however, isn’t the case. As far back as the Roman era (well before me and my regulars in Tunbridge Wells, Brighton and Hove started using them!), chimneys were used by families as a way of funneling away excess smoke from their log fires out of the room and through the roof. Most homes, however, didn’t have this luxury and instead heated their homes with wood fires mounted on hearthstones, which were set up either against one wall, or in the centre of the room.

It was much later, during the 16th century, that British homes began to see the widespread introduction of the fireplace and chimney as part of most houses. People saw the benefit of having an appliance that could keep their families warm and provide a useful place to cook, whilst avoiding having the smoke produced wafting through the building and out of any other available nook and cranny.

It is about the 17th and 18th centuries that chimney cleaning as a recognised profession really started to take off.  It became the fashion to have a fireplace in most rooms of the house, so that they could be heated individually. The government saw an opportunity here and introduced a hearth tax. The amount paid by each household was determined by the size of the house and the number of chimneys attached.

To save money, people would use separate flues to accommodate any extra fireplaces built into the house, and run them through any existing chimneys instead of adding new ones.  If they weren’t adding chimneys, then their tax to pay would remain as it was. The more flues that were added per chimney, the narrower they needed to be. The ever increasing narrowness of flues made it increasingly tricky for adult chimney sweeps to get their less advanced tools of the trade far enough into the spaces to clean them.

It is often said that this is why old fashioned chimney sweeps are often depicted as children. It is thought that only a child could cram themselves into tiny flues in order to give them a good clean, and so they were employed to do some of the dirty work.

A lesser known fact is that geese were sometimes used to clean chimneys. In a practice that the RSPCA definitely wouldn’t allow today, the goose’s legs were tied, and they were pushed up the flue. Naturally, the goose would flap in panic and their wings would bat at and loosen any stuck soot. This is where the old saying, “The blacker the goose, the cleaner the flue!” comes from. During this time period, coal was rapidly overtaking wood and other solid fuels as the favourite heat source, and although coal was easily accessible, it was messy. Coal fires produce sticky masses of soot, which doesn’t come away from the surfaces it touches and clings to, too easily.

A quick scrub with a sweep brush won’t do the trick, and so someone needs to be employed to scrape away at this pesky debris. In the 17th and 18th century, this is where the local chimney sweep would come in. For a time, after the chimney sweep’s visit, a home would be free of unhealthy, sooty air, meaning a spell of freshness for the family.  For this reason, the sweep was becoming an increasingly popular and welcomed character in the community.

It can’t have hurt their reputation either that chimney sweeps carried out their work free of charge. Soot is little known as a useful fertilizer these days, but back then, farmers would buy mounds of the stuff for their crops from the local sweep. This money spinner was the primary source of income for chimney sweeps right up until the late 1800s, when chemical fertilizers were introduced. The more entrepreneurial sweeps also invested in boxes that allowed them to compress the soot they hoarded into bricks, which were then sold on.

The Industrial Revolution was good news to the chimney sweeps of Great Britain, as the air was now thick with soot and dust from the industrial machines and overcrowding of houses, meaning that it was a near impossible task to keep new buildings (often made of Portland stone) looking spick and span. Living conditions were so poor that it is rumoured that Queen Victoria ordered that all flues and chimneys were to be swept regularly. Coal was now even more in both supply and demand, and in London, more than a thousand chimney sweeps were at work in England’s capital city.

In the mid 20th century, about the 1960s, gas, electricity and other more convenient fuels for heating were being implemented by many. However, in the 1970s, oil crises meant a sudden increase in the prices of fossil fuels, causing hundreds of people who couldn’t keep up financially to go back to cutting and burning their own wood in their fireplaces –  a health hazard resulting in many chimney and house fires and cases of carbon monoxide poisoning; the reason being that fire places that had long been blocked were now being used again and not properly swept first. Since then, fireplaces are still steadily coming back into fashion as functioning heating appliances as opposed to decorative features in the home. More fireplaces can only mean one thing… more chimney sweeps!

The Evolution of Chimney Sweeping

The methods of chimney sweeping have come a long way from utilising children and geese! Thankfully today, chimneys are swept safely and at the detriment of no one’s health (human or bird). While chimneys are now swept using pretty uniform methods, in the earlier parts of the 18th century especially, chimney sweeps had developed several different methods for cleaning flues.

It was an engineer and inhabitant of Bristol called Joseph Glass that is most widely credited with the invention of chimney and chimney pot cleaning equipment that is still in use today. It is said that Joseph came up with the idea of using rods, canes and brushes, pushed and manoeuvred up through the fireplace to clean a chimney. While the equipment is still used to this day, the materials used have come a long way.

Nowadays, brushes are made of nylon and/or polypropylene, whereas materials sourced in Joseph’s day were more likely to have been whale bones or malacca imported from the East Indies. The Europeans, however, did things a little differently, and this method was adopted for a while by some Brits. This way, the chimney sweep would use a ball, brush and rope system, which was lowered from the top of the chimney, rather than pushed up through the fire place.

The reason for the iron ball was that its weight would push the brush down with more force, cleaning the chimney as it went. In addition to the general sweeps and brushes, a chimney sweeps’ tools of the trade are usually more sophisticated now. Cameras and other tools can be used to inspect, and computer software and other electronic aids are utilised for diagnostics. This is a good thing, as the more tools in a chimney sweep’s arsenal, the better a service they can provide.

Chimney Sweep Myths and Legends

Most of us have heard that chimney sweeps are lucky folk. It is considered good luck to have a chimney sweep present at your wedding, and it is also meant to be lucky to have you hand shaken by, to be kissed by or touched by (especially early in the morning) a sweep. Another, more baffling one, is that you are meant to be blessed with good fortune if you see a chimney sweep carrying a pig on New Year’s Day (because this is a common sight, right?).

For a while, it was even customary for a chimney sweep to walk through a town with a pig. Townsfolk would pay the sweep a sum of money to make a wish whilst pulling a hair from the pig. A novel way to earn money! The sources of such beliefs as those above are numerous. One of the more commonly heard reasons for sweeps being considered lucky is that a sweep once pushed the king out of the path of a carriage in medieval England and from that day, they were pronounced as a symbol of luck as one saved the king’s life as a result of his actions.

This story is also sometimes deemed the reason that chimney sweeps wore top hats and tails for a time. The clothing was seen as a mark of honour from the king, as it was usually only the gentry and royalty that wore such attire. On a similar note, it is rumoured that the clothing was not a mark of honour from royalty, but more to do with chimney sweeps dressing in cast-offs from funeral directors, as the black colouring was practical in such a dirty job. It is also said that sweeps wore slippers so that they could be easily taken off during a job, allowing them to use their toes to climb chimneys.

Even to this day, chimney sweeps are viewed as good luck charms, along with such symbols as the four leaf clover and the horse shoe. Whether there is any truth in the idea of chimney sweeps being lucky, I’m sure it won’t do you any harm to shake me or any of my fellow chimney sweeps by the hand when you see us. After all, you never know!

Want to grace your chimney with my lucky presence? Then please do get in touch if you are from in or around any of the following areas:

  • Brighton
  • Hove
  • Lewes
  • Seaford
  • Eastbourne
  • Worthing
  • Portslade
  • Henfield
  • Tunbridge Wells
  • Sevenoaks
  • Burgess Hill
  • Horsham
  • Tonbridge
  • Hurstpierpoint