Chimney Sweeps – A Brief History
Chimney sweeping is a needed and honorable profession with a history that goes back to 16th century England, though fireplaces date back to early Roman times. The story of chimney sweeps includes the first recorded case of an industrial cancer and the birth of a familiar phrase, to “light a fire under someone.”
The earliest days of chimney sweeps involved a filthy and difficult job performed for the wealthy who lived in large estate homes and castles, such as Leeds Castle in Kent, England. Then the trend of installing chimneys caught on. While at first it was only the ruling class who enjoyed a fireplace and chimney, before too long the working class began requesting fireplaces in every room of their home.
Sweeps would usually work from house to house along tight-knit city streets, and sometimes they moved from roof to roof, cleaning sooty chimneys.
Changes were made in the 17th century when England began charging a hearth tax that was based partly on the number of chimneys the house had. In order to avoid the hefty tax, builders began connecting flues of new fireplaces with the existing chimney. This created complex mazes of narrow, pitch black tunnels inside homes.
Another change was that coal began to be used in fireplaces instead of wood. Burning coal left sticky soot deposits in large amounts which had to be regularly cleaned; otherwise, smoke would fill the houses with toxic fumes.
It was with the increase in coal usage that regular visits from chimney sweeps became necessary and the profession rapidly grew. Chimney sweeps began to be associated with restoring fresh air in homes and the sweeps themselves became a symbol of good hearth and good health.
Ironically, the health of those most responsible for clean chimneys was sacrificed to the task. Tragically, small children were the primary “tool” used to clean the filthy, often maze-like chimneys and were the ones essentially enslaved to the job.
Destitute parents would either sell their children to a chimney master or poor orphan boys were chosen for the trade. In exchange for food, a home, and water, the children were made to work in nightmarish conditions. They worked from dawn to dust and it’s said that their only day off all year around was Mayday, when they would dance in England’s streets.
The primary job for the small children was to climb into chimneys in order to scrape the coal deposits from the flue lining. If a child was afraid to continue a climb, the master would sometimes light a small fire to motivate him to get busy working; that is where the phrase “to light a fire under someone”originated.
There were many perils for the children chimney sweeps, who were usually between the ages of 5 and 11 years old. Their developing bones became deformed because of the odd positions their bodies were in constantly as they scooted up chimneys. They suffered from soot inhalation, which was partially responsible for the fact that most child chimney sweeps didn’t live past middle age. The first recorded industrial cancer was suffered by male adolescent chimney sweeps. It was a painful and deadly cancer. Some children became trapped and died of suffocation inside chimneys.
Efforts were made from time to time to put an end to the cruel treatment of the children chimney sweeps. An English poet named William Blake wrote a poem called “The Chimney Sweeper” which helped spotlight the cruel life the children lived. “The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby,” a classic written by Reverend Charles Kingsley, also helped the cause.
In 1864, the English Parliament finally passed the “Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers” which made it illegal to send a child up a chimney.
Joseph Glass is credited by many with the invention of 18th century equipment designed to clean chimneys. Canes and brushes that he invented were used to keep fireplaces clean, and many modern tools are much the same.
Fireplaces faded into the background a bit as a heating source in the 1960s, when electricity and gas began to be used. As fossil fuel prices began to soar in the 1970s, fireplaces resurged in popularity.
Today’s professional chimney sweeps are not covered in soot, but they are educated in the science of chimneys and fireplaces as well as in building codes. Contemporary chimney technicians are trained to maintain every kind of venting system, from chimneys and flues to wood stoves and pellet stoves.
Chimney Solutions, Inc.
1155 McFarland 400 Drive, Alpharetta GA 30004