THE CHIMNEY SWEEP

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I frequently refer to sending children up chimneys, the way the Victorians used to. Albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Some people look at me as though I am a bit mad, I’m not sure that they quite understand what I’m talking about.

I am of that generation whose houses did not have central heating when I was a young child. There would be ice on the inside of our bedroom windows in the winter. Before going to school, one of my jobs was to clean out and lay the fire. Ours was a modern house, and there was only one coal fire. There was a built in electric fire in the dining room. Aside from that, we were left to our own devices.

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I would get up, go downstairs and use the specially designed rake (solid, without teeth) and ash tray to rake out all the ash from beneath the grate. The ash was cold by morning, so no risk of fire. Then I would lay the fire in the grate – kindling and newspaper to start, the coal went on top, once the kindling had got going.

All that wood and coal would cause the chimney to become covered in soot and creosote, which could catch fire (ours did occasionally) so once a year, a man would come around to sweep the chimney. He’d have a set of long wooden poles, with screw ends, so that they could be joined together and extended. The final one had a circular brush on it. Up, up, up, he would manually push the brush and poles, which must have been much harder than it looked. I do seem to recall that there was a machine that did the actual cleaning though. I would stand fascinated, watching, then run outside to see the brush come up through the top of the chimney. It was very exciting for me.

My memory of the chimney sweep is that he was a tall, thin man, who wore a tweed suit, with a shirt and tie, and a flat cap. And soot stains over him. It wasn’t uncommon for working men to wear a suit in those days: my dear old Dad, who was a bricklayer by trade, wore [an old] sports jacket, with a shirt and tie, under his khaki-coloured overalls. And take a look at the photographs at the Tower Bridge Experience, the ones where the work was being done in the 1960s – the foremen were all in suits, and some in bowler hats (no hard hats in those days). And not a child in sight to send up the chimney, so where on earth did I get that idea from?

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It’s not my imagination. People had fires in their homes to warm them since way back when, and in the early days of static homes, there would just be a hole in the roof to allow the smoke out. Over time, the rich built houses made from brick and with them, proper chimneys. Think Hampton Court. Then came the Industrial Revolution. More factories burning coal meant more chimneys. Factories making lots of money meant more rich people meant more big houses meant more chimneys. It was a time of growth for the sweeps, albeit that it wasn’t a particularly well-paid job.

The whole technology had changed too. Whereas the original purpose of chimneys was to get rid of the smoke, as they evolved, the chimney because a means of creating a draft in order to help keep the fires alight, hence the chimneys became angled and smaller. And harder to clean. They were no longer straight up and down, despite how they appeared from the outside.

Bear in mind that there was no Universal Credit or JSA in those days. If you were poor or in debt you could easily end up in the Workhouse. Little boys (and, sometimes girls) who were orphaned, or whose parents were unable to afford to keep them, were indentured to Master Sweeps as apprentices.

It seems that the optimum age for them starting their apprenticeship was age 6 – any younger and they were generally considered to be too weak, any older and they would get too big before they had finished their apprenticeship. The fact that they weren’t meant to be too big probably gave the Master Sweep a good excuse for not feeding them too much.

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The climbing boys were expected to clean four or five chimneys a day and it was a dangerous life. There was a danger that the boys would get stuck in the chimney (in which case the Master Sweep and other apprentices would either try pulling them out from the top, by means of rope, or from the bottom. If that failed, some of the bricks would have to be removed. The owners of the property did not want a body stuck up their chimney and one way or another, it had to be removed.

The sweeps would get cuts and grazes in the early days of their career, particularly on their knees and elbows, so the Master Sweeps would stand them next to a hot fire and rub in a brine solution, using a brush, to harden the skin. Sounds delightful.

Owing to the lack of space in the chimney, the boys would take off a lot of their clothes, sometimes going up the chimneys naked to sweep them. As if this wasn’t enough, the boys didn’t get paid, the boys had to sleep on soot covered sacks, rarely got to wash, and in late teens or early twenties, would often suffer from Chimney Sweeps’ Carcinoma. The sweeps called it Soot Wart. Whatever you call it, it sounds awful.

Soot is carcinogenic, and it was common disease in sweeps. It seems that soot particles would get caught in the skin around the scrotum. As we already know, personal hygiene was not a criterion for the job, so the soot would often stay in close contact with the skin.  A cancerous sore would develop.  It usually didn’t develop until the sweep was in his late teens or early twenties and was usually fatal.

The law did change in 1788, to give sweeps more protection, and over time, more laws were passed to improve their working conditions, although much of it was ignored for sometime.  Mechanical brushes replaced boys going up chimneys and building regulations changing the construction of chimneys were changed.  Eventually, it changed to being the man I remember and nowadays, it’s a far more technical job, involving diagnosis of hazards and repair as well as cleaning.

It is still considered lucky for a bride to see a chimney sweep on her wedding day, so some sweeps hire themselves out for this purpose, which is far more pleasant end to the story.

© Susan Shirley 2018

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