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The History of Chimney Sweeping

Posted on 08 November 2016

 

Chimney sweeping has been recognised in our history as far back as the Georgian period. The 'Master Sweep' of the day, employed small boys to climb and scramble up chimneys. Their job was to brush clean the inside of the flue,  with small hand-held brushes, they were also given metal scrapers to remove the harder deposits, such as tar caused by wood or log fire smoke. The boys were as young as 7 years old,  and usually were parish children or orphans, others were sold into the trade by their families. (Ruchala Chimney Sweeping 978-928-1121)

The conditions the boys worked in were usually harsh and cruel, sleeping in cellars on bags of soot they had used in their work that day, the boys were very rarely washed. The job was dangerous and filthy, with very little protection such as safety clothing and respirators. Instances were recorded where the boys choked and suffocated to death, through smoke and dust inhalation whilst trying to clean the chimneys. Brushing the flue as they went, they weren't done until their heads poked out of the chimney top. 

A lesser known fact is that geese were sometimes used to clean chimneys. The goose's legs were tied, and were pushed up the flue. The goose would naturally flap in panic, leaving their wings to loosen any stuck soot. This is where the old saying "The blacker the goose, the cleaner the flue" comes from. (Garythechimneysweep.co.uk)

People enjoyed the chimney sweep paying a visit as he brought clean, fresh air back to the home. In turn the chimney sweep became associated with good health and home. (Jamesthesweep.co.uk)

The 18th century brought about new chimney cleaning methods. Mr Joseph Glass who was an engineer from Bristol, is now widely recognised for inventing chimney cleaning equipment, that has become universal even to this day. The design and introduction of canes and brushes, which could be pushed up from the bottom of the fireplace into the chimney above, made a huge change to using the young boys. 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.

Another method of cleaning flues was developed in Europe, and is still a procedure used today in Scotland and other countries. This was the ball, brush and rope system, and was lowered down from the top of the chimney. The weight of the ball, often made from lead or iron,  allowed the brush to be pushed down, cleaning the chimney.

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, computer software and other electronic aids are utilised for diagnostics. The more tools the chimney sweep has, the better the service they can provide.

Along with the Industrial Revolution and a greater demand for coal production, chimney sweeps grew in numbers. Victorian London had over 1,000 chimney sweeps serving the area. (Ruchala Chimney Sweeping 978-928-1121)

In the mid 20th century, about the 1960's, gas and electricity, and other convenient fuels for heating were being implemented by many. However, the 1970's oil crisis brought a sudden increase in the prices of fossil fuels. This caused hundreds of people to go back to cutting and burning their own wood in their fireplaces. This was a health hazard resulting in chimney fires and cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, the reason being that fire places had long been blocked were now being used again, however, had not been properly swept first.

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!.

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