With roots in 16th century London, chimney sweeping is a profession that’s seen the best and worst in humanity over the centuries.
Although the Romans were the first civilization to move to isolated heat sources for buildings and indoor cooking, the practice of chimney sweeping wasn’t widespread or necessary until much later in the history of the world.
The Age of Industrialization brought increased need for chimney cleaning, as the number of houses with chimneys and flues increased rapidly as fuel became more affordable and fireplaces more prevalent. The Great Fire of London was a major factor in the implementation of building regulations and called for the alteration of chimney design. With a much more angular and narrow focus, master sweepers were no longer able to climb into the chimneys themselves.
In response to the rapid increase in fireplaces in chimneys in homes, a Hearth Tax was implemented in London. The bigger the home and the more chimneys it had, the higher the tax was. So builders began connecting existing chimneys and flues with new fireplaces, creating a complicated web of heat ducts running through the home.
As coal became more widespread in use and people began using less firewood to heat their homes, the necessity to regularly clean and maintain the inside of chimneys became paramount. With coal burning fireplaces, the danger for residue to cause a smoke back up and pollute the home was greatly increased. Queen Victoria went so far as to order all chimneys be cleaned regularly, which led to a quick increase in available chimney sweeps and their apprentices.
Coal soot was extremely difficult to remove. The iconic image of a chimney sweep and his brush became quickly outdated – removing coal soot required scraping, as the soot was extremely sticky. Coupled with the increasingly narrow construction of flues during the time period, the passageways by which a sweep would have to enter were dark, filthy, narrow, and difficult to breathe in. The ramshackle construction of the ductwork meant a chimney sweep may not even be able to see where he was going, let alone whether or not he was going to get out.
The image of a cute boy or girl with soot-covered faces that’s so engrained in our culture was quite the opposite. Older, larger chimney sweeps (sometimes called Master Sweeps) employed small children to travel into the small passageways and remove soot, which they inhaled. The coal deposits were removed and the children brushed the insides of the chimney with small brushes. Children that were fearful of climbing higher into the chimney were often forced upwards by their masters with a small candle or flame – hence the term “light a fire under you.”
Many children had to work in the nude, as narrow passageways didn’t provide any assistance to upward propulsion besides their bare knees and elbows, which were left ragged and raw. The children began at the bottom of the flue in the fireplace itself and wriggled their way upward and through the convoluted passageways until they reached the top. They often wore caps with brushes attached, so that they could leverage their heads against the edges of the chimney walls and brush out all loose soot. They held a scraper in their hands to remove stubborn residue, but other than their tools, they wore little to no clothing while they worked.
Respiratory problems were rampant, as were causalities related to stuck or lost children in the complex and dark flues. When they didn’t choke to death or suffocate from residue inhalation, they got stuck, or fell from decaying chimney stacks. The ones that survived sometimes fell victim to soot wart, which was a testicular cancer that moved its way up into the abdomen as the boys aged. The carcinogen related to soot wart is believed to be brought on by the coal tar that contained arsenic.
Life outside of work was hard for these small chimney sweeps. They were often orphans who were signed over to the Master Sweeps for guardianship, the only requirements being that he taught the child their tricks of the trade, clothed them, had them cleaned once per week, let them attend church, and to not intentionally send them to clean chimneys that were on fire. More chimney sweep apprentices were sold whole cloth by merchants or caretakers – or by their parents. The price of a chimney sweep apprentice ranged from 7 shillings to 4 guineas.
Many chimney sweeps lived as paupers, begging for food on the streets when they weren’t working. Their living conditions were poor; soot was everywhere, naturally, though their hygiene habits didn’t call for routine personal cleanings. They often slept on soot bags made of burlap, which were never cleaned.
The soot itself was actually the only way that early chimney sweeps were paid. Their services themselves didn’t originally draw a wage, so sweeps sold the soot they collected to farmers for fertilizer. Some clever chimney sweeps pressed soot into bricks using special boxes, making it easier to transport and therefore upping the value. Until the onset of chemical fertilizers in the 1800s, this was a viable method of income for chimney sweeps.
Previous regulation in 1788 prohibited a sweeper from bring on more than six apprentices and made 8 years old the requirement, but this law was universally ignored. It wasn’t until 1864 when Parliament finally passed regulations on the profession. The Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers mandated that young boys and girls were to no longer be used for cleaning chimneys, but it also tightened legislative controls over the profession and authorized fines or prison sentences for master sweeps found to be in violation of the law. It was at this time when sweeps had to get creative with their techniques, and a whole industry of chimney cleaning tools cropped up in no time.
Inventions utilizing a heavy iron or lead ball and rope system topush out soot from the chimney walls were common, but the introduction of a series of canes and brushes in the 18th century by Joseph Glass was the most influential. These could be assembled and used from the base of the fireplace all the way up to the end of the chimney without any climbing or entering the flues, which instantly increased the safety of the profession and variations of which are still used to this day.
However, the death of a young chimney sweep in 1875 was the final straw for the practice of youth labor in chimney sweeping. No longer were boys allowed up chimneys – in fact, the danger was so great that the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875 required that chimney sweepers had to be authorized by the police in order to conduct business.
In the 1960s, people started replacing their old coal and firewood fireplaces with newer gas and electric heaters. The chimney sweep industry had to pivot and adapt, but the ’70s saw a return to traditional firewood fireplaces due to an increase in fossil fuel costs. The real problem that arose with intermittent fireplace usage in the world of alternative heating sources was the potential for house fires and carbon monoxide poisoning unless they were properly cleared and cleaned.
Chimney sweeps are also a highly maintained and monitored industry, with the National Chimney Sweep Guild encouraging responsible, ethical chimney servicing and repairs. In addition, the Chimney Safety Institute of America is a non-profit, educational organization that strives to achieve safety and protect property against chimney fires. The organization certifies over 1,500 chimney sweeps in the United States, each of whom are required to demonstrate a commitment to fire safety and chimney service of the highest level. Each sweep is required to retest for certification every three years or by earning credits towards furthering their education through the CSIA or the National Fireplace Institute.
The tools of the trade are fairly standard – a chimney brush, vacuums, cameras, chemical cleaners, and specialized tools are all things you could expect to see in a modern chimney sweep’s tool belt. Today’s advanced technologies and techniques mean chimney sweeps can prevent, diagnose, and repair any chimney-related problems. Chimney sweeps also know how to look for dangerous creosote build-up, firebox and damper repair, and even smoke chamber repairs. Many, like Chimcare, offer full-service chimney care work, including masonry jobs and modifications to the chimney itself. Another vital component in modern chimneys is a chimney cap, which will alleviate potential headaches and removal costs related to small animals entering your chimney. A relatively inexpensive device, it installs in the top of your chimney and can prevent animals, moisture, and debris from entering your chimney while also keeping small embers from hitting your roof. However, Santa Claus protection is not guaranteed.
Whether you’re in need of a cleaning, repair, a new chimney liner, flue, or cap, you can count on modern professional chimney sweeps like Chimcare. Contact us today to discuss your chimney situation and to learn more about our services.