History of Chimney Sweeping

When most people think of chimney sweeps, they conjure an image of a soot-covered child in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Chimney sweeping is an ancient profession. Records of people earning their living by clean chimneys go back as far as the 16th century and it has long been known that chimneys need to be brush cleaned to prevent fires.

In the 17th century, a local Master Sweep would employ small boys to climb and scramble up chimneys. The task for these ‘climbing boys’ was to brush clean the inside of the flue with small hand-held brushes. They also used metal scrapers to remove the harder tar deposits left by wood or log fire smoke.

The boys were apprentices and were bound to the trade as young as seven years old. A Master was paid a fee to clothe, keep and teach the child his trade. The smaller the child the longer he could work for the sweep, so many were underfed. Clothing was sparse so that it did not snag in the chimneys, mainly only covering the groin.

Conditions for the boys were harsh and often cruel. They slept in cellars on bags of soot and seldom washed or changed their clothes. Years of accumulated soot and grime often produced cancer of the testicles. It was a dangerous and filthy job for the boys to undertake, especially without the protection of safety clothing and respirators. Sadly there are recorded instances where these Climbing Boys choked and suffocated to death by dust inhalation whilst attempting to clean chimneys. Casualties were also frequent as boys became stuck in narrow flues or fell from climbing rotten chimney stacks.

The ‘London Society of Master Sweeps’ had its own set of rules. One of these rules was that the boys were not required to work on Sundays but instead had to attend Sunday School to study, learn and read the Bible.

Climbing Boys were usually parish children or orphans, though others were sold into the trade by their families. Some grew up to be Journeymen (assistants to the Master). The remainder were put out to various trades as they grew too big to try to learn a new occupation.

It took many years and many campaigns before Acts of Parliament approved by the House of Lords finally outlawed the use of Climbing Boys. In 1864, Lord Shaftesbury brought in the “Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers” which established a penalty of £10.00 for those who flouted the law.

In the early part of the 18th century, various types of chimney cleaning methods were being developed.

An engineer from Bristol, Mr. Joseph Glass, is now widely recognised as the inventor of the chimney cleaning equipment which has become universal to this day. This was the design and introduction of canes and brushes, which could be pushed and propelled up from the fireplace at the bottom of the chimney, up the flue and out of the pot on the roof above. Early canes were made of Malacca and imported from the East Indies. Brushes were made of whale bones at this stage as there was no nylon or polypropylene as there is now.

Another method of cleaning flues developed originally in wider Europe was the ball, brush and rope system. A heavy large metal ball was lowered down from the top of the chimney. The weight of the lead or iron ball pulls a brush down through the flue into the fireplace below, thus cleaning the chimney. This procedure is still used widely in Scotland and Europe even today. With the Industrial Revolution and ever greater demand for coal production, chimney sweeps grew in numbers. In Victorian London there were over 1,000 chimney sweeps serving the city.

The continued growth of coal as the main fuel for domestic heating ensured that the sweeping trade flourished. Only in the early 1960s when gas began to be installed, coal and open fires began to be replaced as a source of domestic heating. The switch to gas continued to grow in the seventies and many of the old established family sweeps retired or gave up the business.

Until this period, sweeps had traditionally cleaned only coal, wood and oil chimneys. Public awareness of the need for clean, safe and clear chimneys has almost non-existent in the UK but is still a thriving livelihood across mainland Europe

Although, thankfully, Climbing Boys are no longer used, there is still a huge need for regular chimney cleaning of flues serving all fuels (coal, wood, oil and gas) to both the trade and public. Carbon monoxide poisonings from blocked chimneys, excess creosote and tar in chimneys and the potential for fires is still as much of a danger to our health today as it was in the 17th Century, we just use cleaner, safer, more efficient and speedy methods to carry out the work!