Long before the cheerful depiction of London chimney sweep, Bert, in Mary Poppins, the profession of chimney sweeps has been at the heart of England’s industrial past. Even today, it’s an incredibly important profession, ensuring homes the length and breadth of the country are safe and smoke-free. For those in the 21st-century who enjoy a fire to heat their home and keep it comfortable, especially during the winter, employing a chimney sweep is a key part of maintenance. The history of this crucial service is an interesting one, which we delve into further below.
Chimney Construction Throughout the Ages
The first chimneys were seen in the Roman era. The way Roman’s typically warmed their homes were interior pipes laid under the floor, much like today’s underfloor heating systems. Their bakeries, on the other hand, included flues which took the smoke outside, keeping the air inside the building clean. After the Roman empire departed from England’s land, people lived with open fires in the middle of the room, in a period known as “the dark ages.” This central fire is where they would cook their dinner and where they would shelter around for warmth during the night. If you’ve ever sat around a bonfire, you can imagine how smoky it would have been for the inhabitants of the building. Not to mention how unhealthy it was to continually breathe in smoky air!
After the Norman invasion of England in 1066, a new concept of living was introduced. This was two-storey homes. Within the “middle ages,” rooms would often feature a heavy fog of smoke around the ceiling beams, simply because the smoke struggled to exit the room. However, this new architectural style in England meant that fires in the middle of a room were not feasible. Instead, fires were incorporated into niches in walls, as this ensured the smoke would exit the building straight up, rather than filling the room with toxic, unhealthy smoke. Additionally, when the Gothic era was in full force, a popular style in grander homes included stone hoods. These hoods were incredibly useful for directing the smoke from the open chimneys into the flues.
While chimneys have been an architecture feature since the Roman era, it wasn’t until the mid-16th century in England when the art of chimney sweeping began to take shape and become more prevalent. Homes in this century began to be built with fireplaces and chimneys throughout the property, in a bid to keep it warm but to also introduce more indoor cooking in a safe location.
Evolving from Necessary Features to Interior Décor Elements
It’s hard to beat an open fire; it conveys images of long-lost romantic eras and is something homeowners often crave. Now central heating systems are prevalent throughout homes, an open fireplace has transformed from something which people needed to keep warm and cook their food, into something which is lusted over for its décor properties. A real fireplace is a true selling point of any property, one which commands attention to whatever room it is in. While you can install faux fireplaces into a room, including electric fireplaces, there’s nothing quite like a real fire, with logs crackling in the background, especially during the winter. It’s for this reason why fireplaces hold such a place in the hearts of the nation, and it’s why they are enjoying a revival in recent years.
The Introduction of Chimney Sweeps
Due to the increase of fireplaces throughout buildings, and the fact the structure itself was using bricks instead of wood, the profession of chimney sweeping sprung to life. It was apparent to homeowners that the chimneys needed to be kept clean. By ensuring the chimneys are kept clean, you not only create a free passage for any smoke or gas produced by the fire, but you also remove any birds’ nests, cobwebs, and other blockages. As the number of homes which featured chimneys increased, especially in high population areas, chimney sweeps could often move from roof to roof to clean and maintain the chimneys in the area.
England’s Hearth Tax
As the trend for fireplaces in individual rooms throughout the home swept the country, the government introduced a hefty hearth tax. This tax took into account how big the home in question was and how many chimneys it had which could be taxed. However, clever homeowners had a smart way to get around this. They simply began to increase the flues within the existing chimney spaces. These increased flues would often connect to each other, to create a maze to clean. What’s more, during this time, the size of flues decreased, and while they were once large and airy, they now began to become narrower and narrower, creating a pitch-black complex structure chimney sweeps had to clean.
Children as Chimney Sweeps
Due to the narrow structures’ chimneys had become in an effort to beat the hearth tax, it became common to see children working as chimney sweeps. These were children from lower working-class backgrounds who endured tough working conditions to supplement their family income. Children, primarily young boys between the age of 5 and 11, could fit into the narrow chimneys to sweep and clean them. This practice, however, often resulted in tragic injuries and dangerous working conditions. It is reported that to ‘encourage’ the boys to climb up, the chimney master would light a small fire below as a motivation. The phrase “to light a fire under someone” originated from this cruel practice.
The revised Chimney Sweeps Act, created in 1840, stated the minimum age for apprenticeship must be 16. Unfortunately, this act was largely ignored because there wasn’t any enforcement. It meant that young children, sometimes younger than 10 years old, were still employed as a chimney sweep, made to climb inside the structure.
However, there was light at the end of the tunnel for child chimney sweeps. In 1875, new legislation stated that all chimney sweeps much be licenced, and police could now enforce all previous laws relating to the employment of chimney sweeps.
It wasn’t only children who were expected to clean chimneys in a cruel way. It’s a lesser-known fact, but geese were also used as a method of reaching inside the narrow structure. Again, this practice gave us another idiom which was once popular: “the blacker the goose, the cleaner the flue.”
The Luck of The Chimney Sweep
Most people are aware of the belief that chimney sweeps bring good luck, wealth and happiness, but are less aware of how this tradition started. There are, in fact, two different tales that have contributed to the popularity of the belief. The first stems from 1066. King William (William the Conqueror) was walking through London when an out of control carriage headed straight towards him. Luckily, a chimney sweep was nearby and jumped into action to push the king out of the way, saving his life. However, there is doubt over the truth behind this tale, as the tale states King William declared only chimney sweeps could wear top hats within their profession, but top hats weren’t a popular item of clothing in 1066.
Therefore, it’s generally believed that this tale became mixed up with a more recent tale, set in the 1700s. This legend states that King George was riding his horse when a dog appeared, startling his horse, making the king lose control. A chimney sweep came to his aid, much like in the tale of King William, and saved the king. King George then declared all chimney sweeps are lucky.
However the tradition started, whether in 1066, the 1700s, or even later, it’s still a popular belief today, especially in the UK. To see a chimney sweep on your wedding day is extremely lucky, which is why many couples even today hire a chimney sweep to attend their wedding day to shake the groom’s hand and kiss the bride.
The Evolution of Chimney Sweeping
Today, the method of chimney sweeping has certainly evolved from employed children and geese! In the 21st-century, the brushes are made of nylon and/or polypropylene, but the equipment we use today was created by an engineer from Bristol, Joseph Glass. Glass created the equipment that uses rods, canes, and brushes, which is then pushed up the fireplace into the chimney and manoeuvred to clean. The materials Glass used were sourced from whales’ bones or Malacca imported from the East Indies.
Today, chimney sweep tools include the use of electronics and technology to inspect and maintain chimneys. For example, a chimney sweep can now use cameras to inspect inside the flue. They can also use additional electronic aids to ensure the safety and integrity of the structure before attempting to clean it, ensuring the sweep and the property are kept safe.
Chimney Sweeps in Popular Culture
Of course, one of the most famous and memorable depictions of chimney sweeps in popular culture is undoubtedly Bert and his friends in Mary Poppins. The character of Bert is an incredibly happy-go-lucky one, who’s cockney accent is now legendary, and some may say a cause for amusement all on its own! However, one criticism of the portrayal of chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins is how cheerful Bert is. It is worthwhile remembering that the film is primarily for children.
The profession of chimney sweeping has a long and illustrious history. Without chimney sweeps, the world (and our homes!) would be a much darker place.