A Colorful but Lucky History
Chimney Sweeping is one of the oldest occupations in the world. Its origins can be traced to Europe as far back as medieval times. Way back then cities burned down at an average of every twenty-five years. So many of the fires started because of the soot that built up inside the chimneys from the coal and wood that were our main fuel sources. In order to prevent these travesties from happening someone had to clean out this flammable material. Thus the profession of chimney sweeping was formed.
During the 1700s through 1800s children were used as chimney sweeps. The main reason for this is they were the only ones small enough to be able to enter the chimneys and cleaning them out from the inside. The only tools they could use were small handheld brushes and metal scrapers. These children became known as ” climbing boys but it wasn’t just boys that did this. In some cases, girls were sent into the chimneys as well.
These children were a form of indentured servants. They were either homeless children living on the streets or were orphans that were bought from the many orphanages by a Master Chimney Sweeper. The master would train the children while being responsible for their lodging for them. Since the money they earned went straight to the master sweeper, the children often had to beg for any food and clothing they could get. These children often lived in deplorable conditions. They carried a large sack with them to store the soot they swept from the chimneys. It often doubled as their blanket to sleep in at night. It was normal for these children to get scared and become reluctant to the inside of the chimney. So it became common practice among Masters to light a small fire in the fireplace made of either straw or paper so the child couldn’t climb back down. This is where the phrase “to light a fire under you” came from. The child wasn’t considered finished until his head poked out from the top of the chimney.
There were many risks involved for the children. These ranged from Getting stuck inside a chimney, choking on the ashes and soot, or falling to their deaths on unsafe roofs. Many of them suffered from a lot of health problems. Difficulty breathing, deformities, and even cancer were some of the conditions that plagued the workers. After seeing these atrocities, the public cried out for changes to ensure the safety of these children. In spite of many campaigns and notable opponents, they would not succeed until 1864.
In 1840 an act was passed forbidding anyone under the age of 21 years old from climbing chimneys. It didn’t have much of an impact. The reason for this was the penalties were small. In 1864 Lord Shaftesbury introduced legislation which imposed a fine of £10 on anyone who dared to break this law. The penalty was quite steep for its time. The law found widespread support amongst the police, court, and the public thus ending the cruelty.
It was after this the sweeps began getting the cast-off clothes of the town funeral director. This basic black top hat and tails added an air of distinction to an otherwise dirty but very necessary job. It was also said that they wore slippers so they could be easily removed to free up their toes to aid in their climbing. Around this time chimney sweeping flourished and many became their town’s night man, whose job it was to clean out the privy.
During the Industrial revolution with the widespread use of coal as a heating fuel, there were over 1,000 chimney sweeps in London alone. This trend continued until the 1960s when gas and electricity became a more economical alternative to coal. Many of the Master Sweeps went into retirement. However, as a result of the high fossil fuel prices in the 1970s, caused by several oil crises, many people again decided to turn back to burning wood. In many cases, they used fireplaces that hadn’t seen any use or service for a long time.
This caused a rash of chimney and house fires as well as carbon monoxide poisoning from clogged chimneys. The popularity of the fireplace increasing created a demand for more sweeps. At this time while we still used some of the tried and true methods for cleaning, technology has given us the use of more sophisticated equipment. Enhanced brushes, chimney rods, and vacuum systems are just a few of the new tools that we have in our arsenal.
Along with these advancements have come new responsibilities. A chimney sweep today is a professional that not only sweeps chimneys but who can diagnose chimney related hazards and is properly trained to handle all repairs to your chimney and venting systems. They also work with many different types of fuels from coal, wood, oil, gas, pellets, and more.
Now not all of the history of chimney sweeping is bad. According to the lore from certain cultures, it’s quite lucky to see a chimney sweep. Legend has it that in 1066 King William of Britain was saved from being hit by a runaway carriage by a chimney sweep. The king rewarded him by inviting the sweep to his daughter’s wedding. It is also said that it’s good luck to see a chimney sweep on your wedding day especially to shake his hand or be kissed by him. In many Countries, sweeps are still invited to weddings to ensure a good start to a happy marriage.
In Poland and Croatia, sweeps still wear the traditional Top hat and tails. It’s good luck to rub one of the buttons of their coats if you pass them in the street. While in China a chimney sweep is associated with childbirth. It’s said that a stork won’t visit a house with a dirty chimney. According to the Germans, it’s good luck to give sweep figurines around New Years’. These are sometimes given with flowers or candy. So the next time you see a chimney sweep, don’t think about the bad things that came from the past, he just might be your good luck charm.