We’re having our chimney swept today; we don’t have a ‘real’ fire, but a gas one which still gives off deposits as the fuel burns. We had the fire serviced recently and the gasman switched it off and said we needed our chimney swept because there was not a proper through draft – which of course could be really dangerous. We didn’t expect there to be much soot but we thought a bird might have dropped something down our chimney, or even died and dropped down the chimney itself. So we rang a sweep and he’s busy downstairs… however, he hasn’t got a load of cane brushes, he isn’t dressed in tales and a top hat, and he is completely clean, not a sooty speck anywhere! He of course is using a sort of vacuum cleaner, and then hoovers up any little mess there might be with a conventional vacuum.
We had fires at home when I was a child, and periodically the chimneys would be swept. There must be some grumpy chimney sweeps, but I’ve only met jolly, cheerful ones. In the days when we had coal fires, everything in the room would be covered with dust cloths and the sweep would be there, fitting his canes together, then poking his brush up the chimney. We would run outside to watch it come poking out of the top, which always seemed so hilarious! What unsophisticated sense of humour we had, how easily made to laugh!
The Romans were the first people to have chimneys as we understand them, but it was over a thousand years before they appeared in castles in Britain, in the late twelfth early thirteenth century. Chimneys in castles would be massive, and there would not be the same problems with blockage as in a small domestic flue these days. Big houses had chimneys, but ordinary houses didn’t really have chimneys for another three hundred years.
The need for cleaning and sweeping chimneys was obvious, and the idea of pushing a brush up and collecting the soot as it fell became common. Brushes were on Malacca canes, and the actual brushing bit was made from whale-bone. With many chimneys however, the practice was to send small children, most often boys, but some girls too, to climb up the inside of the chimney, and brush and scrape the soot and tarry deposits. What a cruel nightmare of a job! These poor small children, must have been terrified, sometimes they fell, sometimes they got stuck, sometimes they were asphyxiated; their ‘masters’. They were little more than slaves, bought and sold under the guise of learning the trade. They were poorly treated, often half-starved, and often injured or got trapped and died in the chimneys – which were built to keep a good fire going, not to make it easy for a climber. These children were as young as four years old…
Our chimney sweep is a strapping man in his thirties, and he did no climbing at all, except up a ladder outside to put a grating on the top of the chimney to stop the naughty birds.