Chimney sweeping developed as a necessary profession as a result of two innovations… the invention of the chimney and the use of coal as a fuel source for heating.
The chimney has been a part of family life since the early Romans first realised that it was better to live in a nice, fire-warmed home than in a chilly one. They constructed the chimney and flue as a way to funnel off the smoke caused by log fires out to the roof. However for centuries, few homes had adopted this practice and homes were heated primarily by a central wood fire burning on hearthstones that was situated in the middle of the room or against one wall.
The smoke from the fire simply drifted out the windows, doors or through openings in the roof. It was not until the 16th century, primarily in medieval England, as new homes were built or older homes transformed to provide greater comfort that fireplace and chimney became widespread as a distinct heating appliance and also to provide a safe place for indoor cooking.
Although the origins of chimney sweeping can be traced back to the medieval period, chimney sweeping really developed as a fully established profession in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. As people began to appreciate the benefits of fireplaces and chimneys, they demanded more and more fireplaces be added to their homes to heat individual rooms, and soon there were fireplaces in every room. During this same time period, citizens were subject to a hearth tax. The amount of tax paid was determined by the size of the house, which in turn was determined by the number of chimneys that were present. To reduce the tax burden, flues venting the additional fireplaces were added within the existing chimney spaces and these would often connect together in a complicated maze of completely dark tunnels. As the number of flues within the chimneys increased, their sizes decreased. As such, flues became increasingly narrow.
During this same time period, the use of coal began to grow in popularity and began to replace wood as a fuel source. Coal makes a sticky soot which does not all come loose with the use of a chimney sweep brush; chimney edges need scraping where soot builds up. People soon realised that fireplace cleaning and fireplace sweeping would become a necessity as a house full of soot and fumes is unhealthy. And so, the necessity of sweeping a chimney began. People liked having the chimney sweep pay a visit as he brought clean, fresh air back to the home and thus the chimney sweep became associated with good health, hearth and home.
It is interesting to note that early on, chimneys were swept for free. A chimney sweep made money by selling the soot to farmers and gardeners as a soil fertilizer. This provided a good source of income for the chimney sweep that lasted until the late 1800’s when chemical fertilizers became available. Enterprising chimney sweeps also had special boxes to compress the soot into bricks which they also sold for additional income.
With the onset of the Industrial Revolution the chimney sweep profession thrived. In Victorian London, for example, every surface was coated with soot from the widespread use of coal as a heating fuel. New buildings being constructed of Portland stone didn’t stay pristine for long. The air people breathed was often foggy with the smoke from the chimneys that vented the many coal fires coming from the crowded housing of the city. It is said that living conditions were so bad that Queen Victoria ordered that all flues or chimneys be swept often. In Victorian London, well over 1,000 Chimney Sweeps served the city. The continued expansion of coal as the main fuel for domestic heating ensured that the trade continued to flourish.Needless to say, the chimney sweep profession has changed since the early Victorian days. During the early 1960’s, the switch to other more convenient forms of heating – gas and electricity in particular, replaced coal as the primary source for central heating. As such, the chimney sweep profession died down. However, with the two oil crises in the 1970’s, prices of fossil heating fuels soared and many people decided to go back to cutting and burning their own wood. Often, this was done using fireplaces that had not been properly cleaned or serviced in a very long time, causing many chimney and house fires as well as carbon monoxide poisonings from blocked fireplaces. Over the years, the fireplace has emerged from its slumber as merely an architectural decoration into a fully functioning appliance. As the popularity of fireplaces increased, so has the need for fireplace maintenance, an old profession that is still growing today.
Did you ever wonder why so many pictures depict children as chimney sweeps? It was understood even in the Georgian period of British history that chimneys had to be brush cleaned. Because of the lack of proper tools and because the flues of the time were often about fourteen inches wide, using children was a necessity. Only a child was small enough to fit inside the chimneys to clean them!
In addition to children, geese were often employed as implements of chimney cleaning and repair . An old chimney sweep cleaners phrase is, “The blacker the goose the cleaner the flue”. The sweep would tie the legs together and toss it down the chimney. The flapping wings would knock some soot down. Of course, the work wasn’t any better for the birds than it had been for children!
In the early part of the 18th century, various types of chimney cleaners methods were being developed. An engineer from Bristol, England, Mr. Joseph Glass, is widely recognised as the inventor of chimney and chimney pot cleaners equipment, which has become universal even to this day to flue cleaners. This was the design and introduction of canes and brushes, which could be pushed and propelled up from the fireplace into the chimney above. Early canes were made of malacca and imported from the East Indies. Brushes were made of whale bones, no nylon or polypropylene.
The other method of cleaning flues that was developed originally came from Europe. This was the ball, brush and rope system which was lowered down from the top of the chimney. The weight of the lead or iron ball pulled the brush down, thus cleaning the chimney.
In addition to the traditional brushes and rods, today’s chimney sweeps use a variety of sophisticated tools and methods for inspection, cleaning and repair. From video cameras and scanners, to computer aided diagnostic electronics, to brush and vacuum systems, today’s chimney sweeps take advantage of the latest in high tech equipment to more easily deliver comprehensive, reliable and quality chimney sweeping services to customers.
There are several legends as to why chimney sweeps wore top hats and tails. One legend has it that in old England the King, wishing to honour the Chimney Sweep who saved his life by pushing him out of the way of a runaway horse and carriage, awarded their profession the special recognition of wearing top hats, which was a custom previously reserved for royalty and the gentry.
Another legend has it that chimney sweeps most often got their clothing as cast-offs from funeral directors. The outfit was always a very practical black in colour and gave an air of distinction to a dirty, though necessary, job. In addition, it is said that in the 1700’s, chimney sweeps often wore slippers because they could be more easily removed, freeing the toes to aid their climbing grip.
Did you know that it is good luck to see a chimney sweep on your wedding day and most especially to shake his hand or be kissed by him? It is also considered good luck to touch a chimney sweep particularly early in the morning and to be greeted by a chimney sweep carrying a pig on New Year’s Day.
Chimney sweeps have long been considered a source of good luck. The association of chimney sweeps with good luck, health and prosperity obviously has its source in folklore. One legend has it that it all started in medieval England when one day the King was saved by a Chimney Sweep, who pushed him out of the way of a runaway horse and carriage. As a reward for his good deed, the King decreed that all Chimney Sweeps should henceforth be regarded as lucky.Still another tradition goes back, so it is said, to a chimney sweep who lost his footing and fell from a roof. He was caught on the gutter and hanging by his foot when a young lass, whose hand was intended for another, reached through the window and pulled him in saving his life. They fell in love and the two were later married. It has ever since been considered good luck to have a chimney sweep at a wedding or special event or to visit your house. Even to this day, chimney sweeps are invited to weddings to kiss the bride, assure a good start to a happy marriage and to extend good fortune to the new hearth and home.
Chimney sweepers are often associated with a number of other good luck symbols. For example, pigs and chimney sweeps are often linked together in tradition as good luck charms. It once was customary for the town chimney sweep to tote a pig through the streets on New Year’s Day; people paid a sum to make a wish while pulling a hair from the pig. Chimney sweeps are often shown together with various symbols of good luck and good fortune such as pigs, shamrocks, four leaf clovers, horseshoes and sacks of money.
Today, a Chimney Sweep remains a symbol of good luck, wealth and happiness. So when you meet a Chimney Sweep, remember to shake his hand for luck!