The profession of chimney sweeping can date back to as early as the 16th century. England had instilled a hearth tax which was based on the size of the home as well as the number of fireplaces the home had. In an effort to lower the tax amount, builders would often connect multiple flues to one chimney. This posed potential threats to the safety of the home, which often left homes catching on fire. Coal began to be the popular burning choice for many homeowners. Since coal left behind more soot than wood, the need for chimney sweeping increased. Queen Victoria of England required all chimneys be cleaned on a regular basis.
Back then, chimneys were so narrow that the Master Sweep couldn’t fit inside the flue and needed the help of apprentices, otherwise known as “Climbing Boys.” These children were typically orphans and were as young as 4 years old when they started. The orphanages or legal guardians (if they had any) had to sign Papers of Indenture, which allowed the Master Sweep to basically enslave the children until they were adults themselves.
The apprentices would use their backs, elbows, and knees to guide themselves up the chimney flue and brush away any creosote buildup they came in contact with. Sometimes, they would get lodged in the flue. If they were unable to dislodge themselves, they could be stuck in this position until someone pushed or pulled them out. The boys often suffocated from all the build up and many even died. There were times where the boys needed a little push in order to do their jobs faster. Master sweeps would light small fires as well as have other boys prick the rear ends and feet of the cleaning boy. Life was not always easy for these climbing boys, but if they could stick it out during their 7-year apprenticeship, they would become a journeyman sweep. Once they were a journeyman sweep, they could work for a sweep of their choice.
Eventually, this profession had established some regulations and standards. The Chimney Sweepers and Chimney Regulations Act of 1840 was passed to end child labor and the Chimney Boys Act prohibited any under 21 years old to sweep a chimney. Lastly, A Chimney Sweepers Act was passed in 1875. This required all sweeps to be registered with the police which led to an official supervision of their work.
Aside from using small children to help clean the chimneys, Master Sweeps also used geese. They would tie the legs of the goose together and drop it down the flue. The bird was obviously frightened and would begin flapping its wings and help breakdown any build-up on the inside of the flue. Eventually, a chimney sweep by the name of Joseph Glass, invented the chimney sweep brush. This brush style is still used by many modern-day sweeps.
Chimney sweeps have been known to bring good health and good-luck. It is especially lucky to have a chimney sweep at your wedding. It comes from the story about a sweep who was trapped in a chimney and was saved by a young woman. She was already engaged to another man and ended up falling in love with the sweep. The two lived happily ever after.
The advances this profession has made through the years are outstanding. From using young children and animals to clean, to now using specialized tools and technology, this industry has improved tremendously. Chimney sweeps are no longer grunt laborers, but today are certified technicians of a specialized field, with all the training and education that goes with it. This includes being members of the CSIA (Chimney Safety Institute of America), a nationally accredited organization that is dedicated to education, training, and the certification of chimney professionals. As the industry moves forward, the career of a chimney sweeping professional will continue to improve, along with the well being of the communities they serve.