A Brief History of Chimney Sweeping

As far back as Georgian times it was understood that chimneys needed to be brush cleaned. In the 17th century the Master Sweep employed young boys to climb up chimneys. Their task, once inside, was to brush clean inside the flue using small hand-held brushes. They would also use metal scrapers to take off hard tar deposits that had been left by log fire or wood smoke.

The boys were taken on as apprentices from as young as seven years of age. The master was paid to keep and clothe them as well as teach them his trade. Sweeps’ Boys were usually children of the parish or those that had been orphaned. However, some others were sold to a Master Sweep by their families. Some of the boys grew up to be Journeymen (the Masters assistant), the rest went to other trades to try and learn something new. The London Society of Master Sweeps had its own set of rules. One of them was that the boys did not have to work on Sundays. Instead they were to attend Sunday school, so read, study and learn the Bible.

But the boys lived in terrible conditions. They slept in cellars on top of bags of soot and very rarely had a wash. Soot and grime accumulating for all of those years often caused testicular cancer. It was a filthy and dangerous job, and there was no protective clothing or respirators for them in those days. There are even recorded incidents of boys choking and suffocating to death by inhaling dust when attempting to clean chimneys. There were also frequent casualties as the boys got stuck in thin flues or would fall from rotten chimney stacks.

It took campaigners many years before the House of Lords finally approved an act of parliament that outlawed the use of Climbing Boys. In 1864 Lord Shaftesbury introduced the ‘Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers’ in which offenders would be charged a penalty of £10.

Early in the 18th century, lots of different and new ways to clean chimneys were developed. Mr. Joseph Glass who was an engineer from Bristol, is largely recognized as the man that invented chimney cleaning equipment which is used even today. He designed and introduced canes and brushes that could be pushed up from the fireplace to the chimney above. The first canes were made of Malacca and came from the East Indies. The brushes were made from whale bones.

The other main method for cleaning flues came from Europe. It was a ball, brush and rope system that was lowered down the chimney from the top. The weight of the ball that was made from lead or iron pulled the brush down and cleaned the chimney. This method is still used in Scotland today, because Scotland had a historical connection with Europe. Then came a greater demand for chimney sweeps during the Industrial Revolution when coal production increased. Victorian London saw over one thousand chimney sweeps serve the area.

Coal continued to expand and became the main fuel for heating our homes. This ensured that the sweeping trade also continued to expand. That was of course, right up until the early 60’s, when we began to install gas and it soon replaced coal as the main fuel for domestic heating. This change continued into the 70’s and a lot of the old and well established chimney sweeping families just retired or lost their businesses. Until this time, local chimney sweeps had traditionally only cleaned wood, oil and coal chimneys. The public had no awareness of the need for all chimneys to be clear, clean and safe. People began to notice carbon monoxide poisoning caused by blocked chimneys.

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