Chimney sweeping rose to prominence in the 17th Century as houses grew in size, and fireplaces needed regular cleaning. Each house was taxed according to the number of chimneys it contained - this tax was called the Hearth Tax.
Chimney brushes were not invented at this time, so chimney sweeps took on young boys as apprentices to scrape the creosote out of the flues.
The boys were indentured to the chimney sweeps at around 7-8 years old, and came from orphanages, parishes, and were sold by their families. The Master Sweep was paid a fee which was to feed, clothe, and teach the child his trade. Some of them grew to become assistants to the master sweeps, and others took up other trades when they could no longer fit inside the chimneys.
In London there was the London Society of Master Sweeps with its own set of rules, one of which said that boys were not required to work on Sundays, but must go to Sunday School to study, the Bible. Conditions for the children were harsh and sometimes cruel. Some were forced to sleep in cellars on bags of soot, and washing facilities rarely existed. Cancer of the testicles was a common illness amongst the boys, and was contracted from the accumulated soot.
There were no safety regulations or safety clothing to protect the boys, and there are instances recorded where they were choked and suffocated to death by dust inhalation whilst trying to sweep clean the chimneys. They often became trapped in the narrower flues, or fell from the rotten stacks to their death.
Only in 1864, after many years of campaigning, was an Act of Parliament finally approved by the House of Lords, to outlaw the use of children for climbing chimneys. Lord Shaftesbury's Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers established a penalty of £10 for offenders. This was a considerable sum of money in those times.
In the early part of the 18th century various types of cleaning methods were developed. A Bristol engineer named Joseph Glass is generally recognised as the inventor of the type of chimney cleaning equipment which is still used today. His designs consisted of a system of canes and brushes, which could be pushed up into chimney from the fireplace below. Early canes were made from Malacca, a timber imported from the East Indies, and the brushes were formed from whale bones.
Another development, the ball, brush and rope system (which was lowered from the top of the chimney) came from Europe. The weight of a lead or iron ball pulled the brush down, thus cleaning the flue. This procedure is still used widely in Scotland.
With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and increased demand for coal production, the profession of chimney sweep thrived. In Victorian London over 1,000 Sweeps served the city. The continued expansion of coal as the main fuel for domestic heating ensured that the trade flourished.
In the early 1960s gas began to replace coal as a source of domestic heating and by the 1970s many of the old-established family sweeps had retired or given up the business.
In recent years wood has made comeback as a desired form of heating, as it is a renewable form of energy. The latest slow combustion heaters are designed now to burn off smoke particles, so very little pollution is released into the atmosphere. The cleaning equipment has also been developed in recent times to include power sweeping rods and brushes, and camera inspection technology, which allows a higher standard of sweeping and safety.
In Europe chimney sweeps are celebrated every year with a grand festival in Northern Italy. Sweeps from around the world gather, and take part in a grand parade through the village of Santa Maria Maggiore.
History of Chimney Sweeping.