Brush up on your history . . .
‘Soot! Sweep! Oh’ – that was the famous cry of chimney sweeps as they wandered the streets looking for work. Imagine getting up at 3am to climb up and clean 30 chimneys before tucking into a bread-and-butter breakfast. That’s what lots of boys and girl sweeps did in Victorian times! Children swept chimneys for more than 200 years in Britain before the law changed. Family homes used wood and coal fires to keep warm but the soot clogged up the chimneys. So children were sent up the small ‘flues’ (the pipes linking the fireplace to the outside roof) with scrapers to take off the dark gunk.
It was a dangerous job, climbing inside the chimney and scraping the walls. Some youngsters loved the work but many suffered. Laws passed to protect them were not taken seriously until the late 1800s. Poor parents who had children they couldn’t afford to look after would let grown-up chimney sweeps take on the boys and girls as apprentices. They lived with their masters and rarely saw their mum or dad. That meant the youngsters could be treated well or bad – depending on the master sweep’s attitude.
If treated well, they would sleep comfortably with the master sweep’s family and get warm food and clothes, with a special outfit for church on Sundays. Ill-treated youngsters would be made to work endless hours, eating bland food and facing the anger of the master sweep if they did not sweep fast enough. Pins could be stuck in their feet by the cruel masters to make them work quicker up the chimneys! Children could even find themselves climbing up chimneys on fire to put them out. There were tragic cases of apprentices being forced up the flues and dying. They got stuck in the angles of the building structure and suffocated to death.
The work was hard, even with a kind master. Brine was used to harden elbows and knees to toughen them up for climbing. Many young sweeps also helped clear toilets at night, when their masters worked as ‘night watchmen’. Soot sacks became a source of comfort – used not just for gathering soot (which was sold by masters to farmers) but also to sleep on and store things.
Chimney sweeps, both young and old, stuck out from the crowd. Their dark clothes and soot-smeared faces drew public wonder. Some people saw them as devilish, something dirty. Other found the notion of chimney sweeps romantic and it became a myth that a sweep would bring good luck if invited to a wedding day.
Keeping the home fires roaring
If you are cold at home, what does your mum, dad or carer do? They turn up the radiator of course! But radiators have only been used in recent times (despite being invented in the mid 19th century). The only source of warmth for families in the past (apart from clothes) was a live, roaring fire. Wood and especially coal fires produced soot known as ‘creosote’ which made the chimneys flues dirty. There was danger of a chimney fire too if the flue was not cleaned properly.
Orkney, a Scottish island, contains the remains of homes from 3000BC with a stone fire place (hearth) in the centre used for heat and cooking. Electricity wasn’t invented until modern times so your ancestors would have used a fireplace to cook and keep warm. Families huddled around a hearth in the centre of their room (it was only one room back then). There was a gap in the roof but you can imagine it got smokey! So in Norman times (1200s) they moved the hearth to the side of the room and thus chimneys were invented.
The chimneys were made of stone at first (if you don’t count cut-wooden barrels used as chimneys in the 14th century) and the designs kept developing. Brick-making first became popular in the 15th century which meant an explosion in original housing design, often centered around chimneys. Houses were built less closer together after the Great Fire of London in 1666.
If sweeps were not employed, wider chimneys were swept in houses with twig brooms such as birch. Birds were also used to clean chimneys. The strong wings of a goose knocked the soot off when dropped down from the roof.
The 19th century saw a boom in housing as cities grew from the industrial revolution and Britain’s Empire ‘on which the Sun never set’. Fireplace rooms became a focal point of family life. And any houses higher than one level (storey) needed a chimney sweeper.
Chimney sweeps were first recorded as professional tradesmen in the 16th century. John Scott from Ringstead was paid two shillings to sweep a kitchen chimney at Hunstanton Manor, Norfolk, in December 1519. The trade continued in cities and the country side towns and villages. London sweeps were kept busy cleaning the chimneys of some 150,000 Londoners in the 17th century.
The poorer sweeps gained the sympathy of James I after sending in a petition about their conditions but it was ignored by officials. It took the work of reformers (see below) to bring about real change.
Chimney sweeps’ clothes changed with the times – as with other tradesmen. A sweep in the early 1600s would wear a loose shirt and knee-length trousers. Shakespeare compared the look of chimney sweeps to dust in his play, ‘Cymberline’ (1609). An engraving by Marcellus Lauron of ‘Selsey and his boy’ in 1687, depicts a master and apprentice. The man wears a short tunic and leggings. The boy has a laced jacket. Sweeps in the first-half 18th century wore sheepskin but it wasn’t practical and expensive. Later, moving to the 19th century, they would be dressed in any rags or clothes from second hand markets. Some masters took pride to make apprentices look good with a tunic and trousers, jacket and waistcoat – it boosted the professional look. Others would use the boys’ poor appearance to get more favours (extra shoes etc) from concerned customers. Sweeps in modern times have worn suitable tradesmen clothes.
Climbing boys or sweeping machines?
The technical details of different types of chimneys are mind blowing. Building designs differ depending on when they were built – and for what purpose. An 18th century manor with 10 bedrooms would have a different chimney structure to a single apartment in London. Each bedroom might have a fireplace and the flues would join up in a central column. Chimney sweeps would have to access every angle. That is why some argued that only climbing boys should be used. Children could access horizontal flues. However others argued that machines were quicker and caused less mess.
You faced a complicated process if you invented a sweeping machine. The registration before the Patent Law Amendment Act 1852 involved filling in lots of documents, getting the agreement of lots of people and all at your own cost. The new law in 1852 made this procedure more simple which encouraged machine inventions.
John Elim of Hanover Square in London was the first person to register a patent for a chimney sweeping machine on 28th May 1789. He described the machine, brushes attached around four frames, as an ‘elastic brush’. Daniel Davis of St Giles-in-the-Fields also invented a contraption on July 4th 1796 with a box frame, rack with teeth and a large brush made of wire, sponge or elastic hair.
The debate between those who wanted to keep climbing boys and girls against others who wanted machines used was fierce. In the end, technological advance along with laws passed to protect children meant machines won. However the process was long as many people were suspicious of machines and young sweeps were seen as reliable.
Here are three bios of thee reformers who helped change the law so that children were no longer chimney sweeps.
David Porter - had more money and property than any other chimney sweep at his time. He also had a lot of influence trying to get better conditions for his trade. Born in 1747, David’s father Stephen taught him and his brother how to be a chimney sweep. His father tragically died from chimney sweeps’ cancer aged 38.
David went to be a travelling sweep in the countryside. Later he became a master sweep in London and his business boomed. He promoted best business practice and helped form a ‘friendly society’ to promote the chimney sweep trade.
David never went to school and taught himself how to read and write. That helped him write a powerful little book called ‘Considerations on the present state of chimney sweepers’ in 1792. He was very worried about the welfare of child chimney sweeps. David strangely believed that chimneys could only be swept by a boy and not a machine – if the child was properly trained and cared for. He died aged 73 on 31st May 1819.
Lord Shaftesbury - tried to get laws passed to better conditions for young sweeps. However the laws were not taken seriously, such as the 1840 Act banning the apprenticeship of boys under 16 which was often ignored. He was more successful in 1864 when public opinion was against using youngsters in the trade. He succeeded in getting masters banned from taking young sweeps into houses with chimneys.
Elizabeth Montagu - was respected by both upper and lower classes. She was born on October 2nd 1720 to rich and well connected parents. Elizabeth later became the top party host in London society. She used to entertain the chimney sweeps once per year on May Day at her mansion, Montagu House. Each climbing child enjoyed a roast beef and plum pudding feast with dancing. They were also given a shilling coin which was the money used in those days. Elizabeth Montagu also supported reformers such as David Porter (see above) and died in 1800
These are just three people who wanted young chimney sweeps to enjoy a better life.
Do you know of any others?
19th century chimney sweep vocab
You eat prog in a ken before tackling a notchy hole. Confused? That’s the special lingo chimney sweeps used. The sweeps, especially in Victorian times had a language of their own.
Here are some of the phrases – try and learn them if you can!
Ken – house
Prog – food
Scorch – beat with a brush
Switch – sweep’s brush
Tuggy – sooty cloth
Hole – chimney
Notchy – narrow
Chimney sweeping today
Chimney sweeping today is a fantastic profession. Children are no longer used to climb up chimneys. Professionals such as James the Sweep wear proper tradesmen clothes. They also know all about the different types of chimneys, how to clean flues without mess and give all sorts of advice.
If your school would like to meet a real chimney sweep –
get in touch! James the Sweep is happy to visit and tell you all about the trade!