Britain’s earliest chimneys were strictly for the rich, and in the Tudor era, they were the must-have accessory. The aristocracy’s news feeds were clogged with targeted ads saying, Heat Your Castle the Modern Way.
Heat Your Hovel ads didn’t show up for many a year.
Hovel-dwellers didn’t have news feeds anyway.
Hovel-dwellers lived in single-story houses with a central fire whose smoke worked its way out through the roof (thatch is good that way, and I’ve heard that slates aren’t bad) or through a hole in the roof. If you were clever about covering the hole, you could let the smoke out and keep the rain from pouring in, all in one go, but no matter how clever you were, above a certain height these houses were smoky.
With the introduction of the chimney, though, at least some of the the smoke went politely up and out, changing the residents’ lives and lungs. On the other hand, a good bit of the fire’s warmth was polite enough to follow the smoke, so the change wasn’t all about gain.
If you have a third hand, balance this on it: Chimneys also meant you could heat a second story. You could even add heat to rooms that didn’t have fireplaces. All they had to do was cuddle up against the back of the chimney and suck up a bit of warmth.
By the seventeenth century, enough chimneys had been built around the country that they were worth taxing. Enter the hearth tax, which was based on the size of the house and, most importantly, the number of chimneys it had.
So what did the rich do? To minimize taxes, they started running the flues of multiple fireplaces up a single chimney. Many fireplaces, many flues, fewer chimneys. In a big house, they’d still end up with more than one chimney, but nowhere near as many as they had fireplaces.
What innocents they were back then. Today, they’d just build the chimney in a tax haven and have as many as they wanted. So what if it cost more to build them there and import the heat? They’d still be saving on taxes, and the point of the game, once you have that kind of money, is to pay as little in taxes as possible and then yell, “I win!”
Nothing I’ve read tells me how people first discovered that chimneys had to be cleaned, but I’m reasonably sure the realization took the form of chimney fires, complete with the neighbors standing around saying, “I could’ve told them this would happen.” Or whatever the era-appropriate version of withering scorn was.
That’s how the occupation of the chimney sweep was born, and when the country’s primary fuel shifted from wood to coal, which lines chimneys with creosote, it became even more important.
I’d love to pinpoint the moment when children were first used as sweeps, but I can’t find any information on it. My best guess is that children working in dirty and dangerous occupations was so much a part of life that for a long time it was barely worth mentioning. Kids worked in mines and quarries and everywhere else. In slate quarrying country, where I live, they’d send boys over the cliffs in baskets to set the explosives. It only made sense: They were lighter than the adults.
A website maintained by a chimney sweeping outfit in Hartford, Connecticut, doesn’t give a start date but does say that kids were used most heavily as sweeps during the two hundred years between with the Great Fire of London (that’s 1666) and the mid-nineteenth century, when Britain outlawed them. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but any number of chimney sweepers’ sites include some history of the trade, and they’re reasonably consistent.
So let’s talk about those kids. The apprentices to master sweeps were usually boys but sometimes girls, and they were generally paupers or orphans. Anyone who had choices in life would look somewhere else for their kid’s apprenticeship.
How old were they? Well, they had to be strong enough to be useful but small enough to climb up the inside of a chimney. And since narrow flues created a better draft, you’d be talking about a very small kid–usually around six, but they could (rarely) be as young as four.
And here we circle back to all those flues running up a single chimney. Remember them? The flues made sharp turns and had awkward angles, making them that much harder to get through and putting even more of a premium on smallness.
The kids worked their way up the chimneys using their backs, elbows, and knees, knocking the soot loose with a brush as they went, so it fell on and past them.
According to some sources, the apprenticeships were for seven years and according to others until the apprentice was an adult, although reaching adulthood wasn’t guaranteed. The dangers of sweeping chimneys included getting stuck, suffocating, and breathing the carcinogenic soot (one form of cancer was common enough to be called chimney sweep cancer). The kids also lived in the soot, because we’re talking about people who had minimal chances to wash and who generally slept on the sacks of soot that they collected and the master sweep sold. They grew up stunted and deformed and were prone not just to cancer but to lung problems.
So yes,it was just like in Mary Poppins, all singing and dancing along the rooftops.
They also had to contend with hot chimneys and rough brick on their knees, elbows, and backs.
Their conditions horrified a fair number of respectable people, and many attempts were made to improve their conditions, mostly without changing anything substantial, although over time the pressure did grow. The turning point came when a twelve-year-old, George Brewster, got stuck in a chimney. A wall was pulled down and he was gotten out, but he died not long after. After that, child sweeps were finally banned.
The sweeps were replaced with brushes on long, long handles, which an adult could work up a chimney.
The bright spot in sweeps’ lives was their one yearly holiday, May Day, which coincided with local celebrations that predated chimneys and sweeps–and Christianity, for that matter. In a few places, May Day is officially a sweeps’ festival.
Why that day? No idea. We just have to accept that it is and go with it.
I’ll leave you with a link to William Blake’s poem about a child chimney sweep. He wrote two versions. This strikes me as the stronger of them.