Britain’s chimneys and chimney sweeps

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.  

Irrelevant photo: osteospermum, with a bit of valerian getting ready to bloom.

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.

Smoke, chimneys, and beds in Tudor times

No part of the past makes sense in isolation. Or it only does when you’re kidding yourself. Take a wider view and it gets messier but more interesting.

I started out wondering where medieval people slept and ended up learning about chimneys, so let’s start with chimneys.

They were introduced to Britain in the twelfth century, but they were only for the super-rich–the kind of people who had a castle or two–or for monasteries. Think of them as the era’s equivalent of a private plane: They weren’t something even your economically well-above-average person would lust after. They were too far out of reach. What most houses had at the beginning of the Tudor era was a central hearth–a nice fireplace on the floor, in the middle of the room. 

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries, stolen from an earlier post but who’ll notice?

The smoke rose from the hearth and worked its way out through the thatch, if the roof was thatch, or through whatever other openings were available if it wasn’t. Don’t worry, because even if the house didn’t have a hole in the roof above the fire, it would’ve been rich in chinks and openings. If it had a window, it would at best have been a wooden shutter but was more to have been likely oiled cloth. Glass was a luxury item. And I’m going to make a reckless guess and say the door wouldn’t have been a tight fit. 

If all that sounds awful, it also had its advantages. A website that quotes re-enactors from a Welsh museum says that on its way out the smoke would have waterproofed the thatch, killed bugs, and smoked meat hanging from the ceiling.

But that’s only the beginning. I’ve been re-reading Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and–well, let’s back up, as I always seem to in these posts, and talk about who Goodman is before we come back to our alleged topic.

Goodman calls herself a historian of social and domestic life in Britain, and as far as I can figure out she more or less invented her field, coming into it before respectable historians showed much interest in how ordinary people lived. But she doesn’t just study social history, she inhabits it, working out how people lived and trying it herself. Want to know how they cleaned their teeth? She can compare the virtues of chalk, salt, and the soot a wax candle leaves on a polished surface, because she’s tried them all. 

She consults for museums and for the BBC and has presented some wonderful programs on daily life in various eras. She’s fascinated by how people did ordinary things. 

As she puts it, “Our day to day routines have a huge cumulative effect on the environment, our shopping habits can sway the world’s patterns of trade, how we organise and run our family life sets the political tone of nations. We matter. Us, the little people, women, children and even men. How our ancestors solved the problems of everyday life made the world what it is today.”

Never mind for a moment that today’s world isn’t great advertising for the wisdom of our ancestors’ choices. How many of us can know where our decisions will lead, and how many of our ancestors had much of a range to choose from? Can we not get snotty about this? Most of them were only trying to cook a meal and stay warm. 

Which takes us, handily, back to fireplaces. 

Central hearths were good at warming a room. No heat disappeared up the chimney–there was no chimney–and they kept the floor of the house level nice and warm. This brought the people down to floor level, not just because it was warm but because the clearest air was down below. Sitting on the floor starts to look appealing when the higher levels are smoky. So does sleeping on the floor. You don’t want furniture that lifts your head up into the smoke.

What was it like to sleep on the floor? Well, having read that medieval floors were strewn with rushes, Goodman tried to figure out what that meant. By trial and a couple of errors, she found that if you make them into bundles and lay them somewhere between two and six inches deep, you get a solid surface that’s comfortable to sleep on–both springy and warm. (If you just strew them around, they get caught in your skirts.)

When she watered them lightly every couple of days, they stayed fresh and didn’t catch fire when a spark fell on them (that’s a plus), and they smelled like cucumber (that’s another plus if you like cucumber). And in spite of people walking, cooking, sitting, eating, sleeping, and spilling on them during a re-creation she participated in (and in spite of a family of chickens that no one had the heart to evict), at the end of six months the surface was still clean and when she cleared the rushes all out there was no mess at the bottom. Also no evidence of mice or insects or mold.

So sleeping on the floor? Not a hardship. Which is lucky, because that’s where lots of people slept, not just in the cottages of the poor but in castles. Have you ever wondered where the many, many servants in big households slept? Beds were for the few (to reverse the Labour Party’s current slogan), not the many. So what did everyone else do? I couldn’t help imagining that they had some sort of mattresses, no matter how basic, and I sometimes wondered where they stashed them all during the day. How much storage space could they devote to them?

But no. The lower orders bedded down on the floor, more or less communally, although separated by sex. Come morning, all they needed to store away were some blankets.

As the Tudor era rolled onward, fireplaces became more common, and with them, beds–or at least platforms that raised people off the floor and some sort of mattress to soften them. Bring in a fireplace and you get rid of the smoke (and can add a second story) but the tradeoff is that you get drafty floors and colder rooms. A huge amount of heat is carried up the chimney. Furniture that lifts you off the floor starts to look pretty good. 

That still leaves us with the storage problem, and I’m not sure how they solved that or if the lowest orders still slept on the floor–which was now drafty.

Mattresses ranged from a heap of straw to bags stuffed with everything from straw to wool to down, and bedsteads from simple platforms to boxes to hugely expensive four-poster beds, which you can think of as yurts set up inside a room. Sleeping in a four-poster was the original glamping. Your bed would be covered on top and on the sides, and inside all that covering you got not only warmth but some kind of privacy.

Privacy was a hard thing to come by at this point. 

That doesn’t tell us how many people slept in some form of bed, whether the ones who were left on the floor got something mattressy to protect them from the drafts, or where the mattresses got stacked in they did. Nobody was tracking people’s welfare and no one was keeping statistics–or not that kind of statistics anyway. 

What we do know is that life moved upward, into the now-clear air. And they all slept happily ever after. 

Or some of them did.