Sweeping History

Sweeping chimneys ain’t what it used to be…  Thank God!

When you’d like to take a step back to stop and appreciate how much better life is nowadays, just take for example the evolution in the profession and practices of the chimney sweep.  Not many professions have such a rich, dark and dirty history.  Things are much better now of course, technology has made this one aspect of our lives safer and easier.  But it’s interesting to take a look back to imagine what it must have been like for the chimney sweeps of old.

In France, Belgium, Italy and especially the cramped, crowded and cloudy city of London, young boys were either sold, “adopted”, or apprenticed to an older man who acted as Master Sweep.  These unfortunate youngsters were then introduced to the hard, painful, filthy, and abused life as climbing boys for the Master Sweep.  This is not to say that every Master was cruel and heartless.  Nonetheless, history reports far too many accounts of overworked, abused and neglected boys.  One  account comes from Sir Percival Potts, and reads as such;

“The fate of these people seems peculiarly hard…they are treated with great brutality.. they are thrust up narrow and sometimes hot chimnies,(sic) where they are bruised burned and almost suffocated; and when they get to puberty they become … liable to a most noisome, painful and fatal disease.”

Being paired up with a kindly Master Sweep could make the difference between life and death for these boys.  The cruel sort of  Masters were often known to even light a fire underneath the boys while they were sweeping–giving the incentive to hurry.  This is where the  saying “Lighting a fire underneath you…” comes from.

Why are chimney sweeps supposed to be wearing top hats and coattails if their life was so rough?   Good question.  From what we’ve been able to find out, the life of a chimney sweep was so harsh that funeral directors would often feel sympathy for the poor boys forced into this life of hard labor and would donate the clothes of the deceased for the boys to wear.   Baths were expensive, so  young sweeps would often go months without bathing.  The soot and ash that got into their eyes would itch and burn  By endlessly rubbing their eyes, the boys would soetimes go blind before reaching adulthood.

Thankfully, things have changed.   Nowadays we use wonderful fiberglass rods, with attachable extensions to sweep chimneys, no matter how tall.  We use a vaccuum, and flashlights, safety glasses and air masks.  We even get to enjoy the luxury of a shower after a hard day’s work.We enjoy sweeping chimneys, and our Master Sweep is a kindly master.


Many things have changed since the old days of chimney sweeping, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the danger of a chimney fire.