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Christmas Traditions: The Poor Chimney Sweep

Chimney Sweep in 1850

The Master Sweep in 1850 

In Victorian times everyone would want their chimney swept before Christmas. Today we see the chimney sweep displayed on holiday cards as a cherub little boy, broom in hand. But, do we really know what it was like to be a chimney sweep?

The chimney sweep was an essential part of London since 1200 when the customary fire in the middle of the room was replaced with a chimney. The reason for removing the soot and ash was to ensure a free flow of air; any blockage reduced the efficiency of the fire and the chimney itself could catch fire.

The soot was removed by the Master Sweep…… a man who was paid by the parish to teach orphans or paupers the craft, using children as young as four or five, who were boys or girls from the workhouse, or bought from their parents and then trained to climb the treacherous flues.  The children were totally reliant on him since their guardians had signed Papers of Indenture, which bound them to him until they were adults. It was the duty of the Poor Law guardians to apprentice as many children of the workhouses as possible, to reduce costs to the parish. The master sweeps’ duties were to teach the craft of chimney sweeping, provide the apprentice with a second suit of clothes, have him cleaned once a week, allow him to attend church and not send him up chimneys that were on fire. The apprentice agreed to obey the master sweeper and work at least 7 years when he then could become a journeyman sweep, and could work for the master sweep of his choice.  The child apprentice could be sold on to another sweep with prices ranging from 7 shillings (35 cents) to 4 guineas (4 dollars). This was a dangerous job with sweeps having to negotiate hot chimneys with flues 14 inches by 9 inches, the common standard. An apprentice would do four or five chimneys a day. When they first started they scraped their knees and elbows, so the master would harden up their skin by standing them close to a hot fire and rubbing in strong brine using a brush. This was done each evening until the skin hardened. The boys got no wages, but lived with the master who fed them. They slept together on the floor or in the cellar under the sacks and the cloth used during the day to catch the soot. This was known as “sleeping black.”

In the Industrial Age, buildings were higher and the new chimney tops were grouped together and the routes of flues could involve two or more right angles with horizontal and vertical sections. Buckingham Palace had one flue with 15 angles and the flue narrowed to 9 inches by 9 inches.

Soot was sold and used as manure.

Chimney sweeping was one of the most difficult, hazardous and low-paying occupations of the era. The boys could get stuck with their knees jammed against their chins. The harder they struggled the tighter they became wedged. They could remain in this position for many hours until they were pushed out from below or pulled out with a rope. If their struggling caused a fall of soot they would suffocate. Dead or alive the boy had to be removed and this would be done by removing bricks from the side of the chimney. There was also a high rate of testicular cancer and lung cancer among the boys.

It was 1875 before the practice was outlawed and from this time on the tradition of the chimney boys became romanticized. With the making of the hinged brush the profession became associated with good-natured, agile men as played by Dick Van Dyke in the movie Mary Poppins. The chorus from his song, Chim Chim Cher-ee shows the association of sweeps with good luck. “ Good luck will rub off when I shake ‘ands with you, or blow me a kiss…….and that’s lucky too.”

I think not! Nothing could be lucky for the chimney sweep!

See you tomorrow for more Christmas Foods and Traditions!

2 Responses to “Christmas Traditions: The Poor Chimney Sweep”

    • CadyLuck Leedy

      Wow! I had never heard of that book. I like the names Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby (a reference to the Golden Rule), and Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid!

      Reply

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