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The History of Chimney Sweeping

What is a Chimney Sweep?

A chimney sweep is a person who clears away the ash and soot from chimneys. Chimneys may be straight or contain several changes of direction. During the normal operation of the fire below, a layer of creosote tends to build up on the inside of the chimney, this can restrict the flow of the gasses that are trying to escape. The creosote can also catch fire, setting the chimney and the building alight. The chimney must be swept regularly to remove the soot. This job was historically done by the master sweep.

In the United Kingdom, the master sweeps usually took apprentices. These apprentices were usually boys from the local workhouses or children that were bought from their parents and trained to climb the chimneys. Boys as young as four years old climbed up the hot flues that could be as narrow as 9 inches square. The work they done was very dangerous and they could get stuck in the flue, suffocate or be burned to death. Also, the soot they had to clear away was a potent carcinogen, and as the boys slept under the soot sacks and were hardly ever washed, they were prone to what became known as Chimney Sweeps Cancer. From about 1775 onwards there was an increasing concern for the wellbeing of these young lads, and Acts of Parliament were passed to restrict, and in 1875, stop this usage.

History of the Chimney Sweep

Over the years as the urban population grew, the number of houses with chimneys grew and the chimney sweep became a much sought after service provider. Buildings were higher and the new chimneys tops were grouped together and the routes of flues from individual grates could involve two or more right angles and horizontal angled and vertical sections. The flues were made narrow to create a better draught. Buckingham Palace had one flue with 15 angles, with the flue narrowing to 9in by 9in. Chimney sweeping was also one of the more difficult, hazardous, and low paying occupations of the time. The first mechanical sweeping machine was invented by Smart in the year 1803 but its use was resisted in the United Kingdom as well as the United States. John Glass is credited with being the inventor of the modern chimney sweep's brush. In the Northern States of America, white people gave up the trade and employed black sweep boys from the South of the country.

Chimneys and Sweeps in the United Kingdom

Chimneys started to appear in Great Britain circa 1200, when they replaced the open fire burning in the middle of the one room house. At first there would be one heated room in the building and chimneys would be very large. Over the next 3 or 4 centuries, rooms became specialised and smaller and many of them were heated. Sea coal started to replace wood, and it deposited a layer of flammable creosote on the inside surface of the flue, and caked it with soot. Whereas before, the chimney was a vent for the smoke, now it was needed to draw the fire and this required narrower flues. Even so, boys rarely climbed chimneys before the Great Fire of London, when building regulations were put in place and the design of chimneys was altered. The new chimneys were often angular and narrow, and the usual dimension of the flue in domestic properties was 9 inches by 14 inches. The master sweep couldn't climb into such a small space himself and employed climbing boys to go up the chimneys to dislodge the soot. The boys often climbed in the nude, propelling themselves by their knees and elbows, often causing severe scrapes and abrasions. They were often put up hot chimneys, and sometimes up chimneys that were alight in order to extinguish the fire. Chimneys with sharp angles posed a particular threat. These boys were apprenticed to the sweep, and from 1778 until 1875 a series of laws attempted to regulate their working conditions, and many first hand accounts were documented and published in parliamentary reports. From circa 1803, there was an mechanical method of brushing chimneys, but sweeps and their clients resisted the change preferring climbing boys to the new sweeping machines. Compulsory education was established in 1870 by the Education Act 1870 but it was a further five years before legislation was put in place to license Chimney Sweeps and finally prevent boys being sent up the chimneys.

The Master Sweeps Climbing Boys

The climbing boys, and ocassionally girls, were actually chimney sweeps apprentices, and were apprenticed to a master sweep, who being an adult, was too big to fit into a chimney or flue. He would be paid by the parish to teach orphans or paupers the craft of chimney sweeping. They were totally reliant on him, they or their guardians had signed Papers of Indenture, in front of a magistrate, 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 workhouse in their care as possible, so as to reduce costs to the parish.

The master sweep had several duties to his apprentices, these were:

  • to teach the craft and its mysteries,
  • to provide the apprentice with a second suit of clothes,
  • to have him cleaned once a week,
  • to allow him to attend church,
  • and not send him up chimneys that were on fire.

An apprentice sweep agreed to obey his master. On completion of his seven year long apprenticeship, he would become a journeyman sweep, and would continue to work for a master sweep of his choice. Other apprentices were sold on to the sweep, or sold by their parents. Prices ranged from 7 shillings to 4 guineas.

It was generally agreed that six years old was a good age to train a boy. Though there were some boys employed from the age of four, they were considered to be too weak. A master sweep would have many apprentices, they would start the morning by roaming the streets shouting out their sales cry to let the house owners know they were available, some of the wording used would serve to remind the owners of the dangers of un swept chimneys. When engaged, the master sweep would fix a cloth over the fireplace, and the climbing boy would take off his boots and any excess clothes, then get behind it. The flue would be as tall as the house and twist several times, and its dimensions would be 14in by 9in. He would pull his cap down over his face and hold a large flat brush over his head, and wedge his body diagonally in the flue. Using his back, elbows and knees, he would climb up the flue and use the brush to dislodge loose soot, which would fall over him and down to the bottom, and a scraper to chip away the solid bits, as a smooth chimney was a safe chimney. Having reached the top he would slide back down at speed to the floor and the soot pile. It was now his job to bag up the soot and carry it back to the master sweep's cart or yard.

Soot was valuable and could be sold for 9d a bushel in 1840. An apprentice could clean 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 had hardened. The boys got no wages but lived with the master who fed them.They all 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". The boys would be washed by the mistress in a tub in the yard, this may happen as often as once a week, but rarely did. One sweep used to wash down his boys in the Serpentine in Regents Park. Other sweeps insisted their boys washed three times a year, for Christmas, Whitsun and the Goose Fair. Sometimes, a boy would need to be persuaded to climb faster or higher up the chimney, and the master sweep would either light a small fire of straw to encourage him to try harder. Another method which also helped stop them from slowing down was to send another boy up behind him to stick pins into the soles of his feet or buttocks.

Chimneys varied in size. The common flue was designed to be one and a half bricks long by one brick wide, though they often narrowed to one brick square, in other words, 9 inches by 9 inches or less. Often the chimney would still be hot from the fire, occasionally it would actually be on fire. Careless climbing 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.If the chimney was particularly narrow the boys would be told to "buff it", or go up the chimney naked, otherwise they just wore trousers, and a shirt made from thick rough cotton cloth.

Health and Safety Concerns over Apprentice Sweeps

The conditions to which these poor children were subjected caused major concern and societies were set up to promote mechanical means for sweeping chimneys and it is through their pamphlets that we have a better idea of what the job could entail.

Below is what a sweep had to say about the fate of one boy:

"After passing through the chimney and descending to the second angle of the fireplace the boy finds it completely filled with soot, which he has dislodged from the sides of the upright part. He endeavours to get through, and succeeds in doing so, after much struggling as far as his shoulders; but finding that the soot is compressed hard all around him, by his exertions, that he can recede no farther; he then endeavours to move forward, but his attempts in this respect are quite abortive; for the covering of the horizontal part of the Flue being stone, the sharp angle of which bears hard on his shoulders, and the back part of his head prevents him from moving in the least either one way or the other. His face, already covered with a climbing cap, and being pressed hard in the soot beneath him, stops his breath. In this dreadful condition he strives violently to extricate himself, but his strength fails him; he cries and groans, and in a few minutes he is suffocated. An alarm is then given, a brick-layer is sent for, an aperture is perforated in the Flue, and the boy is extracted, but found lifeless. In a short time an inquest is held, and a Coroner's Jury returns a verdict of 'Accidental Death.'"

Suffocation was not the only occupational hazard that chimney sweeps suffered. In the 1817 report to Parliament, witnesses reported that climbing boys suffered from general neglect. In addition they exhibited stunted growth and deformity of the spine, legs and arms. This was put down to them being required to remain in abnormal positions for long periods of time before their bones had hardened. The knees and ankle joints were the most affected. Sores and inflammation of the eyelids that could lead to loss of sight, were slow in healing because the boy kept rubbing them. Bruises and burns were obvious hazards of having to work in a overheated environment. Cancer of the scrotum, was only found in Chimney sweeps so was referred to as Chimney Sweep Cancer in the teaching hospitals. Asthma and inflammation of the chest was attributed to the fact that the boys were out working no matter what the weather was like.

Chimney sweeps cancer, or as the sweeps called it, soot wart, didn't occur until the sweep was in his late teens or twenties. It has now been identified as a manifestation of scrotal squamous cell carcinoma. It was reported in 1775 by Sir Percival Pott in climbing boys or chimney sweepers. It is the first industrially related cancer to be found.

A doctor made the below comment about the disease and the life of the climbing boys.

This cancer is a disease which always makes its first attack on the inferior part of the scrotum where it produces a superficial, painful ragged ill-looking sore with hard rising edges. In no great length of time it pervades the skin, the membranes of the scrotum, and seizes the testicle, which it enlarges, hardens and renders truly and thoroughly distempered. When it makes its way up the spermatic process into the abdomen.

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

The carcinogen was thought to be coal tar possibly containing some arsenic.

There were very many deaths caused by accidents, frequently caused by the boy becoming jammed in the flue of a heated chimney, where they could suffocate or be burned to death. Sometimes a second boy would be sent to help, and on occasions would end up in the same predicament and also die.

Regulation of Chimney Sweeps

In 1788, the Chimney Sweepers Act 1788: An Act for the Better Regulation of Chimney Sweepers and their Apprentices was passed, to limit a sweeper to having a maximum six apprentices of at least 8 years old, but it lacked enforcement. It introduced the Apprenticeship Cap badge. The Act had been partially inspired by notable peoples interest in climbing boys and their plight. Many of these people asserted that while Parliament was exercised with the abolition of slavery in the new world it was ignoring the slavery imposed on climbing boys. The new laws looked to Edinburgh Scotland where sweeps were regulated by the local police, climbing was not allowed and chimneys were swept by the Master Sweep himself pulling bundles of rags up and down the chimney. He did not see how, climbing chimneys could be considered a valid apprenticeship as the only skill obtained was that of climbing chimneys which did not lead to any future employment.

In 1803, it was thought by some that a mechanical brush could replace a climbing boy, and members of the 1796 society formed The London Society for the Superseding the Necessity for Employing Climbing Boys. They ascertained that children had now cleaned flues as small as 7inches by 7inches, and promoted a competition for a mechanical brush. The prize was claimed by George Smart, for what was a brush head on a long segmented cane, made rigid by an adjustable cord that passed though the canes.

The Chimney Sweepers Act 1834 contained many of the needed regulations. It stated that an apprentice sweep must express himself in front of a magistrate that he was willing. Masters must not take on boys under the age of fourteen. The master could only have a maximum of six apprentices and an apprentice could not be lent to another master. Boys under fourteen who were already apprenticed, must wear brass cap badges on a leather cap. Apprentices were not allowed to climb flues to extinguished fires. The act was resisted by the master sweeps and the general public believed that property would be at risk if the flues were not cleaned by a climbing boy.

The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act 1840 made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to sweep chimneys. The 1840 Act was pretty much ignored, attempts were made in 1852 and 1853 to reopen the issue, another enquiry was convened and more evidence was taken. There was no bill. The Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act 1864, c37. tightened controls significantly, by authorising fines and imprisonment for master sweeps who were ignoring the law, giving the police the power of arrest on suspicion and authorising Board of Trade inspections of new and remodelled chimneys.

In February 1875 a twelve year-old boy named George Brewster, was sent up the Fulbourn Hospital chimneys by his master, William Wyer, he got stuck up the chimney. The entire wall had to be pulled down to get him out and although he was still alive when rescued, he died shortly afterwards. There was a CoronerB's Inquest which returned a verdict of manslaughter. The boys master was sentenced to six months in prison with hard labour. Lord Shaftesbury seized on this incident to press his anti climbing boys campaign again. He wrote a series of letters to The Times and in September 1875 pushed another Bill through Parliament which finally stopped the practice of sending boys up chimneys.

A Chimney Sweepers Act was passed in 1875 that required chimney sweepers to be authorised by the police to carry on their businesses in the district, this providing the legal means to enforce all previous legislation. George Brewster was the last child to die in a chimney.

Chimney Sweeps as a Good Luck Omen

In parts of Great Britain it is still considered very lucky for a bride to see a chimney sweep on her wedding day. Many modern British sweeps hire themselves out to attend weddings in pursuance of this age old tradition.


Chimney sweeps were often depicted in Victorian literature as heartless scoundrels who abused their child workers. They are typified in The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. The English poet William Blake portrayed the chimney sweep as an abused child who hoped for a better life. In both "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience", Blake showcases the life of a common sweeper and exposes those who allowed barbaric actions against them to take place. In Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, a particularly vicious chimney sweep called Gamfield wants to take Oliver as an apprentice, but at the last minute the magistrate refuses to sanction the move.

With the development of the newer brush system and the end of child labour, the occupation changed its image to one of agile and good natured men, an example being in the Walt Disney film Mary Poppins which has an extended dance sequence in which the jovial workers celebrate the end of the workday with fearless acrobatics. Their leader, "Bert", played by Dick van Dyke, sings "Chim Chim Cher-ee" which won the Oscar for "Best Song" in 1965. The chorus refers to the traditional association of chimney sweeps with good luck: "Good luck will rub off when I shake hands with you, or blow me a kiss ... and that's lucky too".

The Modern Chimney Sweep Today

Chimney sweeps are still around today because venting systems for coal, heating oil, natural gas, wood and pellet burning appliances need to be maintained. There is a greater understanding of the dangers of flue deposits and carbon monoxide and gases from combustion. The standard chimney brush is still used, along with more modern tools like vacuums, cameras and special chimney cleaning tools. Most sweeps are done from the bottom of the chimney, rather than the top, to prevent the dispersion of dust and debris.

Most modern chimney sweeps are professionals, and are usually trained to diagnose and repair hazards along with maintenance such as removal of flammable creosote, firebox and damper repair, and smoke chamber repair. Some sweeps also offer more complicated repairs such as flue repair and relining, crown repair, and tuckpointing or rebuilding of masonry chimneys.

In the United Kingdom, four trade associations that help to regulate the industry are the National Association of Chimney Sweeps, the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps The Institute Of Chimney Sweeps and the Association of Professional Independent Chimney Sweeps.

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