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Chimney Sweeping History: How It All Began

Long ago, chimney sweeps were heroic symbols of “good hearth and good health” that restored fresh air in homes. But if they know chimney sweeping history and how it all began, chimney sweeps are surely happy their profession has evolved. After all, the person diagnosed with the first recorded case of industrial cancer in history was a chimney sweep. But let’s start at the beginning.

Chimney Sweeping History in Estill Springs TNEarliest Days of Chimney Sweeping

The job of chimney sweeping was born when the addition of fireplaces and chimneys began to trend in castles and large estate homes. This may have been around 1519, when Henry VIII renovated Leeds Castle in Kent, England. A portrait of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon hangs over the large fireplace in the banqueting hall.

The ruling class was the first to enjoy fireplaces with chimneys that pulled the toxic combustion gases up and out of doors. But the working class wanted to breathe clean air in their homes, too. So, fireplaces began to be requested—in every room of their home.

Before long, the tight-knit streets of the city kept chimney sweeps busy, going from house to house. Sort of like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, they often worked from roof to roof as they cleaned sooty chimneys.

A Dark Page in the History of Chimney Sweeps

The profession took a sinister turn in the 17th century. A hearth tax began to be imposed in England. The tax was, in part, based on the number of chimneys a house had. It was a hefty tax, and builders found a creative way to get around it. They began to make complex mazes of flues connecting new fireplaces with the existing chimney.

At about the same time, coal began to be used in fireplaces instead of wood. Burning coal left sticky soot deposits in chimneys in large amounts. They had to be cleaned regularly or the homes would be filled with toxic fumes. This increased the necessity of chimney sweeps and it is when they earned their reputation as symbols of health.

But the maze-like chimneys created a dilemma. Small children became the solution to the task of cleaning the pitch-black tunnels inside homes. Tragically, the children were essentially enslaved as they were the primary tools to clean the tunnel networks connecting multiple fireplaces to a chimney. The children were taken from orphanages or purchased from destitute parents. A chimney master would work the children from dawn to dusk. In exchange, little 5- to 11-year-olds would get food, water, and a place to sleep. Primarily, they would scrape coal deposits from the chimney flues.

If a child was fearful and hesitated, some masters would light a small fire to get him or her busy; thus originated the phrase “light a fire under someone.” Because of the way the children scooted up chimneys constantly, their developing bones became deformed. Soot inhalation was one of the reasons child chimney sweeps rarely lived past middle age. Children sometimes became trapped in chimneys and died of suffocation. Male adolescent chimney sweeps developed a painful deadly cancer, which was the first industrial cancer ever recorded.

Through the efforts of many, the English Parliament finally made it illegal to send a child up a chimney. This “Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers” was passed in 1864.

Early Tools to Modern Day

Joseph Glass designed tools such as canes and brushes for cleaning chimneys. Modern-day tools are much like these 18th-century inventions. Chimney technicians who are maintaining our venting systems today are rarely covered in soot, if ever. But we still think they deserve to symbolize healthy hearths and healthy homes.

Historic Chimney Restoration Service and Tuckpointing in Coalmont TNA-1 Chimney Preserves History by Restoring Old Chimneys

We hope you have enjoyed reading about chimney sweeping history and how it all began. At A-1 Chimney Specialist, we like to preserve history by restoring old chimneys. And we are proud to keep families and businesses safe by performing chimney cleaning, chimney inspections, masonry rebuilds, flashing repair, chimney crown repair, and all of our other venting services.

Give us a call today at 931-967-3595 (TN) or 256-285-4895 (AL). You can also fill out our online contact form.