Chimneys aren’t really things that we think about much – except at Christmas time, when the old legend of Father Christmas coming down the chimney comes to the forefront of our minds. However, if you have an open fire, a wood burner or a stove of the Aga type, then you will have a chimney – and you’d better not take it for granted, as it’s a vital part of how your fireplace functions.
The Earliest Chimneys
The very earliest chimneys were little more than a hole in the roof – this is the type of “chimney” you get in early huts and in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon longhouses where the fire burned in a pit in the centre of the hall. These big central fires were fine for roasting swine and oxen on the spit but still left the halls very smoky, as the smoke holes in the roof had to be kept smallish so the rain didn’t get in. This type of chimney had another disadvantage: it opened straight through the thatch of the roof, so any wayward sparks could catch on the straw outside very easily, setting the whole roof and all the roof timbers on fire. At least if this happened in a larger Saxon or Celtic longhouse, there would have been plenty of warriors and servants handy to put said fire out!
By the Middle Ages, chimneys as we know them started to put in an appearance, having been invented by the Romans. The earliest known chimney in the UK is found in Conisbrough Castle
in Yorkshire, and it’s thought to date to about 1185 AD. Even so, chimneys didn’t really take off in everyday homes until about the Renaissance.
These Renaissance era chimneys tended to have very wide flues, partly because they were constructed around fireplaces that were big enough to hold a massive log (and, in many cases, accommodate a spit for roasting meat). These wide flues had another big advantage: they were wide enough to install hooks where salted meat could be hung so it could turn into bacon. These chimneys were often made of brick or stone, or were at least coated with plaster, to prevent the problems of sparks catching on timber or thatch.
However, it probably didn’t take very long for people to realise that all that smoke going up the chimney that produced excellent bacon also left deposits of soot inside the chimney, which was something of a fire hazard, seeing as soot is more or less straight powdered carbon, so if there’s enough of it, it can catch fire very easily if sparks go up the chimney.
Early Chimney Sweeping Techniques
In these early days of wide fireplaces, people usually cleaned their own chimneys (or, if the house was grand enough and the owner wealthy enough, got the servants to do it). Some chimneys were wide enough for a slender person to get into with a broom, but the person in question would also get coated in soot. The top of the chimney, which often had a pot or stack around the top to prevent downdrafts driving the smoke and fire into the room, was narrower and could be a problem for this rudimentary form of chimney sweeping.
Other methods were developed. One of the more unpleasant methods involved grabbing a goose or similar large fowl, climbing up onto the roof with the goose, then dropping the goose down the chimney. The fire was, of course, extinguished during this cleaning process – they might not have been all that considerate of animal rights back in the Renaissance but nobody wanted to be outright cruel… or injure a potentially good Christmas dinner. The poor goose would flap its wings frantically on its way down the chimney in an attempt to slow its fall and to fly out. The disturbance of the air and the action of the feathers would dislodge the soot down into the fireplace, where it could be swept up, presumably after a sooty and very indignant goose had been let outside.
A less barbaric method involved a long rope, two people and a large bunch of gorse or broom. The bunch of thorns was tied in the middle of the long rope. One person climbed up onto the roof and dropped one end of the rope plus the bunch of twigs down the chimney to where a second person was waiting on the hearth. The two of them would then take turns pulling their end of the rope so the gorse or broom would scrape the sides of the chimney and knock the soot off. The person down the bottom usually got covered in soot, while the person up the top ran the risk of overbalancing and falling if he or she misjudge the force and tension involved in pulling the rope. However, this method worked well enough for removing the soot from inside the chimney, as long as all the furniture was moved out of the room first and you had a good broom to clean up all the soot afterwards.
The Industrial Era
When the Industrial Revolution
made it easier for people to invent and manufacture things, along with the more widespread use of coal – which burned hotter – chimneys changed yet again. Firstly, chimneys got taller for several reasons. Firstly, coal smoke is a lot nastier to inhale than wood smoke (you certainly wouldn’t want to eat bacon that had been cured over coal smoke), so it was best to get it up and away from where people breathed it and where the wind could catch it. Secondly, the widespread use of coal meant that fireplaces could be smaller. Instead of having just one or maybe two fireplaces in the home that took up a lot of room, it was possible to have lots of little fires, with proportionally small chimneys.
Sometimes, in houses with lots of fireplaces, the flues formed a network so that the roof of the house in question didn’t have a forest of chimney stacks (“flue network” sounds very Harry Potter). Those who have read the Beatrix Potter Tale Of Samuel Whiskers may recall that Tom Kitten got lost in the flue network in his attempt to climb up onto the roof via the chimney and ended up falling into the hands of the rats Samuel Whiskers and Anna-Maria. These networks often had horizontal components as well as vertical ones, and these collected soot and needed cleaning.
This is when and why the horrible institution of chimney sweep children
began. The most basic way of getting those horizontal passages in the flue network cleaned out was to send a small child in there, into all that toxic soot and ash, to clean it out. At times, the masters (we may as well call them owners, as they pretty much were slave owners, in spite of slavery having been technically outlawed at about this time) were nastier to the little sweep boys than the Renaissance householders were to the chimney cleaning geese: some lit fires in the hearth after having inserted the boy into the chimney to “encourage” him to climb higher and do his job.
The mortality rate for these boys was high. They usually came from an impoverished background and were malnourished to begin with – which made them small enough to get into the chimneys. They worked in horribly toxic conditions, and ran the risk of falls and burns. Possibly, this is why adult chimney sweeps were considered to be lucky: they had to be lucky to make it to adulthood.
It wasn’t long until this scandal was exposed. Sometimes, the evidence of how chimneys were being cleaned in prosperous middle class and upper class houses became all too obvious. It’s hard to ignore a filthy, starving, sick, injured child tumbling down the fireplace into the living room or study by accident in front of “the gentry”. Outrage, fuelled by child welfare campaigners and authors like Charles Dickens, soon made it illegal to exploit children like this.
After this, the classical professional chimney sweeps came onto the scene with their flexible brushes with narrow rounded heads that could get into all the little curves, passages and corners. The introduction of modern stoves that were less draughty, burnt more efficiently and were safer than open fires – and had narrower chimneys – also played their part in phasing out child chimney sweeps and the invention of better brooms. These flue brushes are still in use today, although a modern chimney sweep usually has a vacuum as well.