Tuesday 25 March 2014

Chimney Sweeps

The rooftops of the older houses in the west end of Greenock abound with chimney pots of all shapes and sizes. 

In previous times, only the rich could afford to have fireplaces in every room.  You can tell from the number of chimney pots on this building, that it was of high status and the owners could afford to have servants to light fires in all the rooms and the coal to fuel them.

However, with coal fires came pollution.  This photograph is of Leeds, but shows how the smoke from a mix of domestic and industrial chimneys in towns, caused smog which hung around in the air.  Coal fires in the home also caused other dangers - fires without guards were a danger for children and for ladies with their large dresses!

If you had coal fires, there was the annual necessity to have the chimney swept of the accumulation of soot.  Some of the chimneys were very narrow.  Here's an extract from Charles Kingsley's story "The Water Babies".  The character Tom is a young boy employed by a chimney sweep - small boys could get up the narrow chimneys easier.  Boys as young as four were employed in this work, and it was an extremely dangerous job.  This extract sums up what these youngsters had to put up with -
 "Once upon a time there was a little chimney sweep and his name was Tom.  He could not read nor write, and did not care to do either; and he never washed himself, for there was no water up the court where he lived.  He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor knees and elbows raw; and when the soot got into his eyes, which it did every day in the week; and when his master beat him, which he did every day in the week; and when he had not enough to eat, which happened every day."

It was not uncommon for the youngsters' elbows and knees to be rubbed with a brine solution in order to toughen the skin.  This was done even when they had open sores or blisters on their joints.  Boys could be burnt by cinders, stuck in chimneys or fall quite a distance.  This article from an English newspaper in 1864 describes a young lad getting stuck, and the chimney having to be dismantled to free him a day later.  There is also a report of another boy who died in similar circumstances - his master was fined!

Sweeps would sometimes pick up orphans or runaway boys to work for them.  There was a condition known as chimney sweeps cancer, identified as early as 1775, and caused by soot.  It wasn't until 1875 that chimney sweeps were licensed and prohibited from employing young boys. 

The Greenockian


  1. What an awful thing and things like this continue in places around the world.

  2. The chimney pots are wonderful works of art. but, oh, what a life to clean out the chimneys.

  3. Great post. Fascinating things, chimneys.

  4. Setting down the fireplace inside the house can only be performed by the professional so that less smoke can take place, thanks for sharing such a great blog.
    Auckland fireplace


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