Why chimneys needed sweeping
Since coal fires were the only form of heating in the early 1900s in working
class family houses like ours, they were lit every day in winter. As the chimneys
got blocked up with soot, they would billow dirty black smoke out into the room.
So it was essential to have the chimney swept once or twice a year. What a business
Preparations for the chimney sweep's visit
A London chimney sweep in the early 1900s. Photo
Wellers Chimney Sweeps.
Kevin Dowey of A Complete Sweep told me that in his experience the
wide brush shown in the photo would have been for chimneys built
during or before the Victorian era. Afterwards, from the early 1900s onwards new
houses were built with narrower chimneys, requiring
smaller brushes. He also pointed out that the rods in the photo
would have been rigid, unlike the superior bendable ones used since
the development of plastics.
would engage a chimney sweep to come as early in the day as possible, preferably
before breakfast. This was because of all the clearing up that had to be done
afterwards, which was no quick business.
The day before the sweep was due to come, my mother would take all the china
off the dresser. Then everything that was not in everyday use would be taken
down, including the curtains and the pictures. All the movable furniture was
put into another room or covered with dust sheets. Finally everything that could
be washed was washed, ready to be put back when the room had been cleaned up
after the sweep had gone.
The chimney sweep's equipment
The sweep would arrive with his brushes, sacks, shovel and cloths. He would
drape a large cloth with a hole in it in front of the fireplace. The hole was
for the brush to go through.
The process of the chimney sweeping
I well remember my mother wanting the chimney swept in the 1950s and 60s in Glossop, Derbyshire. The main problem was that there was a bend in the chimney,
so the local sweeps did not want the job. They wanted to charge so much that my mother got me do it. I had to go into the loft, remove quite a few bricks from the side of the flue, and then sweep up the chimney and then down. Afterwards I had to re-brick the flue.
Not for the faint hearted! In all it took about half a day, even before
the process of cleaning up the house. I was 12 years old when this started and I continued to do it
for my mother to the grand old age of 27.
We would all go into the
scullery to let him get
on with his work of joining his lengths of rod together to extend his brush
to the right length. After a while, we would hear him shout out. This would
mean that the brush was out of the top of the chimney. We would then be expected
to go down to the end of the garden to check that the brush really the was out
off the top of the chimney, which meant that he had done his job properly. Having
seen the brush, we would shout out that we had seen it, and he would pull the
brush back down.
clearing up after the chimney being swept
An early 1900s chimney sweep with his brushes,
sacks, and cloths. The large cloth was for draping in front of the
fireplace and had a hole in it for the brush to go through.. Photo
courtesy of www.wellerschimneysweeps.com
There was a great deal of soot for him to shovel up because
there was no vacuum cleaner to collect it. He shovelled it into sacks, as best
he could, but much of it escaped. He would always ask if we wanted soot for
the garden, a general belief being that it was good for the ground. My mother's
answer was usually no. It was bad enough with all the mess inside the house
without him emptying sacks of soot onto the garden making a cloud of black over
all the plants. He no doubt had a market elsewhere for our soot.
To allow time for all the dust to settle, we then had our breakfast in the
scullery, before starting the major operation of cleaning up. First of all,
my mother would sweep and brush up the loose soot from the floor which was
[Oilcloth was a heavy duty cloth treated to create a wipe-over surface. It
was not unlike vinyl flooring to look at, but quite thin and would crack easily.]
would put a duster around the head of a broom, sweep the ceiling and walls and
then with a bucket of soapy water wash everything that was washable including
the floor. Then later in the day she would go back with a duster and put the
crockery and pictures, etc back in their places. There would still be a film
of dust everywhere. So the cleaning had to keep being repeated until everywhere
Thank goodness we only had to have the sweep once or twice a year!
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.