Chimney sweeps are often associated with England, particularly the Victorian period. Our popular collective perception of chimney sweeps compares favourably with Dick Van Dyke's portrayal of Burt the chimney sweep in the classic Disney film "Mary Poppins." Chimney sweeps have been around much longer than that and are still with us today. Most of the work was done by children, until child labour laws came into being.
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A fire burnt indoors in a fireplace creates soot, a black, powdery substance. Some soot is released into the atmosphere through the smoke from the fire. Some soot remains, clinging to the interior walls of the chimney which can cause a fire within the chimney. Cleaning the soot from the fireplace became an important but difficult job. As chimneys are narrow spaces, special tools or small people were required to do the job.
Specialised tools were expensive and impractical for most chimney sweeps, making the practice of using children popular until the 19th centuy. Children as young as four years old were sold to master chimney sweeps most often by orphanages but sometimes by their own families. The children would do the work in exchange for learning a trade and being housed and fed. All the money the children earned was turned over to the master sweeper. Tales of mistreatment abounded and the children often begged for food from the customers they served.
A chimney sweep was required to climb up the inside of the chimney, sweeping and scraping soot into a bag. The tight spaces occasionally caused the sweeps to become stuck. A chimney in poor condition might cause the sweep to lose a grip or footing and fall to his death. Another hazard of the job was the illness caused by inhaling the soot. Cancers of the testicles and scrotum and various breathing problems were all too frequent. Often, children were afraid to perform their duties. Once forced up into the chimney, a fire was lit below them, preventing their descent and ensuring they would climb up. It is possible the phrase "light a fire under you" came from this practice.
Attempts at protecting the children began as early as 1804 when England's House of Lords attempted to pass a bill prohibiting the use of children under 10 as chimney sweeps. Other bills aimed at stopping the abuse of chimney sweeps failed to pass in 1817 and 1819. Finally in 1840, an act was passed banning anyone under the age of 21 from performing the duties of a chimney sweep. Penalties were small so the law was not enforced. In 1864 an act was passed that levied a sizeable fine. With the support of the police, the courts and the people, the act was successful and changes in the industry were finally brought about.
Chimney sweeps are believed to bring good luck ,although the source of the belief is uncertain. One version tells that Britain's King William was saved by a chimney sweep from being trampled by a runaway horse and carriage in 1066. The king rewarded the sweep by inviting him to his daughter's wedding. A variation of the tale says that a chimney sweep tumbled from a roof. His foot catching on the gutter, he was dangling in front of a window. A young woman, engaged to another, saw him and pulled him inside. The two fell in love and were married. Both versions are taken to mean that the presence of a chimney sweep at a wedding brings good luck and this practice exists today Chimney sweeps also practised the custom of carrying a live pig through the streets on New Year's Day. People would pay a small amount to the sweep and in return could make a wish while pulling a hair out of the pig. This practice has ceased.
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