Popular culture has depicted chimney sweeps as skinny characters that are covered in soot and push around a broom. Nowadays, you expect your chimney cleaner to be an adult that carries a broom or brush, along with other equipment, like vacuums, cameras and other special tools. It wasn’t always like this.
The profession came about with the Industrial Revolution, chimney sweep and more buildings became home to chimneys. Chimney sweeps during this time were called master sweeps, and would teach the craft to young boys (and sometimes girls) who were called “apprentices” or “climbing boys.” The children were found at orphanages or bought from their parents, for minor payments. Apprentices were indentured to the master sweep for seven years, and after the end of his apprenticeship, he would become a journeyman sweep and work for a master of his choice.
These children would be the ones who cleaned the chimneys, by actually climbing inside. The boy would pull his hat down over his face, and hold a large brush over his head, and put himself into the flue. He would travel through the chimney, using his body and brush to remove soot, and a scraper to chip away at what wasn’t easily removed. Upon exit from the chimney, he would then have to bag up the soot (which was valuable at the time) and carry it back to the master sweep’s means of transportation.
Apprentices would sweep four to five chimneys a day. In order to harden the chimney sweeping scraping of knees and elbows, the master sweep would often stand them close to a hard fire and rub in brine using a brush, doing this each evening until the skin was hard. These apprentices earned no wage, but were fed by the master sweep, and bathed once a week. If an apprentice wasn’t climbing high enough or moving as fast as the master wanted, the master sweep would light a fire or send up another boy to prick pins into the apprentice’s feet or other areas.
There were many dangers with the profession at this time. Chimneys were hot from fires, or still on fire in some cases. Boys could get stuck, and if they struggled, they became wedged tighter. For narrow chimneys, the boys would have to sweep naked.