Nearly all European countries have a history of chimney sweeps but most traditional are probably the English sweeps, as portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins.”
Their traditional uniform of black suit with gold buttons and a black top hat make them recognizable.
Often they whistled and were known to have a friendly demeanor. But that demeanor had a very raw side.
After fire raged for three days and gutted most of London in 1666, building regulations were designed and put into place to keep the city safer. Fireplaces had to be built a certain way, with narrower chimneys.
Chimneys had to be cleaned regularly of creosote, a flammable black tar resulting from wood and later coal burning. This is when chimney sweeping became a popular vocation.
During the Industrialization Age of Great Britain of late 1700s and early 1800s, people moved from small villages to the cities. Taller buildings with multiple chimneys were grouped in various angles. They were narrow, usually 9 by 14 to 18 inches to create a better draught.
Boys, some as young as four and five, were sold by their parents, some taken from orphanages and workhouses, and others were snatched from the streets.They had to be diminutive to fit into a narrow chimney.
Master chimney sweeps were paid three to four pounds by the government for each child they used and he provided the boys with shelter, food, and water. The children lived in cellars amid bags of soot and bathed only once a week; some bathed only three or four times a year. They worked from pre-dawn until late at night and reportedly had only May Day off.
To clean a chimney, the child pulled himself up the dark flue using his back, elbows, and knees while holding a broom over his head to knock the creosote loose. When he reached the top, he slid off the roof and gathered the soot for the master. If a boy halted in the chimney, the master lit a fire in the fireplace.
Chimney sweeping was often done free. The chimney sweep master made extra money by selling soot to farmers and gardeners as fertilizer. The children received no wages.
The health hazards of the work took its toll. The boys seldom lived even to middle age, which at that time was about 25 to 30. Stunted growth and disfigurement resulted from the abnormal positions which they had to take in the chimney. Their knees and ankle joints were most often affected. Breathing the soot that rained down on them as they swept it loose from the flue damaged their lungs and their eyelids were often inflamed and swollen. And some died after getting stuck in a chimney.
The first recorded form of industrial cancer was unique to chimney sweeps, a common type being the extremely painful and fatal Chimney Sweep Cancer which struck boys in adolescence.
Unlike Van Dyke’s character, Bert, who lived between a fantasy world and reality, the actual chimney sweeps lived in a world of grim reality.