The Charm of a Chimney Sweep

October 17, 2016 OPINION/NEWS

Photo – Miller



Hazel Speed

I do not know what it is, but many of us love to see a traditional chimney sweep.

It is lucky for a sweep to give a new bride a kiss on the cheek as the she and the groom, now newlyweds, emerge from the church to have official photographs taken. That said, this has to be done most carefully given the bride is traditionally dressed in white and the chimney sweep is covered in good old-fashioned very black soot.

Years ago it was doubly-lucky if a chimney sweep happened to be passing by at the time, enroute to sweep a chimney somewhere, came across a wedding and was seconded to provide a bride with the traditional kiss.

Of course, modern gas and electric fires superseded open fires therefore making the job of the chimney sweep a thing of the past (though some exceptions still remain where stately homes, and other buildings need the services of the sweep). Black-leading was commonplace in the early 20th Century and beyond where a maid often had to rub a messy style of black lead paste to the sides of the fire place – a pointless exercise in one way but it was in the mindset of the times as was ‘scrubbing one’s front door step’ each morning whether it needed it or not (often to be followed by placing a troublesome child on an outside step like a milk bottle). Wonder what Social Services would think about that these days!

During the times of the open fire, usually a parent would get up in the morning early enough to set the living room fire going and enable the rest of the family to eat their breakfasts in that warm room during cold winter months.

Young children would help their parent warm gloves and scarves for older siblings in readiness for their journey to school in the cold and/or snow. Trust me, there is no smell that equates to that of singed gloves, totally unique.

Then a long handled ‘fork’ would enable bread to be held over a fire until it was toasted beautifully.

It took a while to prepare the fire before striking a match to get it going. Little portions of wood on top of crumpled old newspaper then lumps of coal would keep all in place to enable a flame to be put next to the paper and catch hold but often one still had to blow across the paper to encourage a flame to spread. If the fire was still stubborn, then often one would have to hold a large newspaper sheet across the front of the outside of the fire-place thus giving the flame a chance to work on the fire in the grate without any waft of air or breeze working against it, hindering the fire starting. In those days every room had a breeze. Aren’t you glad, those who are young, that such things belonged to older generations (grin)?

No central heating or double glazing. Rarely fires in other rooms.

This is why a visit from ‘The Sweep’ was a special event. It was like a health and safety visit during an era when there was little of either.

I don’t know why it was, but sweeps (as they were known), were always happy people and brought fun and laughter with them. They put down newspaper over the carpet, rug (or more commonly lino or bare floorboards) in the areas where they would be walking). The more covered in soot sweeps seemed to be, the more they were considered efficient in their work. One was suspicious of a clean ‘sweep’.

Akin to watching an old person preparing their tobacco pipe in readiness to smoke same, the sweep had the same alluring rituals.

He would attach rods together lengthwise, one after another, leaving the viewer wondering if the chimney was really that high up in the sky.

The sweep would then attach the lovely broom head (suffering from a bad hair day). He would start pushing the broom head up inside the empty chimney but before the brush had gone too far up the chimney stack, the sweep would fasten a type of outside large square brown cover (with a central hole for the rods of the brush head), so that whatever soot would fall down the chimney during a clean, then no dirt would enter the room and any soot would fall into the fire grate and would be swept up at the end of the chimney clean.

Children would be told by the sweep when to look outside and to tell him when they saw the brush head poking into the sky above the chimney. The sweep had such expertise he knew this himself but sweeps were aware how the children loved to try and see the brush poking above the chimney pot.

Surprisingly enough, the whole chimney clean (including the setting-up of accoutrements and subsequent dismantling), did not take long, then once the sweep had removed all the equipment from the house he would often accept a quick cup of tea. His fees were most reasonable and I believe, if memory serves me right, children loved to pay the sweep a special additional financial tip and shake his hand for luck, hoping that it was very sooty thereby securing more luck for the child and dirty fingerprints around the house which would have thrilled detectives at Scotland Yard. The hand towels told their own story though, enough to convict the suspects.

Train drivers were also given tips for taking everyone safely from A to B. Those were the good old days.

I recall that a fellow school student was late in arriving at class one morning. We were all young children. Poor young boy, as when he arrived, he was unaware a neighbour’s child had already relayed what had happened to the teacher and the rest of us so when asked, and answering where he had been (albeit in a semi coherent fashion) little did he know we were all ready to have a good laugh at his expense.

He replied “the sweep was there and my Mother and I thought I better not leave to go to school in case the sweep’s brush popped outside the chimney and knocked off a tile which could have fallen on my head if I left the house at the wrong moment.”

The teacher posed the obvious question “could the sweep not have stopped work for a moment whilst you dashed out to avoid a falling slate?” The reply only made things worse “Yes, we thought about that too.”

The story, and truth, took a sad twist and although the class knew a confused segment of the story in advance it proved to be true in that this young man’s older brother really had stood on their kitten and accidentally killed it so this poor young man had been crying and that was why he had been late for school (his eyes were red with dried tears). So the sweep ‘took the fall’ for it all as they say. I often wonder if that young man became a con-man (with a better routine than this one).

We have seen sweeps in films such as the lovely roof top dance routine starring Dick Van Dyke in the movie Mary Poppins.

My favourite sweep is the one played by Jeremy Lloyd in an episode of The Avengers. See the attached link and note his character’s supposed real name (representative of the gentry), but as he enjoyed being a sweep he had to use a more humble name, though incongruously and humorously maintained his formal dress suit, tails and top hat, along with his accent as a ‘toff’.

Wonderful characterisation..

The other day whilst walking home I went by a parked van which was advertising the services of a sweep and his company. Even more astounding, I noticed he was a member of the Institute of Chimney Sweeps – I didn’t know there was such a thing.

Walking towards me was a lovely elderly lady and as we both passed this sweep’s van we smiled and started to discuss the uniqueness of reading a promotion regarding a sweep in this day and age. The lady then asked if I had a pen as she had some paper and wanted to write the contact number down because she needed a sweep to see to a chimney in her home.

Yes indeed, sweeps were truly wonderful people and I like to think, regarding modern age sweeps, that they still are!









Hazel Speed

Photo (c) Hazel Speed – used by kind permision to Tuck Magazine

Hazel Speed is a Philosopher, Writer, and Artist with various creative projects at differing stages of development. Her flaship project is an animation which has produced a film short: She has also written an E-novel, ‘Just Suppose…!‘ which is available via the attached link.

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