I am writing these lines in Vienna at one of the city’s best restaurants. It is called Zum weissen Rauchfangkehrer – The White Chimney Sweep.
A couple of weeks ago, it had been my turn to stay home at the chalet and supervise the annual chimney-sweeping activity. I have no idea why, but I am majorly fascinated by this activity. Perhaps because of the horrible history of chimney sweeping.
Chimneys started to appear in Britain around 1200 when people began replacing the open fires burning in their one-room houses. By the 1500’s the British realized that the frequency of houses going up in flames was overwhelmingly caused by dirty, creosote-filled chimneys that had caught fire. So, in 1582 the authorities introduced an ordinance requiring that chimneys be constructed from brick and stone and swept four times a year. The fine for not complying was 3 shillings and 4 pence.
And the profession of chimney sweeping came into being.
Back then, chimneys were so narrow that the Master Sweep couldn’t fit inside the flue and needed the help of apprentices, otherwise known as “Climbing Boys.” These children were typically orphans and were as young as 4 years of age when they started assisting Master Sweeps. The orphanages or legal guardians (if they had any) had to sign Papers of Indenture, which allowed the Master Sweep to basically enslave the children until they were adults themselves. (Wikipedia)
The apprentices would use their backs, elbows, and knees to guide themselves up the chimney flue and brush away any creosote buildup they came in contact with. Sometimes, they would get lodged in the flue. If they were unable to dislodge themselves, they could be stuck in their position until someone pushed or pulled them out – or they died. Boys as young as four climbed hot flues that could be as narrow as 81 square inches. As soot is carcinogenic and as the boys slept under the soot sacks they were prone to chimney sweeps’ carcinoma.
Climbing Boys as a group had an alarmingly high death rate.
Aside from using small children to help clean the chimneys, Master Sweeps also used geese. They would tie the legs of the goose together and drop it down the flue. The bird, obviously frightened, would begin flapping its wings and that helped to break down any build-up on the inside of the flue.
Eventually, a chimney sweep by the name of Joseph Glass, invented the chimney sweep brush. This brush style is still used by many modern-day Sweeps.(Wikipedia)
In the German states, Master Sweeps belonged to trade guilds and did not use Climbing Boys. In Italy, Belgium and France they did.
Of course, today, operations are completely different. The use of Climbing Boys (and Girls) is forbidden in most countries.
Accompanied by his fifty-something female assistant, my 60-year-old Master Sweep arrived in a Ford 150 truck. It took the two a few minutes to cover the carpet in front of the stove with a protective tarp. They detached the metal flue, cleaned and re-installed it, then went to the roof and cleaned the chimney.
A couple of hours’ work with no drama and almost no dirt.
In contrast, as a young boy, I vividly remember seeing Master Chimney Sweeps, accompanied by their Climbing Boys (both covered with soot), walking the streets of Budapest and promoting their services – armed with short ladders, and brushes with very long metal handles wound around their shoulders.
My Nanny kept a sharp eye out for them. Every time she spotted a chimney sweep on the street she would tell me to run and touch him. “It brings Good Luck,” she would tell me. And I, of course, believed her.
I still do!