Reminder: it’s illegal to send small children up chimneys

Ornate chimneys on building

As the summer evenings turn slightly chilly and damp with the approach of autumn, it’s comforting to imagine a nice relaxing evening in front of the fire. But before you take a match anywhere near the fireplace in your home, remember to get your chimney swept.

Fires keep our homes warm but it’s important to make sure your chimney is safe as possible.

HETAS (Heating Equipment Testing and Approvals Scheme) encourages homeowners to have chimneys swept at least once a year when burning smokeless fuels, and twice a year when burning wood or bituminous house coal.

It is best to have your chimney swept just before the beginning of the heating season or when a stove hasn’t been used for a prolonged period of time. If sweeping twice yearly, the second time should be after the main heating season.

Preventing a chimney fire

A clean chimney allows smoke, toxins and dangerous fumes to freely escape the home. However, in time, creosote builds up inside the chimney. Creosote is a black, sticky residue that builds up within the chimney when wood is burned or when there isn’t enough ventilation. Creosote is highly flammable and one of the main causes of chimney fires.

Another cause of chimney fires is birds, which are known to sometimes place their nests inside chimneys. The dry twigs, leaves, and debris that block or fall down the chimney during the process of nest building can spark a devastating fire very easily.

Soot damage

Soot accumulates around the flue, preventing the flue from freely directing the smoke upwards.  Not only is this a fire risk and potentially dangerous to your health, decoration and soft furnishings could be damaged by soot and a black stain could build up in the hearth and around your chimney, which is almost impossible to remove.

Increased ventilation means less fuel use and more heat

Sweeping the chimney regularly will increased air circulation, which in turn gives you a more efficient chimney at home whilst preventing future damage, that can be quite costly.

The history of the chimney sweep

The skilled profession of chimney sweeping has a rich and dark history that dates back to the 16th century. It was once the province of the wealthy who installed sometimes elaborate chimneys on their grand buildings, but the trend soon caught on with the masses.

As more and more homes installed chimneys, demand for sweeps grew. Houses in tightly packed town and city streets meant sweeps could work from house to house, and sometimes roof to roof (think Mary Poppins).

A hearth tax introduced by the government in the 17th century was based partly on the number of chimneys each house had. To avoid the tax, builders connected the flues of new fireplaces with existing chimneys, which created a maze of narrow black tunnels within the home.

Lucky sweep

Switching from wood to coal meant chimneys became coated with sticky soot deposits that needed cleaning frequently to avoid a house full of toxic fumes. As a result, chimney sweeps became a symbol of good health, as their work restored fresh air to the home … or it may be that 200 years ago, the life of King George II was saved by a chimney sweep who stopped his runaway horse and carriage. A Royal Decree was issued that Chimney Sweeps are bringers of luck and should be treated with the greatest of respect. This started the tradition of couples meeting the sweep at their wedding, which was considered a lucky omen.

Whether lucky or not, chimney sweeps themselves rarely enjoyed good health. Small children between the ages of 4 and 11 were the primary tools of the master sweep, as they were small enough to squeeze into a standard flue, which would narrow to around 9 by 9 inches, to scrape away the coal deposits from the flue lining. Sometimes the lack of movement in such a narrow space this require ‘buffing it’, or climbing up naked using elbows and knees to access the small spaces. These ‘climbing boys’ usually came from orphanages or were sold by destitute parents.

To ‘encourage’ those reluctant to enter the claustrophobic and dark space, the sweep would sometimes light a small fire to motivate them. This is the origin of the phrase ‘to light a fire under’ someone.

Climbing boys had just one official day off, May Day, and this is still commemorated in Rochester where the town runs a Sweeps Festival.

Many of the children developed bone malformation, eye conditions and cancers from soot inhalation, and some became trapped and died of suffocation inside the chimneys. Few lived long lives.

In 1864, following humanitarian appeals to government, the Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers was passed, which made it illegal to send children up chimneys.

The rules in England on burning ‘wet’ wood and house coal have changed. Read more on what you can and can’t burn in the home here: Home fuel burning restrictions come into force.