The big cities of the 19th century – the likes of Paris, London and New York – were grim places to live in many ways. With mains gas and electricity available only in the latter half of the century and only to the well off, heating homes hadn’t changed much in centuries. Solid fuels like wood and coal were burned in thousands of fireplaces, belching thick black smoke into the air, the heavier particles of which eventually settled to coat the city in a filmy black layer.
The smoke also coated the inside of the chimney – the flue – in soot and a tarry by-product called creosote. Over time, soot could thicken to the point of blocking the chimney, while the creosote could potentially ignite and send the whole building up in flames. It was the chimney sweep’s job to help prevent this.
A master sweep would take on several apprentices to help him clear the soot with brushes. As the spaces the sweeps had to climb up were often tight – indeed, as little as 23 centimetres (nine inches) wide in places – small boys and girls were chosen.
These children – usually orphans from the local workhouse – were bound to the chimney sweep master until they reached adulthood. They would learn how to climb the treacherous bends and ascents of various chimneys and risk their lives on a daily basis. A long brush was used when possible, but often it didn’t have the clearance and, besides, the chimney needed to be scraped smooth because the combined soot and flammable creosote content was a saleable commodity in itself.
Four years after London’s Great Smog of 1952 – sometimes called the Big Smoke – the Clean Air Act was passed in the UK that, for the most part, put an end to the chimney sweep trade.