A chimney fires can occur when the interior of the flue is neglected by not being cleaned or when it becomes choked and partially blocked with a build-up of soot deposited by the coal or wood burning process. In the 17th century the size of a house could be determined by the number of chimneys or hearths it contained, and owners were taxed accordingly by the Hearth Tax. As early as the Georgian period it was appreciated that chimneys needed to be swept in order to avoid problems.
A Master Sweep would use small boys to climb up the inside of flues and brush them clean. Metal scrapers were used to remove hard tar deposited by wood or log smoke. These youngsters were apprenticed and tied to the trade when as young as seven years of age. The Master Sweep was paid a fee which was to feed, clothe, and teach the child his trade. Many Sweeps' Boys were parish children or orphans, although others were sold into the trade by their families. Some grew up to be Journeymen (assistants to the Master), the remainder were put out to various trades to attempt to become skilled at other work.
In London there was the London Society of Master Sweeps with its own set of rules, one of which said that boys were not required to work on Sundays but must go to Sunday School to study, and read the Bible. Conditions for the children were harsh and sometimes cruel. Some were forced to sleep in cellars on bags of soot and washing facilities rarely existed. Cancer of the testicles was a common illness amongst the boys and was contracted from the accumulated soot. There was no safety clothing or safety regulations to protect the boys and there are instances recorded where they were choked and suffocated to death by dust inhalation whilst trying to sweep clean the chimneys. They often became trapped in the narrower flues or fell from the rotten stack to their death.
Only in 1864, after many years of campaigning, was an Act of Parliament finally approved by the House of Lords, to outlaw the use of children for climbing chimneys. Lord Shaftesbury's Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers established a penalty of £10 for offenders. This was a considerable sum of money in those times.
In the early part of the 18th century various types of cleaning methods were developed. A Bristol engineer named Joseph Glass is generally recognised as the inventor of the type of chimney cleaning equipment which is still in use today. His designs consisted of a system of canes and brushes, which could be pushed up into chimney from the fireplace below. Early canes were Malacca, a timber imported from the East Indies and the brushes were formed from whale bones.
Another development, the ball, brush and rope system (which was lowered from the top of the chimney) was came from Europe The weight of a lead or iron ball pulled the brush down, thus cleaning the flue. This procedure is still used widely in Scotland .
With the onset of the Industrial Revolution and increased demand for coal production, the profession of chimney sweep thrived. In Victorian London over 1,000 Sweeps served the city. The continued expansion of coal as the main fuel for domestic heating ensured that the trade flourished.
In the early 1960s gas began to replace coal as a source of domestic heating and by the 1970s many of the old-established family sweeps had retired or given up the business. With the switch to gas the traditional sweep, who had been used to cleaning coal, wood and oil chimneys, was forced to encompass the new fuel and its problems.