Chimney Sweeps and Climbing Boys

by Guest Blogger H. Linn Murphy 

Recently I was doing research on chimney sweeps for a book I was writing called HEART OF FIRE. It turns out the life of a chimney sweep (and especially that of his poor Climbing Boy or girl) isn’t at all like that of the glorified happy-go-lucky, slightly bespattered-yet-still-dapper man in Mary Poppins. Sweeping was hazardous, demeaning, and low-paying. Chimney sweeps often had to do double duty cleaning out privies, a job known as a “nightman.” 

Before the Great Fire of London, which happened on September 2nd through 5th, 1666, Climbing Boys rarely climbed chimneys. Afterwards, people were more worried about the layer of creosote and soot starting fires, so the smaller boys were used. In England, another great increase in the use of small children as Climbing Boys occurred after 1773 in an actual attempt to be more humanitarian. It was found that children were not surviving well in workhouses or orphanages. In many, even surviving for a year was difficult. Parliament passed an act which said children could spend no more than three weeks in a workhouse. In an effort to increase their chances for survival, more children were apprenticed out to occupations such as chimney sweeping and other jobs which needed cheap, expendable labor. 

Italy, Belgium, and France all used Climbing Boys as well. Germans did not, as the Sweeps belonged to Sweep Guilds. Scotland did not allow climbing either. The Sweep used bundles of rags or balls on chains or ropes dropped down from the top.  

Everything was taxed in 17th century Britain, along with hearths. The size of the house and number of chimneys shot the tax sky high. Which meant that builders of new homes or new chimneys connected new flues with the existing chimney, making for a veritable and truly dangerous maze of pitch black, cramped tunnels which jigged and bent around obstructions. 

As the use of coal for household fuel became more prevalent, Sweeps became more and more widely used. Coal dust (creosote) collected in the chimneys in greater quantities and could ignite and cause fires in the predominantly wooden structures. Soot was valuable and sold to farmers for fertilizer. Because the Sweep was generally too large to climb the chimneys, he usually employed two to twenty Climbing Boys, depending on how many of them he could keep alive. 

The parish generally paid a Master Sweep to employ as many four to thirteen year old destitute children and orphans as possible. Most often they started around the age of six, as before that, the children were often too weak to climb the often 400 feet to the tops of high chimneys. The children mainly signed letters of indenture, which forced them to work for the Sweep until they had reached their majority (adulthood). This took the children off the hands of the parish. The Sweep was even allowed to buy children from poor parents or kidnap homeless waifs from the street to use.  

The Master Sweep’s job was to teach the craft and all its secrets, take the child to church, desist in sending the child into a chimney currently on fire, and offer a second change of clothing and a weekly bath. There were, of course slackers who did not follow these rules. Baths were often much more rare than weekly. One sweep only bathed his apprentices on Christmas, Whitsun (just after Easter), and Goosefair (early October). Many only bathed them once monthly or bi-yearly, and that in the frigid river. They were seldom fed well, to keep them small enough to climb the chimneys. Often the child was so hungry he had to beg for food from the clients. Since the Sweep was to provide room and board, the Climbing Boy wasn’t paid and there was no limit to the hours a boy or girl worked. If the child received clothing from a client, dishonest Sweeps might take the clothing to sell for more money. 

The child agreed to obey the master without back-talking or harm, not be found in drinking or gaming dens (in their copious spare time), be thrifty with resources, and not tell their Sweep’s secrets or lend out his gear.  

Flues were often tight (some as small as 81 square inches) with normal flues being 14 inches by 9 inches narrowing to 9X9 inches near the chimney pots on top. The boy or girl would pull their cap over their face to keep out as much soot as possible, then shimmy up the chimney, negotiating the twists and turns which allowed the ever narrower chimney flue to send a shaft of hot gas to suck air down into the fire. The thinner the flue, the better the draw.

When they first started to work, the children often had raw and bleeding elbows and knees from climbing and then sliding quickly down the chimneys. It was the Sweep’s job to harden those spots using salt brine and a brush to work the brine in while the child stood next to a roaring fire. As you can guess, it wasn’t a pleasant occurrence and children had to be punished or bribed to withstand the hardening, which could take weeks or even years.

Often Climbing Boys got stuck in chimneys or lost their way in the maze of Stygian darkness. Heaven help the child that allowed his knees to get stuck next to his nose. If the sweep couldn’t push or pull the child out of the tight spot, the corpse had to be rescued by pulling bricks from the chimney.  Sometimes they burned or suffocated to death. The Sweep would stand on the roof with a bucket to extinguish the child if he called out. Soot could become dislodged with the child’s scraping and fall into his face, suffocating him.

Climbing Boys rarely got to bathe. Also, because the bag of clinker sometimes included warm coals, the Climbing Boy would sleep in or on the bag of clinker or ash for warmth. It was called Sleeping Black. Both meant they often contacted Chimney Sweep’s Cancer, as the clinker was highly carcinogenic and bore traces of arsenic, which nearly always led to death at least by middle age.

There were other occupational hazards. Often the Climbing Boy’s back, knees, ankles, and feet were stunted from starvation and staying in the same odd position for long periods of time while cleaning, or as the Sweep tried to extricate him. They suffered from blindness due to soot in the eyes, bruises, burns, asthma, and exposure to the elements. Often their only coat was the bag or blanket they used to haul soot and clinker back to the Sweep’s place.

It was a normal occurrence for the boy to clean the chimney in the nude so that his clothing wouldn’t catch on protuberances and get him stuck. They often went up warm or hot chimneys, some of which had fires in the soot, to put out the fire. If the boy or girl wasn’t working fast enough, unprincipled sweeps would light straw on fire beneath the sweep, which is where the saying “Light a fire under him” originates. Another way was to send another boy up through the claustrophobic, cloying soot to poke the Climbing Boy in the feet or rear with pins.

Even girls could be Climbing Boys, and if they survived the rigorous work and dangerous conditions, could become Master Sweeps themselves, employing Climbing Boys of their own.

In 1803 George Smart invented the first mechanical sweeping machine. John Glass marketed a new and improved sweeping machine in 1828, including the newest brush. But people were slow to trust the newfangled sweeping machine. Clearly a human would to a better job than any machine. In 1864, Parliament passed the “Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers” which ended the use of young boys to clean the chimneys and charged a penalty of £10.00 for offenders. It wasn’t until 1875 that the use of Climbing Boys was actively prohibited in England. Another thing which contributed to the decline of Sweeps was the advent of gas or electric heating.

The Sweep is rumored to be a symbol of good luck. In England, a Sweep brought good luck to a bride on the day of her wedding and would often hire himself out for the purpose. There are varying stories about the origin of that belief. In many of the Eastern European countries it’s good luck to rub your buttons when you pass a Sweep. In Germany, Sweep figures of candy (usually marzipan) or ornaments attached to bouquets of flowers are given as good luck gifts on New Years. In Italy, the Sweep is called “Spazzacamini.”

European Sweeps still wear a black top hat and black uniform with golden buttons. The origin story for the top hat is also varied. Americans don’t usually wear the traditional uniform, as the tails and buttons get in the way and they consider it undignified.

Now they use a selection of brushes, chippers, lead or iron balls, vacuums, and cameras, and sweep the chimney usually from the bottom. They can evaluate the situation and are often trained to repair, replace, or build the chimney and cement crown.

 In my book HEART OF FIRE, Joss is employed as a Climbing Boy for a short time. His Sweep is an unprincipled wretch and interested in much more than cleaning chimneys. HEART OF FIRE should be out in April 2017.

Meanwhile, check out my blog at and my newest book, SUMMERHOUSE



Marriage in Regency England–Special License

Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold 1816

Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold                                  1816

English marriage, and the methods in which one could place one’s neck in the “parson’s noose,” underwent a number of changes just prior to the Regency, and they changed again during the Victorian Era. Though a Special License appears frequently in romance novels, during the Regency Era, it was issued rarely, and only under extenuating circumstances.

During the Regency, the most common way to get married (especially among the humbler classes) was to have the banns posted also called “putting up the banns.” This required posting on the wall of the church and read by the clergy from the pulpit of both the bride and the groom’s parish for three consecutive Sundays in order to give the public a chance to object to the marriage. After that, couple could get married within 90 days, and the wedding must take place between 8 in the morning and noon in the husband or wife’s parish of Church of England, even if the couple were Catholic. Quakers and Jews were exempt, apparently.

A couple wishing to marry could also do so by ordinary license. This did not require putting up the banns, but it cost  money–not much, but it wasn’t free, and it had many of the same restrictions of marriage by banns.

Marriage by special license was different. The advantages of having a special license were that a couple could marry any time and place that they wished. When applying for a special license, certain criteria must be met. First of all, few outside of titled lords and their spouses and children were eligible, and one seeking such privilege must go appeal to His Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

According to noted researcher and novelist, Susanna Ives:

“BY the Statute of 23 Hen. VIII., the Archbishop of Canterbury has power to grant Special Licences; but in a certain sense these are limited. His Grace restricts his authority to Peers and Peeresses in their own right, to their sons and daughters, to Dowager Peeresses, to Privy Councillors, to Judges of the Courts at Westminster, to Baronets and Knights, and to Members of Parliament ; and by an order of a former Prelate, to no other person is a special licence to be given, unless they allege very strong and weighty reasons for such indulgence, arising from particular circumstances of the case, and they must prove the truth of the same to the satisfaction of the Archbishop.”

“In the case where the parties applying do not rank within the restricted indulgences, a personal interview should be sought, or a letter of introduction to his Grace should be obtained, containing the reasons for wishing the favour granted. Should his Grace grant his fiat, in either case the gentleman attends his proctor to make the usual affidavit, that there is no impediment to the marriage—the same as in an ordinary licence.” 

Charles Manners-Sutton (1755–1828), Archbishop of Canterbury.

Charles Manners-Sutton (1755–1828), Archbishop of Canterbury.

When applying for a special license, both the bride and groom must be named so the Archbishop of Canterbury could verify their eligibility to wed.  Since those who could use a special license were all members of the upper class, and since the archbishop sat in the House of Lords, His Grace probably knew most of them. Regardless, he would not have issued a license without verifying their eligibility to wed.

Also, a special license cost quite a bit more than a regular  marriage license. However, a special license allowed a couple to marry in any location and at any time. It also made the posting the banns unnecessary, so if there were some reason a couple wanted to marry in haste, or didn’t want to subject themselves to public protestation, this allowed a way to do it.

Remember, though, that obtaining special license was dependent on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s decree and goodwill. His Grace didn’t grant Special Licenses frequently nor lightly.

More information about the different methods available to the Regency couple wishing to marry can be found here.


Regency Era Marriage Customs

Victorian Wedding Etiquette in 1852

Regency Terminology/Glossary

512px-King_George_IV_1809“Regency” is the era in England when the Prince of Wales was Regent, or the ruler, in place of his father, King George III who was declared legal unfit to rule due to madness.  Because he was the Prince Regent, the period is called the Regency.  The true Regency officially began in 1811 and ended in 1820 when George III died, and his son, Prince George became King George IV.

However, there is also an expanded Regency era which spanned from the late 18th century until Queen Victorian took the throne. This expanded Regency era is marked by classical influences and elegant designs. Books written by Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen made it famous. When people think of Regency, they often think of books and movies such as Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and most of all, Pride and Prejudice. The Regency has its own terminology with which the modern reader may not be familiar.ball

The following are a few terms I often use in my books that bear explanation:

Abigail: A term for a lady’s maid.  A coveted position within a household among servants, she cared for her lady’s needs including grooming, dressing, and personal care, as well as her lady’s clothing.

Almack’s: Assembly rooms on King Street in London which held exclusive subscription balls each Wednesday night of the Season. Only those deemed worthy by the fastidious patronesses were awarded vouchers to enter. Said patronesses could be fussy about which ladies were allowed to attend, but reportedly weren’t quite as discriminating about the gentlemen allowed to enter such hallowed halls.

Apoplexy: A stroke.

Banns: Public announcement in church of a proposed marriage. The banns were posted on the outside of the church and read aloud during church service for three consecutive Sundays, accompanied with a query as to whether anyone knew of any reason why the couple should not wed. This was done in the parishes of both the bride and groom. Once the banns were read three times, without objection, the cleric issued a certificate allowing the couple to marry at one of their parish churches.

Bluestocking: A girl or woman with an unfashionable interest in intellectual and literary pursuits, often with a scientific bent.

Bow Street Runner: The forerunner of Scotland Yard, the Bow Street Runners were established in the mid-18th century by the magistrate of the Bow Street court, Henry Fielding which revolutionized police work.

Chit: an unflattering term for a young women or a girl.

Cit: an insulting term for someone who make his money as a member of the merchant class, especially in London.


                     Cravat Knots

Cravat: a neckcloth usually with an elaborate knot.

Cut direct: A deliberate, public snub.

Demi-monde: A term which referred to courtesans, prostitutes, etc. Literally the meaning is “half world.”

Dowager: The widow of a peer, i.e. the “Dowager Duchess of York.” The term was added to a widow’s title when she received the dower and the new heir married. It was seldom used in speech unless it was to differentiated her from the wife of the new peer. Normally, the term only appeared in writing such as letters and legal documents.

Corinthian: A stylist, athletic man whose favorite pasttimes were racing, hunting, fencing, etc.  Some Corinthians even wore a specific knot in their cravats to signify their preferences.

Coxcomb: A pretentious, conceited fop or ridiculous dandy.

Crush: A large crowd attending a party.

Dandy: a gentleman who is fastidious about fashion.

Entail: An inheritance of real estate or property which cannot be sold by the owner. Upon the owner’s death, the entailed property passes to the owner’s heir–the first born son if there is one. If the owner has no son, the property goes to the late owner’s brother’s first born son if one exists, and so forth. An entail kept the land intact in the main line of succession.

Fop: an ostentatiously dressed gentleman who spends too much time and money on his looks, often thought of as excessive and even effeminate.

Frockcoat: the coat or jacket a gentleman wore over his shirt and waistcoat, rather like today’s suit coat.

Footman: a male servant, usually wearing a special uniform called “livery” who worked in the home and waited on the family. Often they were the fetch-and-carry kind of servant who might be sent to deliver a message, or follow the lady as she shopped to protect her and to carry her packages, and so forth. A well-mannered young man who was tall with a muscular build was  often chosen for this coveted position. It was fashionable to have very attractive footmen.

Foxed: inebriated

Gaol: jail, prison, often a sentence akin to death since typhus, known as gaol-fever killed so many before they ever stood trial or finished their sentences.

Guinea: A gold coin worth 21 shillings.

Hell (i.e. gaming hell): A gambling establishment, less respectable than the elite gentlemen’s clubs, providing opportunities for gambling and betting.

Jarvey: The driver of a hackney coach or cab.

Jointure: A financial provision for a widow. Typically the amount is negotiated based on the portion she brought to the marriage, and is generally established as part of the marriage settlement.

Jug-bitten: inebriated

Laudanum: A mixture of brandy and opium used to treat pain or to aid sleep.

Mayfair: A desirable and expensive residential neighborhood.

Missish: an adjective for a girl who is naive and inexperienced in society and tends to be silly or easily cowed.

Modiste: A lady’s dressmaker, often either French or pretending to be.

On the Shelf: a term referring to a spinster no longer in her first blush of youth and not considered a likely candidate for marriage due to her age.

Pianoforte: An early version of the piano developed about 1730. Unlike the harpsichord, the pianoforte could be played softly (piano) or loudly (forte). The full Italian term is gravicèmbalo col piano e forte (the literal translation is “harpsichord with soft and loud”).

Regency pelisse 1812

Regency pelisse 1812

Pelisse: a lightweight overcoat worn to protect ladies’ gowns from dust, smoke, and mud.

Rake:  A dissolute libertine who indulges in excessive drinking, gambling, and debauchery. In romance novels, most often rake is incorrectly used interchangeably with “playboy” or “womanizer.”

Rout: A crowded party with no music or dancing or places to sit but people went because it was a place to see and be seen.

Season: The social “Season” began in early spring and lasted until the end of June. The Season typically followed the sitting of Parliament to amuse the families of the men who served in the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Special license: A license obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury that granted the right to marry at any convenient time or place. Only people of influence could obtain one. People with special licenses often married in their homes but they could also marry in churches or anywhere else they chose to tie the knot. Special licenses were valid for 3 months. Without a special license, the banns had to be read and posted at the parish churches and marriages could only take place between 8:00 a.m. and noon in a parish in which one of the parties has resided for a minimum of 4 weeks.

Tiger: A small, young groom who wore an orange-and-black-striped waistcoat. His duty was to hold the horses’ reins when his master got into and out of the carriage. He also exercised the horses while his master was away from the carriage making business or social calls. Because of the location of his seat, he needed to be light so as not to throw off the balance of the carriage. It was considered fashionable to have very young tigers.

Ton: Fashionable Society, or the elite classes. Ton comes from the French word bon ton, which means good form, i.e. good manners, good breeding, etc. According to Candice Hern, “A person could be a member of the ton, attend ton events, or be said to have good ton (or bad ton).”

Vowels: Literally, they are I.O.U.s which could be written informally as a debt of honor or vowels could be a legal document. According to Regency Researcher Nancy Mayer, vowels were not enforceable by law if they were merely handwritten by the debtor. However, “Many gambling clubs had rooms they called ‘Jerusalem rooms’ where money lenders had agents write out legal debts. They were only issued to people of higher classes. An I.O.U. signed, witnessed and had a stamp attached to it was treated as a legal debt.”

Waistcoat (also spelled weskit because that’s how it’s pronounced): a vest that a gentleman wore over his shirt, often elaborately embroidered in bright colors.  This is similar to the vest men of today wear with a three-piece suit.