Although the life of the chimney sweep has been dramatized and romanticized as being cheery and fun — such as presented by Dick Van Dyke in the movie, Mary Poppins — the reality of their life, especially that of the children forced into servitude, was dramatically different.
The soot and grime of the chimneys often resulted in respiratory problems and other related issues.
The inhalation of soot and fumes was believed to be the reason child chimney sweeps rarely lived past middle age. Many children died when they became wedged inside the narrow confines of the flues.
Cleaning inside the maze of soot-covered flues was a dangerous and difficult job.
Because of this and because the confines of the flues were small and narrow, poor orphan boys and children sold by destitute parents were apprenticed by chimney masters, becoming nothing more than indentured servants receiving water, food and a place to sleep in exchange for their services.
Small chimney sweeps were required to navigate such tight spaces.
During this time period, the need for chimney professionals increased.Coal grew in popularity as an alternative fuel source for wood.Since coal left large sticky deposits of residue on the walls of the fireplace and flue, the need for more frequent cleaning of the chimneys and flues increased.Entering through the fireplace, the chimney sweep apprentice or “climbing boy” crawled up into the dark confines to scrape coal deposits and to brush soot from the walls of the flues with little scrubber brushes.Children frightened to enter the narrow confines were often coerced by their chimney masters who built a small fire in the fireplace or lit bundles of straw and held it under them to coax the child to climb into the pitch-black maze of flues.This is where the expression “to light a fire under someone” originated.