Wednesday, 11 May 2016

May chimney-sweepers

Dr Johnson in his Dictionary cited Shakespeare for his provenance for Chimney-sweeper: "One whose trade it is to clean foul chimneys of soot".

"Chimney sweep, chimney sweep, hear Maid!
To sweep sooty chimneys is Tom's trade."

Chimneys appeared from the 13th century onwards when the wealthy began building private heated rooms,  separate from the open-hearthed great hall.  The building of the Elizabethan prodigy houses with their displays of fancy chimneys developed the need for a chimney-sweeping trade, with more than a bunch of holly to brush away the soot.  The first printed mention of the chimney-sweepers' trade occurs in Cocke Lorell's Bote, c. 1510.

Tudor chimneys at Hampton Court Palace
©  Photo Christine Matthews

 This was made even more necessary as sea coal with its tarry deposits replaced smoky wood fires, and after the Great Fire of London in 1666, new regulations made chimneys narrower, so sweeps needed their small climbing boys.

"Boys is wery obstinate, and wery lazy, gen'lmen, and there's nothing like a good hot blaze to make 'em come down vith a run.  It's humane too, gen'lmen, acause, even if they've stuck in the chimbley, roasting their feet makes 'em struggle to extricate theirselves."   Charles Dickens, in Oliver Twist 1837, saves Oliver from this fate, but the climbing boys' dreadful conditions were only halted at last by Lord Shaftesbury's Act in 1875.  (my thanks to Benita Cullingford's British Chimney Sweeps).

On a happier note, May Day was traditionally the time when sweeps, like the milkmaids,  dressed up and paraded the  London streets as the old Jack-in-the-Green, with their blackened faces, and covered in leafy branches.

Fowler's Troop in Deptford, 1900s

This urban greenery image brings me circuitously to Shakespeare's Cymbeline, (in my April 12th blog), for oral history suggests that in the Warwickshire countryside, "golden lads" were dandelions, and "chimney-sweepers" was the name given to the dandelion's puffball seed heads, blown away "to dust".    

And, "My passion blows away like the chimney-sweepers", writes Margaret  Kennedy in her novel Troy Chimneys*  
[*of which more anon].

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