World War I: The rise of the female chimney sweep

This week marks 100 years since the end of World War I. Many trades prevalent between 1914-1918 have died out, but chimney sweeping still continues to thrive.

However, the war years had a big effect both on the sweeping trade and also the way in which homes were heated.

Once war was declared, the risk of coal shortages became all too real. Although expressly warned against it, people started hoarding fuel. Coal production started to slow, due to the lack of labour as most fit young men were by then in the army. By February 1915, it was in desperately short supply both here and on mainland Europe.

In order to bring calm to the situation, the government took ownership of the previously private mines, and miners were exempt from fighting in the war.

All energy saving tactics were brought in, such as the dimming of street lights, and coal rationing began. Families would get an allotted amount of coal based on the number of rooms in the house.

The pressure on coal meant that alternatives were sought. Businesses and housewives were ordered to use coke, as it was more combustible than ordinary housecoal.

The book ‘How We Lived Then 1914-1918: A Sketch of Social and Domestic Life in England During the War’ published:

“Before the war ended the coal queue was as familiar a sight as the food queue, and as the country was drained of its men the domestic “pram” and the soap box on wheels often took the place of the coal cart in the poorer neighbourhoods. We were to experience such a fuel shortage as made it necessary to regard cinder waste as a punishable offence, and the newspapers published all manner of recipes for making briquettes with clay and sawdust and tar and for fuel-saving cookery.”

Of course, flues still had to be cleaned. Many think that women chimney sweeps are relatively uncommon even now but with men away at war, many housewives stepped in and continued their husband’s trade. There’s some fantastic photos in the National Archives showing women out sweeping. At the time, it would have raised a fair few eyebrows that’s for sure.

Although it was a time of great hardship, this was a prosperous time for sweeps. However, it wasn’t to last.

Once the war ended, some grander properties started having gas installed upstairs, so there were fewer flues to clean. Soot was still used as agricultural fertiliser but this profitable part of the trade was slowly dying out. Sweeps started having to travel further for work as other forms of heating started to make their way into homes.

You could say that things have sort of gone full circle. In today’s homes, solid fuel fires complement other forms of heating. Of course, sweeping is still a very male-dominated trade but we have a good few female chimney sweeps as well.

So if you’re sitting by your fire this week, spare a thought for not just the brave men who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, but also those who kept the home fires burning and the flues as clean as possible…

Mr Soot Chimney Sweep is a HETAS Approved Sweep, and member of the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps, offering a professional and friendly chimney sweep and stove service in Wigan, Stockport, St Helens, Ormskirk, Chorley and surrounding areas. Book Mr Soot online or call 0800 0541154.

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