Sweeping is a very old trade – and one family firm has been doing it longer than most.
H Firkins & Sons have been cleaning flues in London since 1860. Queen Victoria was on the throne, Charles Dickens published Great Expectations and the first ever fish and chip shops opened their doors.
Although a lot has changed in the intervening 160 years, and I was keen to hear how Firkins have adapted to those changes.
So this week, as part of my annual ‘Sweep Swap’, I shadowed Josh Firkins, the great, great, great grandson of the company’s founder.
Josh started training with his dad Graham 15 years ago, and in that time they’ve cleaned, tested and inspected chimneys the length and breadth of our nation’s capital city.
On the first day, we were primarily around the Firkins’ ‘home’ patch of North London, including New Southgate and Stoke Newington. Most active chimneys in London seem to be unlined, so Josh does a large amount of traditional, manual sweeping.
The one thing I noticed pretty much straight away as well is that most chimney pots in London are open. Josh tells me this is a mixture of some of them being difficult to access and, unlike many other areas of the country, bird nests are extremely rare in London.
The cream ‘buff’ pots are typical fayre in London and, as a sweep, it’s one of the city’s most striking features.
As many people are still working from home as a result of Covid-19, the traffic is a little lighter than normal – making it easier to get to appointments in a timely manner.
Indeed, on some occasions we were running ahead of ourselves, which is a bonus because as any sweep will know, some jobs can take longer than others.
Open fires are also very prevalent in London and we sweep a fair few of them during the course of a day.
The way Josh ‘sheets up’ the fireplace is different to me. He uses bamboo rods and Bailey rods to keep the sheet in place. It took a bit of getting used to when sweeping a flue with these in place, but after a bit of gentle tutelage from my guide, I managed to get the hang of it. I can see the benefits and it’s another ‘trick’ which I’ve got in my sweeps toolbox now!
Day two and we begin with an unlined stove before moving on to an open solid fuel fire and an open gas fire just a few miles away.
By now I’m starting to really appreciate just how efficient Josh is. Obviously, having done it for over 15 years, he’s got into a way of doing things which gets the job done in a professional but prompt manner. This certainly suits customers, many of who can be pressed for time (it is 2020 after all and the curse of the Zoom meeting looms large in almost everyone home!).
After cleaning a stove in a basement flat in Stamford Hill, we head to a grand four storey property (five if you count the basement) in Islington. I take a deep intake of breath as we park up and assess the height of the flues.
As someone whose area is generally full of chimneys which are rarely more than 36ft in length, the sight of some reaching 50ft made me wonder whether we northerners had got it all wrong regarding our ‘southern softies’ put-downs!
We sweep two open fires; one on the ground floor and another on the first floor. And to be honest they actually felt easier than some flues in my area.
‘The taller they are, the more straight they can be,’ explains Josh.
‘It’s not always the case 100% of the time. Some can be very bendy, but these are quite straight. The hardest bit on tall, straighter flue can sometimes be centralising the brush to get it out the top. Because at height, the rods start bending and sometimes you have to come back down a bit and then go back up’.
For our final appointment, Josh and I are heading into Marble Arch to perform a sweep and leakage test on a chimney. This is in an apartment with roof access, and the views are absolutely fantastic.
Way above the streets, you can see all the chimney pots crammed in next to each other. Once upon a time, these pots would have been belching smoke out 24/7. Undoubtedly they will have contributed to the Great Smog of London in 1952.
This five-day ‘pea souper’ apparently killed 4,000 people with a further 100,000 suffering breathing difficulties. Events such as this eventually ushered in the creation of Smoke Control Areas, which are still in place today.
Heading back home, I reflected on my time in London and what I actually learnt. In a solitary profession such as sweeping, it’s really easy to fall into ways of doing things, either through your own preferences or influences from elsewhere.
That’s why I think it’s important for my continued professional development that I shadow other sweeps, swap hints and tips, learn new things and solidify my knowledge.
London itself is culturally not that different to Manchester these days. Indeed, there are a lot of people from the south who have moved to the North West for university or work. Media City at Salford has been a big plus for the area and it has brought in many young professionals.
Without being trite, it’s not hard to understand that what happens in a nation’s capital can eventually percolate to other areas in one form or another. So my visit was just as much as understanding the demographical changes as anything else.
Oh and I picked up a few new bits of kit which I started using on my first day back on local appointments.
I’m not sure where I’ll go next year – it’s going to be hard to beat this year’s exploits of Sweden and London.
But one thing’s for sure, whatever your chosen field or profession, taking a few days out to do something like this is time very well spent…
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. Book Mr Soot online or call 0800 0541154.