Some of our older readers will remember the days, in the 1950s, when we used to get a lot of ‘smog’, that horrible mixture of dense smoke and fog caused by the coal we burned on our fires. Sometimes it was so bad you could hardly see your hand in front of your face.
I remember one time, having to walk in front of the bus coming back home from Manchester so that I could guide the driver where to go because it was so bad that he couldn’t see the pavement and even then we still ended up on the wrong side of the road. Things got so bad that the Government eventually introduced legislation in 1956 called the Clean Air Act which created smokeless zones in our towns and cities. If you lived in these areas, you could not use coal but had to use coke or other type of smokeless fuel which were supposed to give out the same amount of heat like coal but didn’t make any smoke. People who lived in the countryside were allowed to use coal because their houses were less dense in number compared with town and city houses. Enforcement of the Act certainly made a dramatic difference to the air quality around us.
Do you remember the days when there were chimney sweeps with their blackened faces walking around our streets with a hand cart loaded with brushes and bags? They would go into people’s houses to clean their chimneys which helped the fires to burn brighter and more efficiently but unfortunately with central heating being installed nowadays we hardly ever see them at all.
During the 1800s vast numbers of houses were built to accommodate the workers during the huge increase of industrialisation throughout the country, and most of them had fireplaces; often there was one in every room. Every fireplace has its own chimney and due to the build-up of soot and grime over a period of time the chimneys needed cleaning. Many houses in the cities were built several storeys high and consequently this meant that the chimney flues were very crowded, making it difficult and hazardous to be cleaned. Young boys were recruited as apprentices from the workhouse by men called ‘chimney masters’ and were forced to climb the hot flues and clean them with a small hand brush They were called ‘climbing boys’ and it was a very dangerous occupation especially when, sometimes, some of them would become trapped in the narrow chimneys and could not be rescued. A change in the method cleaning the flues was introduced by using the long-handled brushes fastened together and could be used to clean the highest of flues. Fortunately, an Act of Parliament in 1868 banned the use of young boys for cleaning chimneys.
In early Victorian times, the climbing boys werevery poorly paid and only given ONE day of rest each year as a holiday and that was during the May Day weekend.
As you know, people have always celebrated May Day in many ways in towns and villages throughout England and the climbing boys were no exception and had their own way of celebrating this festive day. Their festival began when the young lads got up early and brought out the so-called ‘Jack-in-the-Green,’ which was a seven-foot-tall figure of a man covered in branches and leaves, who is meant to symbolise the new growth of a clean, fresh spring. It was also when the boys scrubbed themselves clean for the occasion. They would parade around the town carrying their ‘Jack,’ dancing and singing and making the most of their one day of freedom and leisure and often getting up to all sorts of mischief.
After further legislation in 1868, it became illegal to employ very young boys and so the number climbing boys and sweeps festivals declined and the tradition died out before the end of the century.
In 1950 the event was revived in the town of Rochester in Kent with a festival that included the ceremonial figure of the ‘Jack-in-the-Green,’ and a parade featuring real modern chimney sweeps and children dressed as a traditional ones. The current festival is a three-day event held during a May weekend and is a colourful mix of music, dancing and entertainment. Another feature of the festival is a very popular Morris dancing competition which last year attracted more than 60 Morris dance groups to enter the event.
P.S. Don’t forget the tradition which is said to bring lots of good fortune to the newly wedded bride if she is seen or even kissed by a chimney sweep after the wedding ceremony.