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Chimneys and Chimney Sweeps at Castle Howard
Chris Ridgway
By Dr Chris Ridgway  //  Fri 24th April 2020
Curatorial, History, Collection
The long roll-call of staff who have worked at Castle Howard over the centuries includes figures whose occupations and tasks have hardly changed despite the advent of modern technologies. Alongside cooks, cleaners, and caretakers another figure found in old records with a contemporary equivalent is the chimney sweep.
With as many as sixty fireplaces in the house, attending to them was a full-time job in previous centuries when open fires were the sole means of heating the building. In the middle of winter with a full complement of family and staff present in the house each fireplace might consume as many as three or four buckets of coal in the course of a single day. Inspecting and replenishing each fire would mean repeated journeys to and from the coal cellars, and similar journeys to dispose of ash and cinders.

Each morning the grates would be cleared and laid, and the fire surrounds polished, ready for lighting later in the day. Fires were efficient and cosy, and often the focal in a room, with chairs and sofas surrounding the hearth. But coal was also a pollutant emitting smoke outdoors, and the sulphur dioxide in its fumes was harmful to leather indoors, which is why many bindings on old books have deteriorated in country houses.
Naked flame heating and lighting were also potentially hazardous. Sparks or candles could cause textiles to catch light, and chimney flues poorly built or maintained. In the 19th century it was discovered that one lintel in a fireplace at Castle Howard was made of wood. This would have been a very thick piece of oak, but over the years it had become more and more charred, and was in danger of igniting. Normally fire chambers would be lined with stone, brick, or clay tiles, as would flues, which needed to be in good condition without any cracks in the shaft that would enable flames and fumes to escape inside the building.

Flues also required regular cleaning, and a chimney sweep would visit four times a year; taking several days to work through the fireplaces in the house. In the 1770s the Rushton family were sweeps to the castle; a decade later John Walsh was contracted to do the work, and paid seven shillings for his visits. In 1883 John Willows was paid £9 for sweeping the chimneys in the course of a year. He ran his business from Wheelgate in nearby Malton, his printed stationery describing him as a chimney sweep and soot merchant, as well as a ‘Turnip Manure Manufacturer’. This second line of business was a natural extension to chimney sweeping as soot was used in the making of fertiliser; unadulterated coal soot was especially prized. His invoice of 1883 shows he received twelve shillings and sixpence for sweeping chimneys at the Gatehouse.
Today Castle Howard does not rely on open fires in the same way as in previous centuries. It is heated by a combination of electricity, oil, LPG, and a ground source system; but open fires are sometimes used, especially during the Christmas period. This means that a chimney sweep is still required. John Walsh and John Willows have been succeeded by a new figure, Louise Bumby, who visits two or three times a year. There is a long tradition of women working in the industry, in 1841 there were 127 female chimney sweeps recorded in England. Even though sweeping machines were invented as far back as the 18th century the traditional method has remained in use: a circular bristle brush fitted to a series of rods that are pushed up the flue; although nowadays an electrical vacuum sucks the soot into a sealed container. Chimney sweeping is a regulated trade today with regard to health and safety, and the disposal of soot. The practice of sending climbing boys or girls up flues was discontinued after government legislation in the 19th century.

At Castle Howard there is only one chimney wide enough for a small person to climb part way up, above the fireplace in the Great Hall. There is no record of children being used to clean it; nor mention of the practice of either hauling a chicken up a chimney, or dropping one down the shaft, to dislodge sooty deposits.

Completed c.1710-1711 by Italian craftsmen, the Great Hall fireplace is magnificently decorated with gilded plasterwork, including carved figures with baskets of fruit, and a scagliola fire surround; above is a painted scene of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, slumbering in his forge. The flue bends to the right to follow a shaft buried inside the stonework of the hall, eventually reaching a modest little chimney pot perched fifty feet above on the south side of the building. Twenty-two rods are required for the brush to be able to poke out of the chimney pot; in an average home about nine are required. Few flues in Castle Howard follow a simple vertical route, they bend and kink, and this explains why in some places soot doors were fitted into the stonework to provide additional access points.