Regency History

Heat, Smoke, and Slavery

A Rumford fireplace, from

The fire-place where she had expected the ample and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain, though handsome, marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, p. 68

Like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, few modern readers can appreciate a good fireplace. With modern conveniences like electric radiators and gas fireplaces, even super-effective wood-burning stoves, we seldom even think about the pleasures of a good fire for everyday comfort.

But in an era when all heat came from the fireplace, considerations of efficiency and comfort were paramount. For centuries, people rich and poor relied on the scant heat given by the typical open hearth or square fireplace, while most of the heat escaped up the chimney.

But in 1796, Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, publicized his design for a narrow-chimneyed fireplace, which allowed for upward circulation of air, taking the smoke up and out of the house while the heat radiated into the room. His designs were immediately recognized as state-of-the-art and implemented in many great houses, and became the preferred style.

Safety was still an issue, however, as bits of burning wood or embers could be ejected from the fireplace onto the rug, or worse, onto the clothing of the people sitting close by the fire for warmth.

Enter the fender, a decorative but useful frame set around the edge of the hearth to catch these troublesome pieces.

(A fireplace with a fender; illustration for Northanger Abbey by Hugh Thompson)

Smoke was always a problem, though, even in a Rumford, if soot was allowed to build up in the chimneys. In the early 19th century, with chimneys reaching from the ground floor of a house all the way through sometimes six floors to the roof, the only thing to be done was to send a small child climbing up with a brush to scrape off the accumulation.

These “climbing boys” were not always male, but they were always underfed (to keep them skinny enough to manage the flues) and ill-treated, if not abused–like the climbing boy in Arabella by Georgette Heyer. There simply was no motivation for their masters to treat them well. They were often orphans, either taken off the streets or bought from poor homes, so there was no one to love or care for them. Their masters felt like their “goodness” in giving them a home was reason enough to take all the pay, and to treat the children no better than rats in the basement. Thousands of climbing boys died each year from burns, suffocation, chimney collapse, or cancer, but this didn’t bother their masters. There were always more orphans.

Birmingham climbing boys;

The horror of this situation was recognized as early as the late 1700s, but though an Act was passed that regulated the treatment and duties of chimney sweeps, no system was put in place to enforce it. Several societies were formed to relieve the climbing boys, but their efforts were not widely accepted, as people were more concerned about house fires caused by inefficient chimney cleaning than for the welfare of a set of scrubby little brats. In 1796, the London Society for Superseding the Necessity for Employing Climbing Boys was founded, which promoted a competition to create a mechanical brush, but the winning brush did not become popular enough to eliminate the demand for climbing boys.

Several years later a sufficient public outcry prompted Parliament to pass the Chimney Sweeper’s Act of 1834, which did much to alleviate the plight of the climbing boys by raising minimum age and restricting their master’s power, but again enforcement was spotty. It was not until the widely-publicized death of George Brewster, an underage climbing boy who became stuck in the flue and suffocated in 1875, that a final bill was passed outlawing climbing boys, with sufficient riders to ensure enforcement.

All I can say is thank goodness those days are over, and that people were finally willing to stand up for those little boys’ lives. I have a real fireplace, but the flue is only two storeys tall, and is cleaned by a mechanical brush. I can’t even imagine sending one of my little boys up there, for any reason (though they might think it could be a fun adventure). I love the look of cheery flames in the hearth on a wintry night, but if I had to choose, I would take my central heating any day, and be grateful.