It is a job most commonly associated with soot-faced Victorian urchins being forced to climb into hot flues. Chimney sweeps would traditionally be rewarded with a pittance of pay and a clip round the ear if they dared miss a spot.
But in 21st century Sheffield, it seems this most 19th century of trades is booming.
“It’s still a mucky job - every part of you gets covered in grime,” says Lewis Lee, boss of Ecclesall-based Oakbrook Chimney Services. “But you don’t get trainees sleeping under soot sacks anymore.”
City sweeps are dealing with record numbers of customers as more of us look for affordable ways to heat the home in the face of rising energy prices. An increase in fires and log burners means an increase in Dick Van Dyke-alikes banging their brushes up the hearth.
The Association of Professional and Independent Chimney Sweeps estimates business across the UK has increased by 50 per cent since 2010 and the number of trainees is on the up.
“Our beginners courses are booked out until April which is unheard of,” says chairman Ryan Metters.
Here, meanwhile, estimates suggest there are now 15 sweepers in Sheffield, compared with fewer than 10 five years ago.
“It’s not a job for everyone,” admits Lewis, 43. “No-one climbs up a chimney anymore. It’s all done with brushes, pipes and a vacuum. And health-wise it’s very safe. But we’ve still had four lads decide it wasn’t for them. It’s a shame. It’s rewarding to clean a chimney without getting an ounce of soot in the house.”
He himself started after buying a log burner to save on bills. “There was hardly anyone in Sheffield who could install it and clean the chimney so I thought there was an opportunity,” he explains. “I wasn’t getting much work as a plasterer so I retrained.”
Matthew Rhodes did the same. He gave up a job as Freeman College IT manager to set up MR Chimney Services with help from Sheffield Enterprise Agency.
“Computers get dreary,” says the 45-year-old, who’s based in Crookes. “I wanted something more physical.”
He also attends weddings. Chimney sweeps bring good luck, so the legend goes, and couples who see one after being married will live a charmed life: “It’s fun to get on your ceremonial outfit,” says Matthew. “Plus you get free sandwiches.”
In 2013, it seems, chimney sweeps are dancing on the rooftops. Chim chim cher-ee!