As trades go, it’s an old one! Synonymous with Dickensian England, and immortalised – for better or worse – by the film Mary Poppins. And while your first thought might be that the era of the chimney sweep in 21st century Britain was over, you’d be quite wrong.
Meet sweep and Greater Manchester FSB member David Sudworth (pictured), who ditched life in media and marketing to become a self-employed sweep a few years ago. Having seen demand for trendy log burners and open-hearth fires steadily growing, particularly in some of the more leafy conurbations of south Manchester where he plies much of his trade, his business, Mr Soot, was born.
“I suppose it was a bit of an off the wall career choice,” says David. “But when I was younger our family always had fires, and my grandad was actually a coal miner too, so you might say this was an area I felt at home with.
“Obviously, I’d also seen demand for real fires go up quite quickly, and so I suppose the idea really just came to me that this might be a good business model. At first I was looking at doing log burner installations, but I soon realised it was a two man job at least, while the sweep side was definitely something I could do on my own.”
Cue David’s intensive training with – where other than – the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps where he spent several months learning the tricks of the trade. And there’s more to sweeping a chimney than just stick a brush up, he tells me.
“I wanted to do it right,” he says. “When you’re going in to people’s homes and working there you have to know what you’re doing. Mary Poppins didn’t do the profession any favours, I’m serious. People tend to see it as a bit of a joke, when it’s actually not like that at all. You’re advising on important health and safety issues, from fire risk to carbon monoxide, and you just can’t afford to get things like that wrong.
“People don’t see the fire service as a bit of a lark, but when you mention chimney sweeping all people think of is Dick Van Dyke dancing on a roof. It also actually doesn’t have to be a particularly dirty business – contrary to the film. People expect masses of soot all over the living room after I’ve been but in a well looked after fire, that’s been burning the right material and swept annually, it can be a clean and efficient process,” he says.
And that brings the conversation around to emissions. I ask David his thoughts on air pollution, and whether the recent high profile comments by Michael Gove, and closer to home, Andy Burnham’s plans to introduce clean air zone pollution charging across the region, concern him. Recent data suggested emissions from open fires and log burners were responsible for over 30% of particulates in the atmosphere, while diesel vehicles just 12%.
“That kind of comparison is actually a bit of a bugbear of mine,” he admits. “If you’re burning the right fuel, at the right temperature, then wood burners are an extremely clean form of heating – especially if you’re using properly seasoned wood. It’s when you don’t do that log burners become dirty and polluting.
“You will find some people burning wet wood, which has a high moisture content and then gives off a lot of smoke when it’s burnt, or they use offcuts from builders yards which have usually been treated with chemicals, and that also gives off harmful emissions. People also leave their burners on low, which is called slumbering, meaning it burns slowly at a low temperature, and that also gives off smoke and emissions.
“So it’s about educating people and that’s often the job of the sweep – I certainly see it as part of my role.”
David is actually a founder member of an industry campaign group called Burnright, set up to promote the better use of mixed fuel appliances, help improve air quality, but also to help people stay safe - and save money.
“There is a massive gap in people’s knowledge about how to use appliances. This is what is causing the sorts of emissions we are seeing. We knew an awareness campaign around this could actually do a lot of good and could help improve air quality, especially as there are so many houses adopting this form of heating.
“The green lobby would say ban them, but that’s not a sensible approach as done correctly they are a great form of heating a property. And if you use wood, it’s sustainable fuel and not fossil based.
“There are a lot of people using log burners and open fires now, particularly in south Manchester. Chimney sweeps are a great way to get that ‘burn right’ message out there. Once a company has done the installation that’s generally the last time the home owner sees them, it’s only the sweep who comes back regularly, and I preach this message to all my customers. It’s so important I’ve done blogs on my website, and I am in the process of getting some professional videos made to show people best practice.
“I’ve been involved, via my trade association, in meetings with DEFRA in London and they recognise sweeps are actually key to helping lower emissions. I was very proud when the Burnright campaign was singled out in the Government’s Clean Air Strategy. As a trade, sweeps are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
“Our trade may have heavy links to the 18th century, but our skills are now being used to help tackle a very 21st century problem.”
If you would like to see David’s top tips for burning right, you can visit his website at: https://mr-soot.com/ or at www.burnright.co.uk