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The Queen's Chimney Sweep Comes Clean

(April 14, 2013)
[image]Jude Edginton for The Wall Street Journal

Kevin Giddings and his son, Ben (who's also in the business), in the Great Kitchen fireplace at Hampton Court Palace.

On a Winter afternoon in Buckingham Palace, Kevin Giddings, sweaty and covered in dirt, put the final touches on his highest-profile project of the year: sweeping the Queen of England's fireplace.

Mr. Giddings, 51, runs Milborrow Chimney Sweeps, a company so popular that even the royal family has signed up. He spends most of his time coordinating cleanings across England—Buckingham Palace alone has 300 chimneys. (While its chimneys are no longer in use, they require regular cleaning to help keep the palace ventilated.)

"It's a dirty job, and not everyone wants to do it," said Mr. Giddings. "Some of these chimneys, even we think, ugh, do we have to go back there again next year? But of course we do because it's our job and who else would look after them?"

He has become a regular at places like Kensington Palace, the official residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Hampton Court Palace, where royals including Henry VIII used to reside. Hampton Court Palace's kitchen chimney is the worst to clean, Mr. Giddings said. It's exceedingly dirty and more than 20 feet wide and 48 feet high—so large that chimney sweeps need to climb up it, he said. "I don't fancy that," he said. "It's a nightmare."

Used for centuries, wood-burning fireplaces traditionally have consisted of a firebox, a chamber where smoke gathers and a flue or chimney which takes the exhaust up and out of the home. Gas fireplaces, which can be lighted with the press of a button, have become a popular alternative in the past 25 years.

Every year, more than 30,000 houses in Britain have chimney fires, mostly because chimneys haven't been cleaned enough, according to the British National Association of Chimney Sweeps. Mr. Giddings recommends that wood fireplaces be cleaned after every three months of use to prevent carbon monoxide—a byproduct of burning fuel that can be poisonous even at low levels—from being released back into the house. Gas fireplaces should be checked annually.

Mr. Giddings said he is busiest in October and November but has little demand for his services in the summer. In the countryside, he charges about $73 for a standard chimney, which takes about an hour to sweep. In London, the price is about $220 per chimney.

Jude Edginton for The Wall Street Journal

The right tool is key; above, spiral brushes, chimney rods and a scraper. 'The only way to sweep a chimney [thoroughly] is to push a brush through the chimney that is the correct size and correct thickness,' Mr. Giddings said

Sweeping a chimney is fairly straightforward, and anyone who really puts his mind to it can probably figure it out without making too much of a mess, Mr. Giddings said. On a standard chimney, he uses a vacuum to clean the base of the chimney. Next, he uses a long brush to poke around the chimney and see what has gathered. He has found old Christmas letters to Santa, children's toys and, most commonly, bird nests. When there are nests, he has to use a brush that he's nicknamed "Bertie the Basher" to break them down. He then sweeps the inside up and down with a long brush a minimum of six times.

The most common mistake that amateur sweeps make is forgetting to sweep the very top of the chimney. This is important because sparks gain speed as they fly up through the chimney, so at the top they are most likely to catch fire if they hit tar or other buildup. To be sure he has reached the top of a chimney, Mr. Giddings asks customers to stand outside the house and confirm they can see the top of the brush peeking out from the roof.

A chimney sweep must also know how to keep soot from spreading everywhere. To prevent a big mess, sweeps keep a vacuum cleaner running at the base of the chimney from start to finish, and use soot cloths, a material used to cover the fireplace opening.

The most difficult chimneys to clean are the twisty ones common in English homes, some of which have upstairs and downstairs fireplaces that use the same stack. Those require special brushes.

Before Mr. Giddings finishes each chimney, he always uses a flashlight so that he can look up the chimney and be sure it is as clean as it will get.

Sweeping may be dirty work, but Mr. Giddings said that he has more rivals for his clients' business than ever before. He suspects it is because of the recession: unemployed workers taking up chimney sweeping as a way to make quick cash. "Competition at the moment is very fierce," he said.

In England, some regard chimney sweeps as omens of good fortune. The story goes that while King George II was riding in a carriage one day, one of the horses grew agitated and began to bolt—until a local chimney sweep stopped the animal and saved the king. George II was so grateful that he issued a royal decree saying that thereafter sweeps were to be regarded as bearers of good luck.

The perception has stuck to this day, and Mr. Giddings and his team are sometimes hired out for weddings to give the bride and groom an auspicious send-off. "Chimney sweeps in England, there's definitely a romanticism about them," he said, and their role in "Mary Poppins" has only added to the public's affection for them.

Could that affection extend to the royal family? Mr. Giddings said he has never seen any family members at Buckingham Palace while working, but he hopes his firm has made some sort of impression. "We're hoping the queen knows who her chimney sweeps are," he said, "but that could be pushing it a bit."

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