A cold snap, firewood and a short history of chimney sweeps


Image by Steven Helmis, https://pixabay.com/photos/chimney-sweep-roof-chimney-housetop-2792895/

Almost on schedule, a cold snap arrived, coinciding nicely with our completely running out of firewood. Oh you too, eh? I thought as much, queuing up on Saturday at the fill-your-own-boot firewood supplier. It took a while. Chatting to a friend on the same mission, I mentioned that the fire was not drawing very well.

He then told me about an organic solvent you could buy from the hardware store.

“You just get a good fire going then chuck the sachet on the embers,” he said. “It took three (sachets) but it’s burning pretty good now.”

The helpful chap at the hardware store knew which product I wanted and we had a chat about the era when young orphan boys were press-ganged into manually cleaning chimneys in return for board and lodgings.

This same chap also gave me a contact for someone down the coast who cleans chimneys (the instructions on the soot-remover packet recommend having the flue professionally cleaned annually).

“When did we get the chimney swept last?” I asked She Who Pays the Bills.

“Not sure,” she said. “I threw out all the receipts that were older than five years, so that could be a clue.”

Of course, once we had bought more firewood and I had chopped it into wood stove-size pieces, it clouded over and the overnight temperature rose to 15, as opposed to 5 the night before. Fortunately, the cold south-easterlies returned mid-week and my labours were justified.

The nature of a ‘cold snap’ is a sudden, brief, severe drop in temperature. The ‘severe’ was felt in Tenterfield (-8), Stanthorpe (-8) Warwick (-4.7) and Brisbane (3), among other south east Queensland locations (average June low in Brisbane is 12 degrees). There were reports that Quart Pot Creek (which flows through Stanthorpe) froze over. Well, not froze over in the Manitoba sense but yes, a layer of ice.

Yesterday I attempted step two of the chemical chimney clean – remove excess soot from the drop plate. I took a torch and shone it up the stainless-steel shaft of the wood stove chimney. My thoughts turned to the poor urchins of the 17th and 18th centuries forced to climb spaces like this and clean them by hand. Well, perhaps not that narrow a space, but you get the picture.

Master chimney sweeps would suborn young orphans into this line of work and boys were sometimes ‘sold’ by parents who needed the money.  I gleaned some of the following information from a blog written by George Breiwa on behalf of Chimney Specialists Inc. of Dubuque, Iowa.

If a boy was showing some reluctance to climb inside the chimney and navigate to the roof, the master chimney sweep would light a small fire. Hence the expression, ‘to light a fire under someone’.  I never knew that.

As you’d imagine, these boys (and girls), suffered from deformed bones (from cramming themselves into tight spaces. It was a short life span on account of inhaling soot, or if they became lost or stuck inside a brick chimney, (where they subsequently died).

That’s a long way from ‘Chim chiminey, chim chiminey, chim chim che-ree.”

If this subject fascinates you, here is a link to a (5,000-word+) academic article by Karla Iverson.

The most important point in this story is the Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweeps, passed by the English Parliament in 1864. This was 22 years after, I might add, an act of Parliament which put an end to mining companies sending children to work in underground mines.

Since I have shared my experience with a few people re: the wood stove not drawing properly (the wood should burn cleanly), much advice was imparted. Ironbark and mixed hardwood is still the preferred fuel for wood stoves and fireplaces.

The main issue if you are trying to burn timber salvaged from your own (or someone else’s) property is that it takes a long while to dry out.

Our resident firewood expert, Dr. John Wightman, who harvests firewood from his 12ha property, says drying under cover takes 18-24 months. He saws and splits fallen trees and the occasional tree that is endangering property or whose time has come.

We had our chimney swept a few weeks ago – first time in five years. We only had half a bucket of soot. The sweep said it was because of good quality wood which I took to mean dry wood. 

“I also remove as much bark as possible because certain constituent chemicals can gum up the chimney.”

Dr. John reminisced about the first half of the 20th century, when coal fire smog was a killer.

I lived in London during the 50s and remember the incredibly impenetrable coal- induced smog,” he said. “It disappeared entirely once smokeless fuel fires were made compulsory.”

The Clean Air Act of 1956 followed the great London smog of December 1952, which led to “5,000 more deaths than usual”. U.K. citizens began to use electric and gas heaters and rely less on coal.

The Clean Air Act required coal fire owners to burn coal with low-sulphur content (i.e. ‘clean coal’) or coke, which is the less polluting by-product of gas production.

Those who lived in Scotland in the first half of the 20th century would remember that Edinburgh was once referred to as ‘Auld Reekie’. The dubious nickname referred to the dense coal fire smog which settled upon the old town.

I asked Dr. John (a scientist) to comment on the cold snap and comparative air pollution caused by wood smoke, as I worry about it every winter, and of course it is Climate Week.

“The energy content of dry wood is 17 MJ/kg, and of coal 24 MJ/kg. So a bit less heat and less carbon dioxide from wood combustion,” he said.

 “In theory, the CO2 should be sucked up by the trees around us.

“Coal can have a lot of impurities such as sulphur and sulphur oxides (the killers in London’s smog)”.

But, as he remarks, both wood and coal produce particulate matter when combusted.

“We call it smoke which is bad for the lungs, irrespective of the source – wood smoke can smell better than coal smoke.”

While domestic wood fires are visibly more polluting than electric heaters or reverse-cycle air conditioning, the latter are powered by electricity produced primarily by coal-fired power stations.

Australia’s emissions totalled 538.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2018, up 0.7% on the previous year. That was the third year in a row of rising numbers under the Liberal government, although the long-term per capita trend is down. The figures were released this week by the Department of the Environment and Energy.


Australia has one of the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world, at 21.5 tonnes per person, down 38.2% since 1990.

Electricity is the sector producing the most CO2, at 185.5 million tonnes, followed by stationary energy (97 Mt CO2), transport (97 Mt CO2) and agricultural production (71.7 Mt CO2).

On the latest global figures, Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal (389 million tonnes) and the fourth largest producer (503 million tonnes). Three quarters of Australia’s mined coal is exported and most of the rest is burned in domestic coal-fired power stations.

‘Clean coal” – an analysis

So don’t feel bad about burning a half-dozen or so hardwood logs tonight – it is comparatively benign.

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