Video: Hingham chimney sweeping firm Rodtech is a far cry from Mary Poppins
09:18 04 March 2014
copyright: Archant 2014
It is a trade that evokes memories of a bygone era; from Victorian street urchins with sooty cheeks, to the affable sidekick of Mary Poppins.
But forget Dick Van Dyke and his Cockney accent, because the modern face of chimney sweeping is a serious business – and it is happening here in Norfolk.
From the outskirts of Hingham, Rodtech has established a global reputation for cleaning chimneys with motorised brushes.
And to meet the growing demand for its products, the company has now launched a training school which teaches sweeps, both young and old, its pioneering techniques.
Using mock fireplaces and wood burners, the centre educates trainees on how to “power sweep” – a method where the brush spins on the end of a rod attached to a power drill.
Course will give Peter a new lease of life
A veteran chimney sweep has signed up to the training school in a bid to extend his career after the trade left his body riddled with injuries.
Peter Warrick was on the brink of giving up, because his 17 years as a sweep left him with painful arm and shoulder conditions. But the 45-year-old is hoping power sweeping will give him a new lease of life because it does not put the body under as much strain. Mr Warrick, of Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, said: “I am contemplating giving the business up if I can’t find an easier way of doing it. On a good day I am sweeping anywhere between eight or 12 chimneys, which takes its toll on your body.”
And in the space of two months, the family-run firm has already taught more than 100 people across England and Ireland, with plenty more booked onto future courses.
Tony Russell, sales director, said the decision to set up the school came as the company moved to bigger premises at the end of last year after recording surging sales abroad.
The business now exports its hand-assembled brushes, rods and chimney sweeping kits to the Far East, the US, the Middle East and Europe.
But despite its international success, the company has not lost sight of its roots. Mr Russell’s 65-year-old father, Bob, who founded the business, takes an active role training the new recruits, while step-mum and company director Gina still builds the brushes from scratch.
It was a hard life for sweeps
•Chimney sweeps became sought after during the industrial revolution – 1760 to 1820 – because more homes were being built with chimneys. Children were recruited to carry out the work because they were small enough to climb the flues.
• Chimney sweep apprentices were commonly known as climbing boys. Local parishes paid master sweeps to recruit orphans, or children from workhouses, as a means of tackling poverty.
• As part of the agreement, master sweeps agreed with the local parish to: teach the child a trade; keep and feed them; provide a second suit of clothes; clean them once a week; allow the child to attend church; and not to send a child up a chimney that was on fire.
• Often the child would be expected to take off his boots and clothes to climb up a chimney, while using his back, elbows and knees to remove loose soot.
• The Chimney Sweepers Act was created in 1788 to regulate the industry, limiting master sweepers to six apprentices that had to be above eight years old. However, it lacked enforcement and children were still treated like slaves.
The use of children for cleaning chimneys was banned in 1840 when The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act was introduced. But it took until 1875 for legislation to be put in place.
Tony Russell said the school was helping to train both experienced and novice sweeps.
“The idea for the chimney sweeping school started because we kept getting calls from our clients asking questions about how to use our technique,” Mr Russell said. “We responded by putting together a manual for the chimney sweeps, but found that not everyone could absorb the knowledge because they were more practically-minded.
“It was then we started carrying out the training, before eventually setting up the school. The core of it is teaching people how to use our techniques and products.
“Even someone as strong as my eight-year-old son could do this work,” he added. “Chimney sweeping has evolved from a profession that demands physical strength, to one that requires knowledge over power. Power sweeping opens up the job to a range of people who may not have considered it before.”
Bob Russell first established the firm in a shed in Attleborough more than a decade ago. But it was decision by his son Mark – now the firm’s IT manager – to create a website for the business that helped it gain a foothold overseas.
Mr Russell said hopes were now high that the company could add to its eight-strong workforce while hitting a £1m turnover by 2015.
Are you breaking new ground with your business? Contact Ben Woods on 01603 772426, or email firstname.lastname@example.org