Research is an important part of the planning process of any story. It is essential that a storyline should be believable and that readers are not confused by the inclusion of any misinformation that detracts them from the plot. It is the role of an author to build a world that is as convincing as possible, so that the reader may become fully immersed within the story.
One important area of research for “A Clean Sweep” (Maxwell’s latest story) was the role of children chimney cleaners in Victorian times.
It was common to use small children, as young as four or five, to scramble up the insides of chimneys, to scrape and brush soot from the inside of the walls. These children would often freeze in fear, become stuck or simply fall asleep due to exhaustion, within the confines of the flue. When this happened, their masters would sometimes send a second child up the chimney, to prick the soles of the feet of the first child. At other times, the master would light a small bundle of straw or burn a brimstone candle in the fireplace, so that the suffocating smoke would force the child out.
Soot is a carcinogen and, as these children would often sleep on piles of soot bags and very rarely washed, many of these young boys went on to develop Chimney Sweeps’ Cancer in their early adult years.
Although the use of children chimney sweeps was banned in 1875, the practice continued for some years to come, in some larger country houses.
Interestingly, Maxwell Grantly once lived in a small market town in Suffolk, called Beccles. One quirky story from Beccles dwells upon the fact that one small house in the town centre has a stone shaped like a gravestone, embedded into the top of its chimneystack. You can see it clearly, on the left of the chimney pot, in the very centre of this photograph. There are many local tales regarding this peculiar stone, at the top of the chimneystack.
It is said that the stone is a headstone of a young nineteenth century boy, who was a local chimney sweep. The story says that he was forced up the chimney, in order to brush out soot from the inside of the chimney, but he lost his footing and slipped. In doing so, he became wedged and was unable to escape from the chimney, suffocating within his brick chimney prison. It was felt, at the time, that the top of the chimney was the best location for his gravestone. Other tales about this stone are somewhat more gristly. Some local people explain that the boy’s body was never retrieved and that his skeletal corpse remains embedded within the chimney. However, it is very likely that this gravestone story is not true and the additional gristly embellishment is most certainly untrue. It is completely implausible that the householders would have wanted to live in the same building as a corpse. (In fact there has been another account, from elsewhere, of a twelve-year-old chimney sweep becoming trapped within the flue, as he tried to dislodge soot. In this case, the chimney was demolished in a botched attempt to save the life of the urchin, who died shortly afterwards.)
In summary, it is highly unlikely that this chimney stone really is a child’s gravestone. It is more likely that this stone has an alternative function, solely due to the fact that a neighbouring town (Lowestoft) has three of these strange-shaped stones set into the tops of various chimney stacks, set around the historic centre of its high street. It is very implausible that so many chimney sweeps would have died in such a small geographical area and even more unlikely that their deaths would be remembered in such a similar fashion by different householders. It is more plausible that these stones serve an alternative purpose, in assisting air flow. Even still, the continued repetition of the ‘gravestone’ story serves to reinforce the fact that it is commonly accepted, by many different people, that chimney sweeps did indeed live miserable and wretched lives. All-in-all, it was an awful life being a chimney sweep child in Victorian times and these youngsters suffered from neglect, as well as numerous dreadful hardships.
Luckily, in the story “A Clean Sweep” the hero of the story does finally find his happy ending. However, like most stories by Maxwell Grantly, there are many interesting twists to the plot and all is not as it might, at first, appear to be.