Erwin Liverman, 71, believes he’s the world’s most senior chimney sweep — 60 years after he got his start. He feels like a relic in a trade that has been depicted as both Dickensian and lyrical – think of the rooftop shenanigans in the classic Disney film “Mary Poppins.” Liverman long ago lost count of the number of chimneys he’s cleaned, but guesses that it’s in the thousands – including stately mansions with 16 or more chimneys. Just as the master sweeps of Victorian England had their chimney boys, Liverman began in the trade as young child. He handed his father the tools needed to brush the soot off dirty chambers, fireboxes, and flues. And while chimney sweeps have been derided for being covered in soot, the Livermans were known for leaving a home cleaner than when they arrived. “If there was a smudge on the floor, whether it was from chimney soot or ashes or not, we cleaned it up,” said Liverman. As to whether a chimney sweep is good luck, Liverman says he’s had many a client ask to shake his hand, with a dusting of soot on it for good measure. He spoke to the Globe about carrying on the chimney sweep tradition.
“In Victorian England, chimney sweeping was dangerous, difficult work done by the lowest of the low. Master sweeps purchased small children from poor families to be their climbing boys. Children were used because they could easily climb into narrow hot flues, and sometimes [they] got stuck and burned to death.
“Sweeps stole their distinctive top hats and tails from funeral home garbage bins. They wanted to show that anyone can wear good clothes, despite having a humble social status. I used to wear the black top hat because it was expected of me, but no longer.
“It’s unfortunate that some chimney sweep companies prey on unsuspecting homeowners, but as a second-generation sweep – and my son, Jacob, third-generation – I’m very proud of being sought after to do this work. A chimney sweep needs to remove creosote deposits from wood- burning fireplaces, which can build up and create a highly combustible fire hazard. I also inspect the fireplace, making sure everything’s safe and functional. Using digital cameras, draft gauges, thermal-imaging technology, and gas-leak and carbon monoxide detectors, I rarely have to get on rooftops anymore. Nevertheless, it’s physically demanding work. There’s a lot of bending and brushing. Once, a ladder slid out from underneath me, but my ego was bruised more than anything else.
“Over the years, I’ve removed many different types of animals from chimneys, including squirrels, raccoons, and a dead swan — who knows what it was doing there? As far as soot and ashes, I use a high-powered vacuum and cover all furniture and floors with a drop cloth. Chimney sweeps of the past suffered from chimney sweeps’ carcinoma, or soot wart, but that was because they bathed infrequently and suffered from neglect. It was actually the first occupational disease ever recorded in the medical annuals.
“Folklore says that a chimney sweep is good luck and it’s considered fortunate for a bride to see one on her wedding day. I’ve heard of many chimney sweeps that have been invited to weddings for that reason, but not me. And if you ask me the oddest thing that I’ve ever found in a chimney? It was a pair of women’s underwear. Now that was a mystery for sure.”
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.