Mike Soden has swept through hundreds of chimneys in Oxfordshire homes – and had more than a few surprises.
One day, as he knocked on a door, it was opened by a young woman in a light negligee, who sat next to him throughout the sweep – she was apparently a naturist.
Another time a young son asked his mother, “Is Mr. Soden staying the night?”
He made a quick exit every time!
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The Soden family has become well known throughout the county, with six generations keeping our chimneys free of soot and other debris.
Their history dates back to 1803 when the business started in Leicester.
Soon after, the family moved to Oxford, where they traded for over 200 years, at first by horse and cart.
The first names were lost in the middle of time, but the third generation consisted of Richard and Bill Soden.
Then after that came Len and Dick Soden, followed by Mike as the fifth generation.
The sixth was completed by Mike’s son Gary, who continued until 2019 when a back injury forced him to retire.
Mike Soden lived as a child in Pixey Close, Wolvercote, next to his future wife Betty, and they both went to Wolvercote School.
He joined the family business aged 14, but his career was cut short when he was called up for national service with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
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He served in Egypt and Germany before becoming a corporal at Cowley Barracks.
He returned to sweeping, but then changed careers.
He worked at Oxford University Press in its stationery for 22 years, but helped the family business in his spare time.
After leaving Walton Street University Press, he returned to sweeping chimneys full-time, eventually retiring in 2012 and leaving his son Gary to run the business for its final seven years.
The Soden family used 5-foot-long rods called “elevators” to push the brush up the chimney.
Usually seven rods were needed, except in taller houses in places like North Oxford and Boars Hill where 14 were often needed.
They have endeared themselves to many housewives by putting tarps around the fireplace to prevent soot from falling on furniture and carpets.
Customers were often intrigued by the strange language used by the sweepers – they called the brushes “nappers”, the sheets “toggy” and the very fine soot “fluffy queer”.
Among the family archives is a valuable booklet listing the money customers paid in shillings and pence from 1938.
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Modern equipment is now used to clean chimneys, including vacuum cleaners, cameras and other specialized tools.
Most sweeping is done from the bottom of the chimney, rather than the top, to prevent the dispersal of dust and debris.
But Mike Soden, who lives in Forest Hill, near Wheatley, is adamant – he insists their brushes get into crevices and remove soot far more effectively than the equipment used by chimney sweeping experts at today.
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