Erwin Liverman, 71, believes he is the world’s oldest chimney sweep, 60 years after he started. He feels like a relic in a craft that’s been described as both Dickensian and lyrical – think of the rooftop shenanigans in the classic Disney movie “Mary Poppins.” Liverman has long since lost count of the number of chimneys he has cleaned, but he guesses it is in the thousands, including stately mansions with 16 or more chimneys. Just as the master chimney sweeps of Victorian England had their chimney boys, Liverman started in the trade at an early age. He gave his father the tools to remove soot from dirty rooms, fireplaces and flues. And while the chimney sweeps were ridiculed for being covered in soot, the Livermans were known for leaving a cleaner home than when they arrived. “If there was a stain on the floor, whether it was soot or fireplace ash or not, we would clean it up,” Liverman said. As for whether a chimney sweep is lucky, Liverman says many customers have asked him to shake their hand, with a layer of soot on it for good measure. He spoke to The Globe about continuing the tradition of chimney sweeping.
“In Victorian England chimney sweeping was dangerous and difficult work done by the lowest of the lowest. Master sweepers bought young children from poor families to be their climbing boys. Children were used because they could easily climb up narrow flues and sometimes [they] stuck and burned to death.
“The sweepers stole their distinctive top hats and ponytails from funeral home trash cans. They wanted to show that anyone can wear good clothes, despite low social status. I used to wear the black top hat because it was expected of me, but not anymore.
“It’s unfortunate that some chimney sweeping companies prey on unsuspecting homeowners, but as a second-generation chimney sweep – and my third-generation son, Jacob – I’m very proud to be asked to do this job. . A chimney sweep must remove creosote deposits from wood-burning fireplaces, which can build up and create a highly combustible fire hazard. I also inspect the fireplace to make sure everything is safe and functional. Using digital cameras, draft gauges, thermal imaging technology, and detectors for gas and carbon monoxide leaks, I rarely have to climb on rooftops. Nevertheless, it is a physically demanding job. There’s a lot of bending and brushing. Once a ladder slipped under me, but my ego was bruised more than anything.
“Over the years I’ve removed many different types of animals from chimneys, including squirrels, raccoons and a dead swan – who knows what he was doing there? As for the soot and ash , I use a powerful vacuum cleaner and cover all furniture and floors with a drop cloth.Chimney sweeps in the past suffered from chimney sweep carcinoma, or soot wart, but that was because they rarely bathed and suffered from neglect It is in fact the first occupational disease ever recorded in medical directories.
“Folklore says that a chimney sweep brings good luck and it is considered lucky for a bride to see one on her wedding day. I have heard of many chimney sweeps who have been invited to weddings for this reason, but not me. What if you ask me the weirdest thing I’ve ever found in a fireplace? It was a pair of women’s underwear. Now that was a mystery for sure.
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at [email protected]