Mrs Worthing’s chimney

Between 1900 and the 1950s our family of Coopers lived at 107 Milton Street, in a small Victorian terraced house in the seaside town of Southend-on-Sea.

It was a dull day in the autumn of 1936 and my grandfather William John Cooper had just come into the back parlour. My father Frederick Cooper was sitting at the kitchen table in the middle of the room and my Great Uncle Fred, who was only a few years older than Frederick, was sitting in the corner by the side of the range. The range was always alight, winter or summer, and my Uncle Geoff was looking out of the bay window onto the back garden which doubled as a builders yard.

Grandfather had just met Mrs Worthing of number 23, further down the street, and she had said that her
chimney was smoking and that it needed sweeping. My Grandfather ran a small building and decorating firm from our back garden and was often asked to sweep chimneys. Mrs Worthing ran a shoe shop in Milton Street nearer to the High Street and the fireplace that needed cleaning was in the room behind the shop. Grandfather told my Uncle Fred and Geoff to get the rods from the shed at the bottom of the garden and go down the street as quick as possible and sweep Mrs W`s chimney. “And, by the way, don’t make a bl–dy mess.”

Fred and Geoff took the rods from the shed and the special piece of tarpaulin with a hole in the middle, made especially for sweeping flues, and went out of the back gate which opened on to Short Street. They walked briskly down to the shoe shop.

Mrs Worthing showed Fred and Geoff into the back room and said that she had to go down to the High Street to do some shopping. She said she would be back later in the morning and please could they not make a mess as she had just beaten the carpets on the back line the previous day. Geoff laid a builder’s cotton dustsheet on the floor, removed the grate and fret from the fireplace and put the first rod with the sweeps brush through the hole in the tarpaulin. Fred wedged it with two cane rods against the cast iron and tiled mantle register fireplace and all was set for the sweeping.

Three rods were screwed on, each rod pushed up and down the mandatory four times and then when the fourth rod was pushed up it came up against an obstruction. “Whats up Geoff?” asked Fred. “The rod’s up” said Geoff sarcastically. “Push it harder” said Fred ignoring Geoff`s funny. Geoff gave the rods a hefty shove and with a rumble and a thump the rods pushed past the obstruction. “Probably just a loose brick, Fred” said Geoff.

Five more rods were connected, then pushed and pulled up the flue, always remembering to turn clockwise so that the rods didn’t come apart. “Okay”, said Fred, “go outside and see if the brush has come out of the chimney pot.” “No,……not yet” replied Geoff. “Keep going.” Nine more rods had gone up the flue and still Geoff hadn’t set eyes on the sweep’s brush. Geoff went back inside and quizzed Fred about the number of rods that the chimney had consumed. Fred and Geoff struggled with the mathematics of length of chimney versus the length of nineteen 3ft cane rods and came to the conclusion that something was not adding up!

Slowly, the puzzled Fred climbed the stairs with the intention of inspecting the roof space. Coming to the top of the stairs and on to the landing Fred noticed small puffs of dust coming from under the bedroom door. “That’s strange” thought Fred. Then slowly, an unlikely possibility dawned. No it couldn’t be. Surely not! Fred cautiously opened the door and peered round the edge of the door frame, for his worst imaginings to be realised. Through the now settling dust haze he could just plot the path of the sweeps sooty rods and brush. Fred called out to Geoff. “Come up ‘ere and see what you’ve done.” Geoff leapt up the stairs three at a time in response to the urgency in Fred`s voice. “What?” said Geoff, annoyed.

The sight they saw could have doubled as a film set of the London blitz. The obstruction that the sweep’s brushes had hit after the fourth rod was not, as they’d assumed, party wall flue bricks but the side of the flue into the bedroom. The first item the brush had disturbed was a framed oil painting of a highland stag. This had come off the picture rail and landed on a marble topped washstand, smashing the frame, glass, and the wash stand bowl and jug that had been on the marble top. The rods, still on a backwards, forwards and upwards course, had then continued past the painting and onwards until they reached the white distempered ceiling.

After distributing copious amounts of soot over the ceiling and frieze, the sweep’s brush had then started its descent towards the first corner of the room next to the window. At the corner, it had turned and picked up the crimson velvet drapes, lace nets and green painted wood venetian blinds. The timber curtain poles must have had a good fixing to the window head because large pieces of wall plaster had come away from the brickwork and lay on top of the pile of sooty window dressings heaped upon the floor. Not all of the curtains had ended up on the floor; some still caught in the sweep’s rods had been drawn backwards and forwards across the large double bed, spreading the black stuff across the bedsheets and feather-filled pillows. Fifteen rods and a brush had transformed the room from a place of peace and tranquillity into a nightmare of soot, broken glass, splintered wood, torn fabrics and soiled bed linen.

Fred gave Geoff a knowing look and ushered Geoff out of the room, closing the door behind them. In silence, and minds racing, the pair of sweep’s rod operatives slowly descended the stairs. Without saying a word to each other, they started to bring the sweep’s rods back down out of the bedroom, back through the side of the bedroom chimney breast, and down the flue out into the downstairs fireplace. With gathering speed, they took down from the fireplace the special tarpaulin, gathered up all the rods, tied them into a bundle and made a hasty retreat back up Milton Street, into Short Street and through the back garden gate into the yard.

After storing the sweep’s brushes in the shed, they both went in the back door and crept into the back parlour. Grandfather was doing his bookkeeping on the table in the bay window. “Don’t bother sending a bill,” said Fred, “we didn’t manage to do it in the end.”‘S’right”, said Geoff, adopting a backup role. Grandfather, for some unknown reason, did not question this statement. Luckily, perhaps, he was engrossed in his bookkeeping.

Some time later, Grandfather eventually got to know what happened that day. But, strangely, we never found out how Mrs Worthing reacted when she found the bedroom. All I know is that we never worked for, nor indeed ever heard from, Mrs Worthing again.

Colin Cooper