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Sweep stories

Steve Pearce truly is the big sweep – his patch, with Greenwich at its epicentre, stretches from Dartford to Chelsea. Just don’t mention Dick Van Dyke he tells Glyn Brown.

“My family has been sweeping chimneys for over 300 years, and we’re pretty certain we’re the country’s oldest family of sweeps – certainly no one’s disputed it. The Pearces were originally from Bristol, and one of the more famous members was Henry Pearce, nicknamed the Game Chicken. He became a British boxing champ in 1805 – bare-knuckle, of course – and got his experience in boxing booths around the country while working as a travelling sweep. Charles W Pearce was a travelling sweep too, and we think he’s the one who gave the family its roots here when he settled in South East London in about 1800.

 

My great-granddad, Alfred, lived and worked in Ladywell, and had seven sons who all became sweeps. There was my granddad, also Alfred, then Tom, Harry, Albert, Percy… ah, what’s the other two? At one time there were 35 Pearce chimney sweeps in this area. Of course, there was massive demand in those days – everyone had a fire, and probably a range for cooking. The Pearces supplied about 5,000 bags of soot a year to farmers for fertiliser; you can use it on allotments, too, it breaks down clay soil and helps kill slugs. Actually, one of those brothers made that his main job, so that’s the sixth one, Sid the soot-merchant!

 

My granddad was a sniper in the 1st World War; he got shot in the leg, became a POW and returned to set up his business in Courthill Road. My dad, Dennis, set up in Forest Hill, and I still cover a similar area, with a van instead of a horse and cart.

 

Things have moved on since the 1800s, when master sweeps employed boys to climb up the chimneys of grand houses and brush them clean. Horrific times. Chimney boys got lung disease, testicular cancer, and occasionally suffocated as a result of soot and dust inhalation. A chap I know who does chimney repair work actually found a boy’s skeleton in a London chimney, and I’ve been told a small skeleton was found in a chimney at Charlton House, which I clean and which is said to be haunted; whether it’s by the boy, I don’t know. I’ve cleaned chimneys where you find little steps on the inside so the boy could start his climb; certainly, some of the chimneys on Crooms Hill are wide enough for a boy to get up.

 

Fortunately Lord Shaftesbury stopped all that, and since the 1800s brushes have been used. It’s nylon brushes now and polypropylene rods, with specially filtrated vacuums to make the process clean and dust-free.

 

In the 1960s and 70s, as people got rid of their fireplaces and put in central heating, it seemed this was a dying trade. Though I’d helped my dad as a teenager, when I left school I became an electrician because Dad couldn’t make a living; he got another job and kept the sweeping going part-time. So it’s incredible that it’s taken off again. It’s not just that nothing beats a real fire for cosiness and bringing people together; it’s the rise in energy costs. And a wood-burning or multifuel stove is even better. They may be expensive to install but once they’re there, they really save you money. But with any fire, you heat your home well and you’re not reliant on gas or electricity. Ironically, a lot of the more upmarket new builds are being designed with chimneys again. And the art of a good fire? The logs and wood have to be bone dry. Buy really dry kindling – that’s the secret to getting it going.

 

All the Pearces have a different ‘patch’, so I don’t do Ranger’s House – that’s my cousin’s turf. But apart from the smaller domestic chimneys, I’ve done Eltham Palace; Dulwich College; St James’s Palace, the Prince of Wales and Duke and Duchess of Kent’s apartments. I’ve done Ronnie Corbett, Robert Plant (stunning house in Regent’s Park), Timothy Spall in Brockley, and Glenn Tilbrook, who used to have a coachhouse on Heath Lane. Some of the bigger houses can be tricky. I’ve found birds’ nests, squirrels’ nests – I’ve actually had live squirrels running round someone’s bedroom!

 

As for pubs , I’ve done the Trafalgar Tavern, the Plume of Feathers, Oliver’s jazz club, a lovely spot with a very nice fireplace by the bar. Geoff Keen, the landlord at The Pelton Arms, has opened up all the fireplaces, and last time I cleaned those he had three going. The Pelton’s also one of my favourite places to relax. It’s a wonderful little pub, a real hidden gem, and a great music venue. If I’ve had a drink at the Pelton, we always end up at the Blackheath Tea Hut for a bacon baguette. Lovely.

 

Greenwich is a fantastic place. My wife and I see music at the 02’s Indig02 most Fridays, we’re members of Greenwich Picturehouse, and in summer, nothing beats a walk through Greenwich Park. Then we’ll drop into Waterstone’s, have a coffee, wander through the market. My wife would like to move to the coast one day, but – ah, you’ll never get me to leave here. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, a man who is tired of Greenwich is tired of life.

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