History of chimney sweeps
Traditionally, chimneys were cleaned by a master sweep, who took on apprentices (climbing boys). Climbing boys were usually orphans or from the workhouse and were trained to climb chimneys.
This was a really dangerous and difficult job. As buildings became taller and more sophisticated, chimneys were grouped together. This meant the flue could be angled or change direction, rather than straight up, and could be as narrow as 9 by 9 inches to create a better draught. Climbing boys could often get stuck and suffocate or get burnt. The boys often caught chimney sweeps carcinoma which usually proved fatal.
Safety standards and concerns for the welfare of these boys led to several Acts being introduced which were largely ignored. Things finally changed for the better in 1875 with the Chimney Sweepers Act, where police had to regulate the employment of children as climbing boys.
Things have changed dramatically since then. New technologies and equipment, plus an understanding of the dangers of carbon monoxide and health and safety reasons, mean that chimney sweeping is no longer the dangerous occupation that it was!
Further details and information about chimney sweep history can be found here. It makes for an interesting read!