Chimney Sweeps Day 1st May
The 1st May has traditionally been associated with parades and celebrations but is specifically linked to Chimney Sweeps.
Newspapers widely reported carnival proceedings: ‘the ludicrous caperings of the sooty tribe, who fantastically attire themselves on such occasions, with their faces smeared with brick-dust, by way of paint, and with gilt and coloured paper ornaments in profusion’ (Sussex Advertiser 14 May 1827).
For some years before her death in 1800, Mrs Elizabeth Montague entertained sweeps every May Day in the courtyard of her house in Portman Square in the west end of London. Roast beef and plum pudding were served, followed by merry dancing. Each guest was handed a shilling by the lady of the house as he left (Alnwick Mercury 6 May 1876).
From The Days Before Yesterday by Lord Frederic Hamilton (1856)
“The story of Mrs. Montagu is well known. The large house standing in a garden at the corner of Portman Square and Gloucester Place was built for Mrs. Montagu by James Wyatt at the end of the eighteenth century, and the adjoining Montague Street and Montagu Square derive their names from her. Somehow Mrs. Montagu’s only son got kidnapped, and all attempts to recover the child failed. Time went on, and he was regarded as dead.
On a certain 1st of May the sweeps arrived to clean Mrs. Montagu’s chimneys, and a climbing-boy was sent up to his horrible task. . . he lost his way in the network of flues and emerged in a different room to the one he had started from. Something in the aspect of the room struck a half-familiar, half-forgotten chord in his brain. He turned the handle of the door to the next room and found a lady seated there. Then he remembered. Filthy and soot-stained as he was, the little sweep flung himself into the arms of the beautiful lady with a cry of “Mother!” Mrs. Montagu had found her lost son.
“In gratitude for the recovery of her son, Mrs. Montagu entertained every climbing-boy in London at dinner on the anniversary of her son’s return and arranged that they should have a holiday on that day. At her death she left a legacy to continue the treat. Such, at least, is the story as I have always heard it.”
So if you are lucky enough to see a Chimney Sweep on May 1st remember to wish them ‘Happy Chimney Sweeps Day’.
But spare a thought for the terrible plight of the chimney sweep boys and girls. History has romanticised the popular view but the reality was terrible conditions and often lives cut short by malnutrition, cruelty and chimney sweeps carcinoma or soot wart, the first recorded industrial disease. Mrs Montagu was very lucky to get her son back!