David Dupre, Grand Master Chimney Sweep
“My father was a master sweep,” explained David Dupre with a cocky flourish of his brush, “He taught me everything he knew, and I’ve learnt more – that’s why I am a grand master sweep, self-qualified.”
The nature of the sweep’s profession, going into people’s homes to sweep their chimneys and seeing all the diversity of human life, yet at the same time being reliant upon no-one, encourages a propensity to free-thinking and breeds an independence of spirit, and David is the unapologetic possessor of both. “People don’t tell me what I can and can’t do,” he informed me unequivocally.
On the day David Dupre left school, he came home in his school uniform at midday and his father was waiting for him in the kitchen to ask, “What are you going to do, David?”
“At twelve o’clock, I was in my school blazer, by one o’clock I was in my dirty overalls – and I never looked back.” declared David recklessly, with a crazed grin, after he had swept my chimney yesterday. “He was a hard man to work for, my father. He’d look at me when he was standing there with his brush up a chimney and he’d say, ‘What are you going to do?’ As if there was anything I could do at that moment.” continued David with mixed feelings of respect and frustration,“If there was a spanner out of place in the van, he blamed me for it. But there was nothing he wouldn’t do, I remember him climbing down the inside of a two hundred and seventy foot chimney in his seventies.”
Of French Huguenot descent, David’s father was born in South Africa and became the head chef and boiler stoker on a Merchant Navy vessel - “that was back in the days when the butcher was also the doctor,” explained David helpfully. From there he travelled to Yorkshire where he met an old man who taught him to be a chimney sweep, and that is all David knows. “He was an elusive man, he didn’t say much,” admitted David, ‘When I was fifteen, he was pushing sixty. He lied about his age and worked till eighty-three. He told me, ‘If I can’t sweep chimneys any more, I’ll put my head in the oven.’ And one day I went round and he had burnt his head, because he had tried to kill himself but the oven was electric.”
Significantly, David’s earliest memory of his childhood in a tenement in Brady St, Whitechapel, is how his mother used to put a scarf round his neck as a baby to protect him from the soot in the days of the London smogs. Yet it was the smoke of coal fires that created his family’s livelihood as well as a public health problem, both of which have declined since London was declared a smokeless zone and coal fires were banned.
“I made a lot more money in the eighties and nineties than now. In 1987, I was making a couple of grand a week. I could do ten or eleven chimneys in a day if the calls were close together…” recalled David, his eyes shining in swanky delight, “I’ve been in grand homes that chimney sweeps built in the nineteenth century. They were loaded! Before central heating existed to heat water, all the fires were going all the time and they used to sweep chimneys every three months. People have no idea now, they think you don’t ever need it done again.”
Relishing his distinguished pedigree and status as a free agent, David also appreciates the social mobility that goes with it. “I’ve swept the chimneys in Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, lovely places and the Royal staff are very pleasant people.” he confided to me in a whisper of patriotic veneration, “I remember going to the grand house of an Admiral in Whitehall with my father and they treated him with such respect. It was ‘Mr Dupre this’ and ‘Mr Dupre that.’ I’ve worked for multibillionaires and for those who are so poor I’ve given them money. But, if you see me out of my overalls, you wouldn’t think it was me. I drive a nice big yankie car and I wear expensive clothes, because I’ve earned it myself.”
Possessing the necessary diminutive stature and tenacious energetic nature for a sweep, David ran up the stairs in my house with his brushes in an old golf caddy. Once he had slotted all the poles together, he asked me to go outside and check the brush was sticking out. And, sure enough, when I reached the pavement and peered up at the stack, there was David’s brush, like a strange cartoon flower growing out of my chimney pot. Climbing the stairs again, I found that David had made short work of the job, which he had completed with strenuous determination and was already cleaning up when I returned. “My father designed the screen I place over the fireplace, most sweeps use a cloth,” he told me as he worked. “And all my brushes are specially made – I’m very particular about what I use. I’ve got the Inland Revenue to pay. I’ve got my advertising to pay, they stole the magnetic signs off my van – why would they do that? I’m just a chimney sweep.” he mused. Then, before I knew it, he tossed the vast steel drum of his vacuum cleaner over the shoulder and was barrelling off down the stairs again.
Once the job was done, it was time for the serious business of catching up, with David breaking the dramatic news that since he last swept my chimney, he got divorced from his second wife and found true love with a new fiancée. “It was the first time in my life I had a drink,” he confessed - with eloquent understatement – speaking of the stress of the divorce, before his change of fortune. “I didn’t think I’d ever be so happy, I’ve got this lady in my life now that is my life ,” he disclosed, “She’s amazing, she does my cooking!”
It was a moment to take stock, and I was favoured to hear David Dupre’s assessment of his existence as a grand master chimney sweep. “I’ve been working now for twenty-seven years and I’ve never had an action against me. I’m happy with my job, though I am a bit gutted that the work decreased by seventy-five per cent.” he said, pulling a long face, “But even if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d still be sweeping chimneys.”
“At twelve o’clock on the day I left school, I was in my blazer, by one o’clock I was in my dirty overalls – and I never looked back.”
The Temperance Sweep from John Thompson’s Street Life in London, 1876