There are no dead chimney boys in Westminster Palace

Press Office
House of Lords, Westminster by Dr Henrik Schoenefeldt
Ventilation turrets on the roof of the Palace of Westminster, which were also used to exhaust the smoke from several hundred fire places.

Commenting on claims that there might be dead chimney boys inside the chimneys of the Palace of Westminster, Kent School of Architecture expert on the buildings and who has examined the chimneys, Dr Henrik Schoenefeldt, says: ‘This is NOT true - due to their specific design.

‘My current research project at Parliament has involved undertaking detailed studies of the historic chimney system of the Palace. This involves extensive building surveys and archival research and has provided insights into the unique design of the smoke extract network of the Palace.

‘This was fully integrated into the 19th-century ventilation system. The research has uncovered no evidence of dead bodies and due to the specific design of the chimneys in Palace it was neither possible for boys to enter the vertical flues, nor was it was necessary for sweeps to climb flues.

‘Instead of having large vertical flues, the Palace was provided with a network of large horizontal smoke channels to which the individual fireplaces were connected through very small (typically 15cm to 25 cm wide) flues. These channels are large brick tunnels and were designed to be easily accessible for maintenance. They were equipped with numerous access doors and the ceilings of most of the channels were high enough to enable adults to walk through them.

‘This allowed the attendants to inspect and clean the hundreds of small chimney flues that terminated inside the channel. This was typically done during the summer when the fires were not in use. Some of the smaller channels required staff to crawl through them, but doors were provided at regular intervals for staff to enter or leave a particular section.

‘The smoke collected in these channels was exhausted through the ventilation turrets. As a result the inhumane practice of chimney boys climbing through smoke shafts was not required in the Palace. Charles Barry and David Boswell Reid, who collaborated in the design of smoke extract and ventilation systems, took much care in planning for the day-to day management.

‘This system of channels and ventilation towers was introduced with the aim to eliminate the need for traditional chimneystacks. Without the use of tall towers the Palace roof would have been covered with hundreds of chimneys, which, aside from disfiguring Barry and Pugin‘s architectural design, also would have caused problems with courtyards being polluted with soot.

There are only a handful of traditional chimneys inside the Palace. These include two large chimneys on the west side of the Central Tower, which are clearly visible from the terrace above the Commons chamber or looking up from the Whips Area courtyard.

Dr Henrik Schoenefeldt, is a senior Lecturer in Kent School of Architecture at the University. He has published a new article in the Antiquaries Journal exploring Reid‘s contribution to the design of the House of Commons Chamber. It also looks into the issue of managing smoke pollution in the Palace and how this had shaped the design of the smoke and ventilation system.

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