Mike Soden swept hundreds of chimneys at Oxfordshire homes - and had more than a few surprises.
One day when he knocked on a door, it was opened by a young woman in a flimsy negligee, who sat close to him throughout the sweep - she was apparently a naturist.
Another time, a young son asked his mum: “Is Mr Soden staying the night?”
He made a quick exit on both occasions!
The Soden family became well known throughout the county, with six generations keeping our chimneys clear of soot and other debris.
Their history can be traced back to 1803 when the business began in Leicester.
Soon afterwards, the family moved to Oxford, where they traded for more than 200 years, in the early days by horse and cart.
Early names have been lost in the midst of time, but the third generation consisted of Richard and Bill Soden.
Then, after that, came Len and Dick Soden, followed by Mike as the fifth generation.
The sixth was completed by Gary, Mike’s son, who continued until 2019 when a back injury forced him to give up.
Mike Soden lived as a boy in Pixey Close, Wolvercote, next to his future wife Betty, and they both went to Wolvercote School.
He joined the family firm at 14, but his career was interrupted when he was called up for National Service with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
He served in Egypt and Germany before becoming a Corporal at Cowley Barracks.
He returned to sweeping, but then switched careers.
He worked at Oxford University Press in its paper store for 22 years, but helped the family business in his spare time.
After leaving the university press in Walton Street, he went back to sweeping chimneys full time, finally retiring in 2012 and leaving son Gary to run the business for its final seven years.
The Soden family would use 5ft long rods called ‘lifters’ to push the brush to the top of the chimney.
Usually seven rods were needed, except at taller houses in places like North Oxford and Boars Hill where 14 were often required.
They endeared themselves to many housewives by putting sheeting around the fireplace to stop soot falling on furniture and carpets.
Customers were often puzzled by the strange language the sweepers used – they called brushes ‘nappers’, the sheets a ‘toggy’ and very fine soot ‘fluffy queer’.
Among the family archives is a treasured booklet listing the money customers paid in shillings and pence from 1938.
Modern equipment is now used to clean chimneys, including vacuums, cameras and other specialist tools.
Most sweeps are done from the bottom of the chimney, rather than the top, to prevent the dispersion of dust and debris.
But Mike Soden, who lives at Forest Hill, near Wheatley, is adamant - he insists their brushes got into the crevices and cleared soot much more efficiently than the equipment used by today’s chimney sweeping experts.
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