Climbing Boy 3:
December 24, 1843
The Chimney Sweeps
Two figures trudged up the dirt road.
The man taking long, purposeful strides.
Weighed down by the load he carried, his harsh breath
coming in white plumes, panting, struggling to keep up with
Johnson, Zachariah didn’t notice as a single coil of rope
slipped off his shoulder, trailed behind, then tangled in his
feet. Tripping, he fell at the place the dirt road ended and
the cobblestone street began.
Paces ahead, looking over his shoulder, stopping with a
sound of disgust, going back to the fallen boy, Johnson lifted
him bodily onto his feet and with a slap to the back of his
head, sent him stumbling forward once again.
Through shame, anger, the cold, or all three, continuing
on, struggling under the weight he carried on his shoulders
and in his arms, Zachariah hunched his head even deeper
into the collar of his coat.
Finally, ahead a half mile or so, the glow of the factory’s
furnaces could be seen through the diminishing pre-morning
Soon, the noise of men at work came softly, then, as they
walked closer, the sounds became louder, the voices
As the boy and man entered the massive brick and block
barn of a factory, sounds assailed their ears: the irritating
noise of grinding, the tortured whine of cutting steel, the
nerve-jarring din of steel hammering onto steel. Thick, black
greasy smoke hung beneath the three-story rafters. Dozens
of workers could be seen moving, milling, hauling, straining.
Men wearing gloves and aprons made of leather were
removing strips of white-hot metal with steel tongs from
three of four huge, coal-fed furnaces. The fourth, its stack
having already been cleaned two-thirds of the way, was shut
down waiting to be finished.
John Archibald was standing behind his tall, battered
foreman’s desk. The desk, on a raised platform, gave the
plant foreman a commanding view of the entire factory.
As the two entered, he saw Johnson first, then, paces
behind, the boy. Putting the quill down, watching as they
made their way around boxes, barrels, machinery and
workbenches, Lord ‘elp ‘im! Archibald thought as he saw
the boy struggle beneath the weight he carried.
John “Archie” Archibald was a short but powerfully built
man in his late thirties. He had thinning brown hair, a ruddy
complexion, and a kind face. When smiling, his entire face
would take on a crinkly, affable appearance, but when angry,
the crinkles would smooth out and his skin became crimson
in color. A fair-minded, just man, Archie was held in high
esteem by both the men that worked under him and the
Married, John Archibald had two adored children. One,
a boy, was about the same age as Zachariah. Whenever he
would see Zachariah he’d think of his son and, sadly, make
a mental comparison between the lives of these two children.
An orphan himself, Archie was also a product of the
Taken from the orphan’s asylum at the age of five, he’d worked and learned from a master whom, although not as rigid and wretched as Johnson, was stern, unbending, and fast with a birch switch. But, of course, this training, as hard as it was, was what in time led him to this very worthy position.
Having gone through it himself, completely detesting this
system that allowed young children to be exploited and
forced into unbelievably squalid conditions—the chimney
sweep trade being the very worst—Archibald was among a
small army of London citizens who were partitioning
Parliament to set forth guidelines governing the treatment
and mistreatment of all apprenticed children, particularly
Holding back a cough, but not his anger, Johnson arrived
at the platform with Zachariah still trailing behind.
“Mornin’, William,” Archibald said, looking down from his
heightened platform. Then, smiling as the boy came closer,
“Archie! I wanna…”
Holding his hand up, silencing Johnson, Archibald waited
for Zachariah to arrive at the platform.
“A bloody damn sod on ya ‘good mornin’,’” Johnson
muttered low enough to be sure not to be heard.
Paying scant attention to Johnson because, intent on the
boy, watching for his inevitable, infectious smile, “Mornin’,
The smile came, “Mornin’, Mister Archibald,” a little late,
and noticeably forced.
Seeing the set of Johnson’s face and the downcast look
of the boy, sensing a tension between the two, wondering if
his offer of the kitten yesterday was the reason, “Ya wanted
to say somethin’ to me, William?” Archibald asked.
“Yeah, Archie, I’ve a mind to.” Pointing at Zachariah,
“You, boy, get there an’ wait for me!” Motioning over his
shoulder with his thumb, “I be wantin’ to ‘ave a few words
with ya friend ‘ere.”
Looking at Johnson’s face, Zachariah saw the anger that
he’d so often seen in the past, usually during bouts of
“‘ow can I ‘elp ya?”
“‘ow can ya ‘elp me? ‘ow can ya ‘elp me! Ya can ‘elp me
by not be talkin’ to me ‘prentice!”
Looking at some point behind and to the left of him,
Johnson’s demeanor confused Archibald because he knew
the other man was speaking to him, but wasn’t looking at
him, and so he glanced over his shoulder to see what he
was looking at, but other than the factory there was nothing.
Speaking softly, “Go on with ya, lad,” Archibald said.
“Wait for…” “Master” not being a word he liked using, other
than possibly in prayer, he said, “Wait for Mister Johnson
by the stairs. ‘e’ll be there shortly.”
“Aye.” Turning, walking the length of the factory, going
to the darkness behind the staircase, Zachariah looked into
the black shadow until his eyes adjusted and he was able to
see the light’s reflection on nine pair of feline eyes. Stooping,
the boy reached into the wooden crate containing eight
mewing kittens and their mother. Gently lifting a kitten by
the scruff of its neck, he snuggled it under his chin while
stroking its warm underside. The softly purring kitten
brought the trace of a smile to Zachariah’s face, but the
smile disappeared when he turned back and looked at the
Still gazing behind and over the other man, gesticulating
with both hands, “Archie, ya got no call to be tellin’ me
‘prentice…” jerking his thumb over his shoulder in
Zachariah’s direction, “that ‘e can be ‘avin’ a kitten a’fore
ya be askin’ me on it first!”
“William, for the sake’a Christ, it’s Chris…”
“An’ also…” his eyes flickered to the older man’s for a
moment, then quickly away as he started into a hard fit
Doubling over, Johnson turned his body from Archibald,
who waited patiently for him to catch his breath.
Gaining control, he swiped the back of his hands across
his eyes then, looking at Archibald’s chin, finding some small
degree of courage, poking his forefinger to within an inch
of the other’s chest, “An’ furthermore, don’t ya be tellin’ ‘im
‘e’s a good worker! If I wants ‘im to be knowin’ ‘e’s a good
worker I’ll be tellin’ ‘im! I don’t want ya turnin’ ‘is ‘ead!”
For a moment Archibald thought that Johnson might
possibly be right, then, No, he thought, ‘e ain’t right at all!
His face becoming red, straightening his body, pulling his
shoulders back, the hidden muscles flexed beneath his coat.
Sensing the older man’s change, Johnson slowed the
motion of his near-poking finger.
Taking hold of his hand, moving it from before his chest,
squeezing the thin, bony fingers, taking some delight at the
look of pain and fear that came to other’s face, speaking
softly through clenched teeth, “You…” Bringing his anger
under control, “William, that little boy works ‘ard as any
grown man I got ‘ere…” Making a sweeping, back-handed
motion with his other hand, “an’ better’n most, an’ I’d be
glad to ‘ave the likes a ‘im workin’ ‘ere for me! But not as
you work ‘im—not as a blinkin’ slave…” Knowing the other
may very well vent his frustrated anger on Zachariah, his
face softening, releasing Johnson’s hand, Archibald smiled.
“Bill, ‘e’s but a little boy. ‘e’s not got parents. ‘e’s got but you
an’ what you gives ‘im, an’ Lord knows that’s precious little.
Tomorrow’s Christmas. For Christ’s sake, Bill, let the lad
‘ave somethin’ for ‘imself. It’ll cost ya nothin’, an’ for the
boy it’ll be a blessin’—a blessin’ an’ a kindness.”
‘e’s right, Johnson thought, ‘e’s right! But, his voice tinged
with anger, “It ain’t for ya to say ‘ow I treats ‘im, an’ what I
gives ‘im!” Turning his head, he looked at Zachariah, who
was standing by the stairs holding a kitten in his arms, and
felt a pang of guilt at the life he’d forced on the boy… But
still, I’m the Master! Zachariah belongs to me! His inferior
ego demanding that he have authority over something, over
someone, at the very least this boy. “No! ‘e’ll have what I
give ‘im and nothin’ else! An’ I’ll not allow ‘avin’ your praise
make ‘im lazy!” Now, for the first time, Johnson looked into
Archibald’s eyes. “No, ‘e won’t be ‘avin’ the cat, thank ya!”
Turning from Archibald, he walked towards Zachariah.
Johnson stopped, but didn’t look back.
“Think on it, Bill! Ya gotta pass by ‘ere on the way ‘ome!
Ya can come in an’ let the lad pick whichever kitten ‘e wants.
Think on it, Bill. For the boy!”
Muttering, “To ‘ell with ya, Archie.” Taking long, angry
strides, Johnson walked to the staircase that led to the roof
and, “Come on!” snarled at the boy, “Come on, can’t’ch’ya!”
and waited impatiently as he went beneath the stairs to place
the kitten back into its box.
Zachariah had put the rope, drop clothes, and brushes
on the bottom step when he’d gone for the kitten. Only
needing the rope for this job, putting the heavy coil back
about his neck and shoulder, dreading the climb up the
narrow, steep staircase, he started up with Johnson—who
was carrying the toolbox only—at his heels.
Breathing heavily, silently grunting with each step, the
long climb upstairs with the weight of better than a hundred
feet of rope about his neck and shoulder caused Zachariah
to perspire. Momentarily hesitating as he wiped sweat from
his eyes with the sleeve of his coat, Johnson purposely hit
him on the backside with the edge of the tool box causing
the boy to trip on the next step and fall, painfully, onto
As predicted, “Watch ya’self, ya lout!” As expected, taking
his anger at Archibald out on the boy, roughly picking him
up by the seat of his coat and pants, Johnson set him on the
Sleet mixed with rain was falling when, three stories up,
glad to be done with the stairs but apprehensive about what
he knew he would very soon face, Zachariah, the sheen of
perspiration on his face and the dampness beneath his
clothing instantly changing to the feel of ice, pushed through
the door onto the roof.
On the roof, out of the lee of other buildings, the wind
blew rain and sleet with a near-stinging velocity.
The darkness had given way to a streaky grayness as the
early morning light attempted to break through thick,
moisture-laden clouds, and the City of London lay sprawled
below in the dull, overcast light.
Jutting from the roofs of thousands upon thousands of
houses, tenements and factories, for as far as the eye could
see, a jungle of chimneys of all sizes and heights emitted
broken spirals of dissipating gray-black smoke.
Sounds of the city could now be heard: children shrieking,
women yelling, the clanging of bells from peddler’s carts,
the whinny of a horse, the wake-up call of a rooster. Sounds
of boat horns and ships’ bells came from the direction of
the unseen Thames River.
Thick plumes of dense smoke roiling upward further
blackening their exposed skin, the three working chimneys
rained particles of black soot mixed with sleet and rain upon
the boy and man. Hunching their bodies forward into the
wind, they made their way to the fourth—currently
inoperable—chimney that, as the other three ran from the
floor of the factory, three stories below, to the roof, and
twenty feet higher.
Huddling as best they could out of the weather alongside
the leeward side of the chimney, “Com’er, boy. Let’s make