Years before and during the Industrial Revolution, in orderto learn a trade, orphans and children of impoverished families might be apprenticed or even sold to a tradesman—sometimes for less than the price of a dog.
In many cases these children became little more than chattel and their apprenticeship often became a form of cruel slavery.
In order to clean a soot-coated chimney, the usual practice at that time was to tie a broom, homemade brush, or even a live duck or chicken—its flapping wings acting as movable brushes—to the middle of a rope and, with someone at either end, drag it up and down the dirty flue.
In the 1800s, however, London had thousands of zigzag chimneys, and in order to clean them properly—or so the British thought—it was necessary to send a “climbing boy” a small child armed with a brush and scrapper, directly into them.
Fire, undeniably, is one of the worst possible disasters that might befall any household, and, superstition often having a basis in fact, if a house were to burn and along with it all of the inhabitant’s worldly possessions, that, in fact, could definitely be considered bad luck. As flue fires were most often the cause of these disasters, it was then thought that once a chimney sweep entered a house and plied his trade that house would be immune from fire, thus it came to be believed that it was good luck to have a chimney sweep in the house. Even to this day, upon seeing a chimney sweep, some people will come to touch him, hoping that bit of luck might rub off on them.
Succumbing to consumption—tuberculosis—and the dreaded, deadly Chimney Sweep disease, sooty wart —cancer of the scrotum—luck had very little to do with the life of a climbing boy as few were fortunate enough to survive their apprenticeship.
The abuse and exploitation of these children became the basis for civilization’s first child labor laws.
The first of these laws was passed by Parliament in Great Britain in the mid-eighteen hundreds.
Climbing Boy 2:Dawn
December 24, 1843
William Johnson, besides being a drunkard, was a “Master
Sweep,” and Zachariah his apprentice.
The door pushed open suddenly, accompanied by a gust
of wind that caused the flame in the fireplace to sputter,
allowing a puff of dark smoke to roil above the mantel.
“Christ, but it’s cold in the crapper! Just ‘bout froze my
arse on the plank.” Coughing, beating his arms about his
chest, Johnson rushed to the fireplace. “Get on with ya! Do
ya business!” Coughing harder, becoming red in the face,
he added, “I’ll get the mush goin’.”
A tall, thin man in his mid-thirties, Johnson’s face was
pockmarked with scattering of deep blackheads across his
wide forehead, his cheeks and the bridge of his thick, broken
nose—a constant reminder of the years of his own youth
spent in the tutelage of “Thornton & Son, Chimney Sweeps.”
Although Zachariah now did most of the work, caked with
soot, all of Johnson’s visible flesh was filthy. As was the
custom, he too kept his hair closely cropped. William
Johnson had a firm, outstanding chin that was covered with
a dark, sparse, scraggly beard. His rheumy eyes closely set,
their irises were dark brown, almost black.
A life of subservience had caused Johnson—without being
aware of the habit—to never look directly into the eyes of
any person that might be on an equal social par with himself
and, most certainly, not at anyone on a higher social strata.
The few exceptions to this were when he became
exceptionally angry—or wanted to be presumed as being
exceptionally, rightfully angry—or extremely drunk, when
he became a toady to his cronies and obsequious to
This behavior made him tolerable—barely tolerable—to
most of his drinking chums only because Johnson was
usually the butt of their practical jokes.
The social system—being what it was in nineteenth
century London—allowed Johnson’s customers to accept his
subservient conduct as proper, but he was totally disliked
by most of the butlers and head maids.
In a number of the larger households the contracting of
outside services, such as chimney sweeping, was ordered
by these same butlers and maids, and they seldom allowed
Johnson back for a second sweep; those that did, did so
because of their fondness for Zachariah and looked forward
to slipping “the poor child” a sweet or a jellied biscuit.
Because of this lack of repeat business, Johnson was
among the lowliest and poorest of his profession. Always on
the lookout for a new customer, he would often leave
Zachariah at the start of a job that was meant for the labor
of two as he went from door to door of the neighboring
houses soliciting future business. But no sooner would he
contract a future job, than he’d be off to the nearest pub for
“a few fast ones.”
Fortunately for Johnson, he’d avoided sooty wart. (cancer of
the scrotum) Unfortunately, though, the dust of a thousand
sweeps had settled in his lungs and he would often go into tearful,
gasping coughing spasms, which he knew was consumption,
but would not admit to—not even to himself.
A product of the times, during his period of apprenticeship he
was treated in an extremely harsh manner by old man Thornton,
but Johnson was one of three apprentices, so the duties—along
with the punishments—were equally divided. The broken nose
was not due to Thornton himself, but rather to one of his overly
Johnson’s treatment of Zachariah and the life he’d forced
on the child were harder then he had ever endured. But ‘tis
the only way to treat a ‘prentice, he rationalized, taking his
frustrations out on Zachariah—the only person in the world
he thought was on a lower plane than himself. Occasionally,
though, he wondered, Why’d I do such a mean thing to the lad?
‘e’s a good one. Why’d I say such a thing?
At those times the guilt would drop into his stomach as molten
lead and he would feel the pain of remorse, yet never would he
think of saying, “Zachariah, I’m sorry!” Johnson did not
understand his feelings of guilt or remorse and they would quickly
be dispensed of and reversed by a trip to a pub, or a swig from
Removing a large bowl and a pewter jug from the wooden
box on the shelf outside the window, he went to the fireplace,
pulled the grate out, and ladled thick gruel from the bowl
into a crusted black saucepan, then poured barely usable
milk from the jug over it. He pushed the grate and the pot
back over the fire to heat, poured a splash of milk into two
mugs and set both on the table.
The door opening, shivering, blowing into his cupped
hands, saying, “Lordy, it ain’t much warmer in ‘ere!” and
rushing to the fireplace, Zachariah held his hands to the heat.
At the table, looking over some scribbled notes he’d taken
off the shelf, he said, “Archie, an’…” unable to read his
scratchings on the tattered scrap of paper, “the lady, an’ the
ol’ bastard…” Muttering to himself, trying to figure what
that day’s take should come to, Johnson began to cough.
Coughing harder, his face turning red with the effort, the
man forced himself to stop.
Taking two wooden bowls off the mantel, looking down,
Zachariah scowled, saying, “Damn bug!” Using his finger,
he flicked a large, brown cockroach out of one of the bowls.
Sailing through the air, landing on its back on the table,
the roach tried to right itself.
Seeing the movement from the corner of his eye, “Damn
bug!” reaching, nonchalantly smashing the roach with the
palm of his hand, Johnson brushed the corpse onto the floor
leaving a wet smear on the surface of the table.
“‘urry up!” Speaking in his usual harsh tone, “we ain’t
got all day, ya know!”
Pulling the grate out, using the ladle, the boy stirred the
semisolid stuff in the saucepan once, then plopped equal
portions of the lumpy gruel into each bowl. Serving Johnson
first, Zachariah was careful to give him the bowl that had
contained the cockroach.
The bowl on the table before him, eating quickly, noisily,
the boy brought spoonfuls of food to his mouth, while,
holding the bowl just under his lips, slurping even more
noisily, the man shoveled it directly into his mouth.
Waiting till the older man was almost through before
making up his mind to speak, he said, “Sir.” Speaking rapidly,
as though to forestall a negative answer, “You’ve seen the
ol’ gray cat at the wheel factory! Well, Sir, that cat just made
a box of baby cats an’ Mr. Archibald, Sir, uh… well, Sir, Mr.
Archibald, ‘e said iff’n it were with your ‘proval, ‘e’d let me
‘ave one of ‘em. Ya know’s, Sir, we got a powerful lots’a
mice runnin’ ‘bout, an’ Mr. Archibald, ‘e said that the mama
cat’s a real good mouser an’ ‘er babies should be real good
mousers, too. We do need one ever so much, an’ I’ll care for
it, Sir, an’ I’ll even be givin’ it some’a my food to eat. Can
we, Sir? Please, Sir!”
The boy rarely asked for anything, and now, his spoon to
his lips, a trickle of gruel ran down his master’s chin onto
his beard and a larger chunk fell onto the table with a soft
plop, because, amazement showing on Johnson’s face,
somebody had offered to give the boy something! Nobody
had ever offered to give Johnson anything! Oh, a drink now
and then, but nothing of consequence. Nothing for himself
to keep. Yes, a cat would be nice! Johnson thought. Yes, we
do ‘ave lots of mice about. The lad’s a good lad. ‘e works ‘ard
and ‘e don’t ask for nothin. Never gives me no trouble. Why
shouldn’t ‘e ‘ave a cat?
But instead he said, “Your Mister Archibald, ‘e said that
to ya, did ‘e? ‘e ‘ad no right to be talkin’ to ya afore talkin’
Zachariah did not want Mr. Archibald’s kind gesture
returned to him in the form of Johnson’s anger. “Oh, Sir,
‘twas only ‘cause ‘e said I work so well an’ cause tomorrow’s
Christmas an’ all. An’ ‘e said t’would be a kindness for me to
be ‘avin’ somethin’ of me own to care for.”
‘e’s right, Johnson thought. Archie’s right and so’s the boy.
But instead, he said, “‘e said that to ya, did ‘e? That ‘you’re
a good worker,’ did ‘e?” Starting to cough, his neck and
face become red. “‘e ‘ad no right to be speakin’ to me
‘prentice a’fore speakin’ to me first!” Coughing, he gasped
for air… Catching his breath, “Get on with ya!” His tone
softening slightly, “An’ I’ll be thinkin’ on the cat,” he said,
then remembering that his authority over the boy should be
complete, “An’ I’ll be speakin’ to ya Mister Archibald!”
Standing suddenly, pushing away from the table, knocking
the chair over with a clatter, “We ‘ave a full day’s work
ahead!” Once again speaking angrily, “Get on with ya!” And
once again, Johnson began to cough.
Gulping the milk down, knowing full well that this might
be all the food he’ll have till that night, shoving the last
spoonful of gruel into his mouth, he licked the bowl clean
with his tongue. Then lifting the saucepan from the fireplace,
running his fingers inside, getting every last morsel,
Zachariah took the bowls, mugs and spoons outside,
returned for the wash basin and, going out again, rinsed
the utensils in the same water he’d washed his face in earlier.
Impatient to be gone, “Come on!” Johnson commanded.
“Come on, can’t ch’ya!”
Rushing into the shack, putting the pot on the grate, the
utensils on the mantle, the boy then finished dressing.
His filthy clothing threadbare, Zachariah wore oversized
britches held up by a rope belt tied around his waist, and a
patched and re-patched woolen shirt given to him by a
customer whose son had outgrown it. He wore no socks,
but on his feet were scuffed, badly worn shoes, one of which
had a buckle while the other was held closed by a piece of
twine. The boy had on a black long-coat that he’d found in
the trash behind the establishment of one of their only repeat
customers, “Hobbins’ Funeral Parlor.” The coat had hung
to his ankles and the sleeves to his knees until a kindly maid
made alterations while Zachariah worked on the chimney.
Once the odor of embalming fluid and the stains of the
undertaker’s trade had been washed away, the black coat
became the warmest article of clothing worn by Zachariah.
A long, ratty scarf was wrapped about his neck and over his
head, and was tucked into the collar of the long-coat. He
wore the scarf for three reasons: to keep his head and neck
warm, to hide his shaved head and filthy face, and to wrap
around his mouth and nose in an effort to keep as much
soot and dust as possible from entering his lungs
Watching as the boy dressed, waiting impatiently, Johnson
had a toolbox at his feet containing the tools of their trade,
a pile of drop cloths, a handful of poles, assorted brushes,
and a coil of rope.
Finally dressed, Johnson loaded up Zachariah.
The coil of rope was placed about the boy’s neck and
hung from his left shoulder. Four homemade flue brushes
of assorted sizes tied together with twine went around his
neck and right shoulder, and he carried some of the drop
clothes in his arms. The rest of the drop clothes held between
his arm and chest, the man easily held the toolbox in one
hand, with the poles, slung over his shoulder, in the other.
“Come on!” Prodding the boy with the bundle of poles,
Johnson followed Zachariah into the damp, cold day.