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.
December 24, 1843
The scent of Mama.
The child snuggled closer into the warmth.
Sitting partially in shade, her face and shoulders hidden
in shadow, the lower portion of Mama’s body was bathed in
His head nestled in the soft hollow of her bosom, the
little boy lay in his Mama’s lap.
“Ah, Zachariah,” she cooed, winding her finger into one
of the tight, blonde curls over his ear. “My little Zachariah.”
Moving his face deeper, feeling the coolness of her
starched, white apron, breathing deeply the boy smiled as
he smelled the sweet, warm scent of his Mama.
Through rapidly thinning layers of joy and warmth and
comfort the boy sensed the dual spectrums of cold and
loneliness as, burrowing his face lower in the warm valley
of his mother’s breasts, he found that by breathing deeply
through his mouth the dry vapor of his breath warmed his
But now the warm, sweet scents of Mama merged with a sad,
deep longing that came to the boy as strong as physical pain.
“Damn ya, boy!” Lifting his foot… “I want ya up, now!”
Jostled by the toe of a boot shoved roughly into the small
of his back, his eyes opening instantly, the boy stared into
the dim, smoky light of the smoldering fireplace.
“Off your arse now boy, an’ go an’ give ‘er a few pokes!”
Lifting himself from his pallet, wrapping the course,
stained tatter of the blanket around his shoulders, the boy
looked longingly at the burlap and rag pillow that was still
indented where his head had lain forming a valley, making
warm mounds on either side of his face… Mama?
The cold gloom of the one-room shack merged with the
dreary luminance of the fireplace and the feeble light of a
late December moon that came through the shack’s
In the depressive darkness, the boy’s face was blacker
than the wavering shadows. Streaked with varying hues and
layers of soot, as though when one layer was washed away
it left a vestige of itself to merge with the underlying layer,
causing an uneven blackness stippled with gray ringed
around his neck and ears with a heavier and deeper
Closer to the age of nine than eight, the boy, under
different circumstances, would be considered a beautiful
child, but because he lacked nourishing food he was small
and thin with features that were out of proportion and larger
than would best be suited for his undernourished face. His
small nose turned slightly upward. His mouth was round
with full lips. His second set of teeth, due to a meager diet,
were slow in coming and intermixed with his smaller first
teeth, and the boy’s left upper incisor grew through his gum
at a noticeable angle. Shaved at the start of each month, the
stubble of hair on his head, if clean, would be tightly curled,
light blonde in color.
If one’s eyes are sometimes considered windows to the
soul, Zachariah’s eyes might be considered headlamps to
Beneath delicately shaped blonde lashes, shining through
the soot and grime of his face as if beacons in the night,
ringed with a darker blue, the irises of the boy’s eyes were
light blue with flecks of green, and when smiling the boy’s
face would broaden and the little creases at the corners of
his eyes and mouth—having been retracted and partially
protected from much of the dirt—would come to view.
It was this smile that had caused many a rear door maid
to give the boy a desperately needed and so wanted slice of
bread, or even—on rare occasions—a biscuit.
Contrary to custom, the boy did his best to keep himself
clean, but the only running water in the mud flat, London
slum where he lived was at the end of a small gully, about a
quarter mile from the hovel he shared with his master.
When he was sent for water—which was near about each
night—Zachariah would attempt to rinse the loose soot from
his hands and face; and at least once a fortnight, no matter
what the weather—unless truly frigid, when the slowly
running trickle of water bubbling through the shale from
the rocks above was frozen solid—he would stand naked
beneath the dribble, goose pimples playing over his thin torso
and legs, scrubbing himself with any scrap of lye soap he’d
been able to beg or steal.
The cold water and bit of soap did little to remove the
soot that had permeated the pores of his skin, but by vigorous
scrubbing of his scalp and groin, he had been able to keep
his head free of scalp ulcers and his groin free of sooty wart.
The boy cleaned his teeth by using his finger and the sandy,
granulated gravel he found on the ground under the spring.
Weighing sixty-four pounds, even though Zachariah was
small for his age, one day soon he would be too big to climb
the flues. He wondered what his master was going to do
with him when that time arrived.
Sighing deeply, vapor coming from his mouth and
nostrils, he arose from his pallet of rags, and canvas and
burlap soot bags.
The soles of his bare feet burning with cold as he stepped
onto the near frozen, raw wood floor, the boy ran to the
warmer stones of the hearth. Using the poker, he stabbed at
the banked ashes, causing a shower of sparks to fly upward,
then he added two large scraps of wood to the now-glowing
bed of embers.
Shivering, goose bumps rising along the exposed flesh of
his neck and arms, turning his back to the fire, the boy stood
as close as possible for as long as he dared without receiving
his master’s verbal or physical admonishment, then, after a
few moments, leaving the comparative warmth of the fire
and going to the table, he poked his finger through the thin,
icy crust in the dirty, rusted basin.
Water running through his fingers causing lighter streaks
of brown on the undersides of his arms, using his cupped
hands he splashed the twice-used water onto his face.
Reaching to the filthy rag laying across the back of one of
the two chairs in the room, Zachariah briskly dried his hands
The boy struggled with his memory constantly, trying to
keep the image of his mother vividly in mind. He thought
he remembered her, but to a nearer-nine-than-eight-year old
child dreams and reality became confused, so as time
went his memories of his mother became fuzzier and he no
longer knew what was real and what was not.
The boy thought he had been with the Master since the
age of four, but he was not really sure of that, or his age,
because all he knew was what his master had told him, and
due to a strong thirst for gin, the Master very often distorted
what little he did tell the boy.