Climbing Boy 7: Lady
December 24, 1843
The hollow sounds of approaching footsteps on bare
hardwood floors, “All right!” the voice said from
within. “All right, I’m coming!”
The door opened.
Having set the appointment herself she was expecting
them, yet, her eyes widening, the lady’s hand went to her
throat as, standing within her doorway looking from Johnson
to Zachariah, pity wrenched her heart and a sudden sense
of depression overtook her. Although Johnson was as she
remembered him when he came knocking at her back door—
poorly dressed and filthy—he was immaculate in
comparison to the boy at his side and, more than pity for
the boy, she was depressed at the thought that a child as
small and young as this could be and was forced into this
type of filthy, dangerous labor.
Intimated by clean, rich surroundings, feeling far beyond
simply dirty and certainly not worthy of entrance into a home
such as this, he’d been looking downward when the door
had opened, and now, his gaze moving upward from the
lady’s slippers, Zachariah’s head and eyes lifted slowly.
The lady was wearing a white, stanched apron over a
blue dress with thin red lines stitched throughout the soft,
wool material. Light completed, on the heavy side, standing
at about five feet, five inches, the lady had startling, green
flecked blue eyes and long, tightly curled blonde hair.
The look of this lady familiar, blinking his eyes, sensing a
quickening of his heart, looking at this lady’s face his mouth
dropped open because, to Zachariah, the lady was lovely.
More than lovely, she was beautiful.
Coming from afar in his past, imagined remembrance,
this lady’s face was the face that filled the void in his dreams,
remembering, thinking he remembered…
Mama! This lady, he thought, had the unseen face of the
mother of his dreams, and the boy smiled.
The smile caused his bright eyes to stand out from his
sweat-streaked, filthy face, and…
My Lord, taken back, literally taking a step back the lady noticed his eyes and the light-blonde stubble on Zachariah’s soot-caked head. My Lord, she thought, this child has the look of Albert! This child could be Albert’s brother, or the son of my sister if I had a sister.
Her mood changing, the frown lines on either side of her
mouth went up to become a forced smile as the lady’s sadness
changed to…? The lady’s sadness changed to a maternal
longing, a deep maternal longing, and she desperately
wanted to take this boy… to put this boy into a hot tub and
to scrub him clean… then to rock him, as she did her own
son, in her arms.
Standing, all but forgotten, Johnson looked from the lady
to Zachariah then back at the lady. “Er, Mum?”
Her eyes did not leave those of the boy.
Forcing her gaze from the boy, she looked absently at
“We’re ‘ere to clean the chimney, Mum.”
“The chimney, Mum! Me ‘n’ Zachariah ‘ere, we’re ‘ere to
clean the chimney.”
“Oh,” shaking her head, trying to clear it. “Yes. I’m sorry,
Standing aside, allowing the two to enter, closing the door
behind them, knowing the appearance of the boy to be
nothing more than a coincidence, looking at Zachariah a
moment longer, the lady then walked through the hallway
with Johnson and the boy following.
Scattered rugs had been rolled and moved aside, and the
drapes, upholstered furniture, and a big, cone-like thing
in the corner were covered with sheets.
Anxious to be on his way from this house, going right to
work, Johnson moved two small tables from before the
fireplace as Zachariah spread drop cloths over the floor in
front of the hearth, then over the two tables.
Standing just inside the living room doorway, watching
Zachariah, The boy might be hungry, she thought. “Might I offer you and your son some food before you start in
Hungry indeed, hearing the word “food,” Zachariah,
hopefully, turned towards her, but…
Having more a thirst than a hunger, “No, Mum, not for
us,” Johnson answered. “I’ll be takin’ me leave soon’s
‘im’n’me gets your flue swept an’ I get ‘im,” nodding his
head in Zachariah’s direction, “started on what’s to be done
‘ere,” jerking his thumb in the direction of the fireplace.
“You’ll not be staying with the boy? Your son can do all
this work himself, without help?”
“Mum, Zachariah ‘ere’s been doin’ this kind’a work for
more’in four years an’ ‘e’s real good at it ‘e is, an’ I’ll be
leavin’ ya in good ‘ands.”
Four years! Underestimating Zachariah’s age by almost a year, Certainly this child could not be more than eight years of age! Incredulously thinking, but not far off, Could he have possibly started in the cleaning of chimneys at the age of four?
Cleaning chimneys from the age of four?
Going onto roofs, climbing and cleaning chimneys at the
age of Albert—at the age of her own son?
A country girl brought to the City of London upon her
marriage to a wealthy barrister seven years earlier, though
things had been done quite differently in the country, the
lady was well aware that the apprentice system had been in
existence for many years.
Her husband and other barristers, as members of The
Society for Superseding the Necessity for Climbing Boys,
along with informed citizens, even then on that very day,
were arguing to have bills approved by Parliament outlawing
the forced use of young children in some of the more vile
trades that caused illness and death among children—and
the chimney sweep trade, with the use of climbing boys,
was foremost among those deadly trades.
Looking from the man to the boy, knowing that, other
than dirt, this man shared not one physical attribute with
Also knowing that no parent, unless of the cruelest sort,
would force their child into this type of dangerous labor at
the age of four. But, horrible as it was to use one’s own son
for this type of drudgery, it was, the lady supposed, for the
betterment of the child and the child’s family.
But buying a child? A British child! Actually buying and
paying for a British child to use as a slave!
“I thought,” she said angrily, “—not that I approve of
using children as small and young as this—” glancing at
Zachariah, “that I’d contracted for a man and his son… his
His mind elsewhere, actually wondering how fast he
might get to the closest pub, “No, Mum,” Johnson
accidentally admitted, “‘e ain’t me son… Uh…” attempting
to correct his lie, “When I saw ya by the back door I told ya
it be me’n’me ‘prentice that’d be doin’ the work.”
Though surmising, now hearing Johnson admit that the
boy wasn’t his son, further offended by the lie, “No, sir!”
The lady looked at Zachariah, who was standing in front of
the fireplace listening and watching the exchange between
herself and Johnson. “I’d not hire any sweep using an
apprentice! My husband and myself, we don’t hold with any
cruelty amounting to slavery!”
“Mum, it ain’t slave…”
“I am sure you said I would be hiring you and your son!
And at this boy’s age, even that would be bad enough!”
Lately—for the past two years, ever since “those busybody,
do-gooders” had been appealing to Parliament—it had
become harder to obtain employment if telling the work
were to be accomplished by himself and his apprentice.
“No, Mum!” lying, “I told ya t’would be me’n’me ‘prentice.”
He had done this before, lately more and more often, telling
perspective customers that Zachariah was his son rather
than his apprentice. “But if’n ya don’t want us we’ll be gone.”
Knowing the lady had an affinity for Zachariah, “But it’s to
be known by yourself that the lad’n’me I’ll be goin’ ‘ungry
on this, the night afore the Lord Jesus was born, ‘cause we
ain’t ‘ad but one other bit’a work this whole day.”
Her eyes ablaze with anger, she glared at Johnson, then
looked again at Zachariah. Although she then knew that
Johnson had lied about telling her that Zachariah was his
son, she had no doubt that the boy would be made to go
hungry, or worse, if she turned them away, tonight, of all
nights. “All right,” she relented, “you may have the work,
but at the least stay to help the boy finish!”
Becoming thirstier by the minute, “Mum, it breaks me
‘eart, ‘avin’ to be leavin’ the lad, but I’ve a ‘pointment that I
can’t be missin’, an’ I wouldn’t be leavin’ if I thought
Zachariah ‘ere couldn’t be doin’ the work right an’ proper
like.” Stopping, he appeared to be in deep thought. “Tell ya
what! If ya still be wantin’ to feed the lad, I’ll tell ‘im ‘e’s
able to take the time from ‘is work to be eatin’. Just a minute
or two mind ya.”
“You’re going to allow the boy to eat!” she said
sarcastically. “You’re going to allow him a few minutes to
eat! How ‘splendid’ of you, Mr. Johnson.”
“Yes, Mum, I know,” the sarcasm not registering with
Johnson. “An’ I guarantees ya ‘e’ll do the job good’n’proper
or ‘e’ll get what for.” Turning to Zachariah, “Come on,” he
said in a demanding tone, “get to work!”
The lady had no doubt that the boy could do the job
“good’n’proper.” She also had no doubt that Zachariah did
get plenty of “what for” from Johnson. Disgust showing on
her face, she looked at the man a moment longer then,
raising her arms in exasperation, she hurried from the room.
Looking after her, no less disgusted by her attitude, he
shrugged his shoulders, then, as soon as the floor cloth was
in place and the firebox properly screened with two
overlapping cloth screens, taking one last quick inspection
of the room to be sure it was ready for the sweeping, putting
the coil of rope around his shoulder, going outside, Johnson
climbed to the roof by means of wooden rungs affixed to the
rear of the house. Once on the roof, shinnying up the
chimney, dropping one end of the rope into the flue, he
called, “Com’in down!” through the long, hollow structure
as, waiting for the call from below, he fed the line through
the straight flue, till…
Jumping off the chimney, scurrying down the wooden
rungs, Johnson waited as….
Kneeling inside the fireplace, fishing the line off the soot
shelf, pulling about twenty feet through, the boy attached
one of the green twig brushes to the center of the rope. Then
calling, “All’s ready!” up the chimney, Zachariah backed out
of the fireplace, re-set the two overlapping drop clothes and
tugged on the rope.
With the man outside, and with the boy inside, the rope
was pulled up and down, back and forth through the flue
as, dust billowing around the overlapping cloth screens, soot
and ash showered onto the fireplace floor.
Back and forth. Up and down. Back and forth and up
and down until ash and soot no longer fell, and…
“It’s done, Sir.” Zachariah stopped pulling.
Pulled up through the flue, the rope and brush fell to the
Coiling the rope, becoming thirstier by the second,
coming into the house, “Aye, boy,” whispering, his hand
cupping Zachariah’s ear, “I be off to the pub.” He glanced
towards the doorway leading from the room. “An’ don’t ya
be tellin’ ‘er royal ‘ighness where I’m off to!” Then, speaking
in a louder tone so the lady might be able to hear, “Mind ya,
do the work proper an’ no mess or you’ll get what for! The
missis, she’s a mind ta be givin’ ya some food an’ I tol’ ‘er
it’ll be all right if ya takes some small bit’a time to eat. Do ya
work an’ pack up an’ get the ‘quipment down the stairs an’
wait for me there,” jerking his thumb in the direction of the
front door. Now whispering again. “An’ ya be sure she pays
ya! Understand?” Not waiting for an acknowledgment,
turning, his footsteps sounding hollow, Johnson walked from
Within a moment the outer door opened, then
Sighing, Zachariah stood a moment looking in the
direction of the front door, then, going to the tool box, taking
the lantern, lighting it, he turned back to the fireplace, parted
the screen, crawled inside on his knees and, first tightening
the scarf over his mouth and nose, started into scraping the
upper portion of the rear wall with the scrapping tool, until…
Reaching the bottom, What? feeling a tug on his trouser leg, stopping, pulling the scarf from his face, turning he…
Squatting in front of the fireplace…
…poked his head through the two overlapping drop
cloths, and, Lordy!