Amy Watson's Infants of the Brush
Eagan Whitcombe gets up before dawn each day. He eats a thin watery gruel, often his only meal for the day, and goes out onto the streets to gain clients who need their chimneys cleaned. He negotiates his own prices and works alone, often in unsafe conditions. He eats if he can. He gives most of what he has earned to his master. He sleeps on the floor of a basement, in which he is locked in all night. Eagan is a chimney sweep.
He is 6 years old.
The year is 1720 and the place is London.
After his father’s death, Eagan’s mother sells him into apprenticeship to Master Armory for 3 crowns. The family were near starvation without the father’s earnings. Eagan will have to pay back 5 guineas to become free—but Armory will never let him go.
After his mother sells him and leaves, Armory hits Eagan and tells him,” That’s right, boy. You won’t live long if you fight me….You belong to me.”
Amy Watson has developed a character that we want to hug, feed, clothe and rescue from what in, actuality, was slavery. Eagan is a survivor, figuring out how to clean chimneys without getting burnt, suffocated or stuck. He is a businessman, he plans for the future, make friends and finds protection. And he is a child. The author portrays not only the difficulties but the joys. She shared with me, “It was important to me to portray the chimney sweeps as children, experiencing certain hardships as well as joys for the first time… An accurate representation of the complexities of human nature requires a full range of emotions, and I wanted to tell the boys’ story as an authentic tribute to their lives. ”
Master Armory has no trouble finding under nourished young boys. Like other unscrupulous “businessmen” of his day, he kidnaps homeless children, takes them off the hands of orphanages and pays parents who are impoverished. These children are unprotected. One broomer who is beaten by street ruffians thinks about who he is-- “the dregs of society, those too poor to belong to the lower classes.”
Eagon finds a jewel and when taken to a jeweler for pawning, the jeweler steals it from the poor boy. Eagon asks for Master Armory’s help. Armory takes it to court to get the jewel returned or the money for it. The court case is an historical one, based on
Accurate to this historical period is how society and government ignored child labor in general. Most children in the 1700’s worked to help their families. British society ignored the treatment of chimney sweeps until central heating became common in the 20th century.
Amy Watson told me, “Chimney sweeping was fraught by tragic accidents caused by burning flues, crumbling chimneys, and narrow spaces filled with smoke and ash. According to Parliamentary records, most child sweeps did not survive to adulthood and those who did often developed cancer caused by prolonged exposure to soot. Every time legislation was considered to restrict the use of children to clean chimneys, evidence and testimony was submitted concerning the hardships the boys faced and deaths that occurred.”
Child labor and enslavement may seem a thing of the past, yet today, children continue to be forcibly and unscrupulously worked today in the ways of the past. The UN estimates that 160 million children labor in dangerous work—such as mining and agriculture. Many thousands of children are enslaved in sex trafficking or as domestics, including many crossed or smuggled illegally across our southern border. Amy voices her anger at this continued abuse. “Child exploitation is a disgusting stain on our modern society just as much, if not more, than in the past.”
As the novel ends, Eagan, now called Whit like his dad, has his debt of 5 guineas redeemed by Captain Andover. Not understanding, he thinks he is now enslaved on the ship. Captain Andover tries to explain his new status: Whit will be paid for his work. Only free men serve on his crew. His debt has been paid. He is part of the crew, eats with them, sleeps in the crew’s quarters and only has to work hard.
When Eagan finally understands that he is free, he begins to cry uncontrollably. “Through guttural cries of horror, Eagan released the fear, anger, bitterness and sorrow that held him captive since the day that [his da had died.]”
Captain Andover understands. “Let the boy cry. Those who have known the brutality of bondage weep when they are made free.”
Eagan is now 8 years old.
Popular in the 18th century were savory pies sold in inns, taverns and markets. For poorer individuals, meat pies were replaced by Savory Onion Pies, delicious and more affordable. I've updated this a bit from the 1700's and it is delicious and filling enough for a meal.