A little boy is sold into an apprenticeship as a chimney sweep in eighteenth-century London, and soon learns the horrors of that profession.
Six-year-old Egan lost his father from an accident at sea, and now, may lose his little sister from illness. The only way his penniless mother can save her daughter is to sell Egan into an apprenticeship in order purchase for medicine. As a small boy, he will make an ideal “broomer”; a businessman named Armory gladly takes Egan into the fold. Under Armory’s absolute dictatorship he will sleep with other wretched boys on soot sacks, eat gruel, get bloody beatings for the slightest infraction, and risk his life almost daily.
One small comfort is an older boy named Pitt who empathizes the new boy’s homesickness and instructs him, strictly but not unkindly, in the tricks of the trade. The lads find ways to cheat Armory when possible, striving to save up money to buy themselves out of his domination. But the dangers are real and terrifying. Broomers’ work inside chimneys and on rooftops, sometimes naked to make themselves even smaller in order to fit inside flues as confining as nine inches by nine. Many a boy, Egan learns, has been burned to death or horribly disfigured, crippled for life or asphyxiated inhaling poisonous gasses.
The only protection the boys receive is a periodic bath with brushes and brine to “toughen” their skin. When Egan finds a valuable piece of jewelry, he believes he has a way out. But to make it happen he must deal with a larcenous silversmith, and in the end, finds himself dependent on the greedy Armory for assistance.
Debut novelist Watson was drawn to compose this gripping tale when she studied a 1722 legal case – Armory v. Delamirie – on which she has based Infants of the Brush. She felt compelled to examine the conditions endured by chimney sweeps, most of them children, in that era; her fictional hero Egan and his cohort emerged from that research. She depicts the London street scene with an ear for the dialect and an eye for the unsavory aspects that made life for all poor people at the time depressing and disastrous. An occasional visit by the sweeps to a grand home shows the contrast; Watson writes of an instance when a rich boy sees Egan and runs screaming from the room. There are some kind faces, though, such as the church folk Egan encounters one lonely Christmas and a sympathetic sea captain who is able to change his circumstances for the better.
Watson, a teacher, and an attorney has clearly made a serious investigation into the general conditions in London in 1720, regulations regarding chimney cleaning, monetary values and other vital elements needed to construct this vibrant story. The characters of Egan, Pitt, Armory, and others are skillfully drawn, and the harrowing images of young children forced into brutal, life-threatening labor are unforgettable.
Infants of the Brush offers a disturbing but elucidating glimpse into a time and place when, even in a civilized country, poor children’s lives were shockingly undervalued, and their labor exploited. In the author’s skillful hands, though, there is a welcome ray of hope shining through to the conclusion of this haunting saga.