Historical Fiction

Infants of the Brush: A Chimney Sweep’s Story – A.M. Watson (Margaret)

26 November 2018
Infants of the Brush Book Cover Infants of the Brush
A. M. Watson
November 18, 2017

Infants of the Brush is historical fiction based on Armory v. Delamirie, a 1700s court case before the King's Bench against Paul de Lamerie, a silversmith. In the vein of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Infants of the Brush is set in a time when climbing boys were forced up burning flues to dislodge harmful soot and coal ash.

The Infants of the Brush story takes place during the industrial revolution in England.  It is set in a period of history where children of lower classes were expected to contribute to working society covering all industries.  This book focuses on the plight of chimney sweeps.  Most chimney sweeps were sold as apprentices to master sweeps from the age of six, however, some took on children as young as four and exploited them to climb very slim chimneys.  In reality, it was more a case of enslavement rather than being true apprentices as they did not get paid and worked from predawn until dusk.  Very few survived into their teens suffering from stunted growth and skeletal deformities due to the nature of their job, most dying from the first recorded type of cancer, cancer of the scrotum, also known as ‘Chimney Sweep Cancer.’

Society turned a blind eye to the inhuman and cruel nature of the work inflicted upon such very young children.  There were very few people of wealth and influence willing to speak out against such cruel child exploitation bar such people as the Reverend Charles Kingsley who wrote the Water Babies about a child sweep who escaped from his plight.  The trial of William Wyer for manslaughter in 1865 after the death of twelve-year-old George Brewster, provoked a bill which was passed through parliament, resulting in the end of the practice of using children as human sweeps.

This story begins with a young boy Egan being sold to servitude as a chimney sweep at the tender age of six.  Detailing his journey from grief at losing his family to the developing relationships with fellow sweeps and coping with the enormous hardship and inhumanity of the job and living conditions.

I am hugely impressed with A.M Watson’s ability to marry true events and actions of that period with the fictional characters; delivering an eloquent portrayal of horrific conditions that most children not born into wealth and elitist society had to endure.  It is beautifully written, and the story elaborates with natural fluidity. For children to have an innocent childhood, to explore and play without fear worry hunger and the real expectancy of death, was not an option.  They were not treated as children to be nurtured but as little adults without the rights of adults to be used as pleased. Life was harsh, and significant numbers of families sold their children into servitude in order to survive.  Death was perceived a better option than having to turn to the workhouse for help.

Reading A.M. Watson’s book is like a Dickens novel but with more realism, and less coincidence or drama pulling at every emotion.  It makes you swing from pure heart-rending sadness for these children and their plight, to pure anger at the cruelty delivered by adults who saw children as nothing more than a means to make money, then cruelly disregarded when they were no longer fit for purpose. Welfare was non-existent and animals were treated with more compassion and dignity.  It’s a real window into a class society where wealth ensured you were treated with dignity and respect, and children were allowed to be children.  Lack of wealth, ensured families did not have the luxury to let children be children, but where a means to an end and treated like slaves at the mercy of adults. I wanted to be able to share with the children, the tenderness and unconditional love that all children should be privy to and offer the protection that is the right of all children. The inability to do this really stirred emotional anger and frustration at being unable to fulfil this.  Not too many books can ignite such emotions and bring you on such an emotional journey.  This was an easy book to review because it was thoroughly engrossing, totally captivating, and extremely well-written. I could also accept that the book was well researched and provided a factual true account of the conditions young chimney sweeps of that period endured.

I would highly recommend this book and a clear 5 star.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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