My name is Tommy Hopkins. I’m ten years old, and I like to look up at the sky. But not just any old sky. Blue sky’s best.
Not that I see it often, mind. ‘Cause I work all day in a dark, scary place. Then I go back to the smelly old cellar where I sleep. And it’s night. And there ain’t no blue sky at night.
This great city of London where I live has masses of people in it. Some riding round in fancy carriages and wearing fine, silk clothes. Others, scurrying like ants in the muddy streets - people like me, wearing rags and no shoes. And living next to the horrible stink of the River Thames.
Rich folks and poor folks – I ain’t saying one is better than the other. But there’s talk of getting rid of us London Poor. Squashing us like bugs. And that ain’t fair, ‘cause I’m no bug and I ain’t so easily squished.
‘Hey Tommy, you seen the new lad?’
‘What, the one with the skinny arse?’ I said.
‘We’re all skinny,’ said Jimmy. ‘Can’t get fat on what Old Belter feeds us.’
Belter’s real name is Mister Ackroyd, and he’s in charge of us. He paid money for us, so I s’pose he owns us. And he treats us like slaves. Makes us work from five in the morning till late at night, for no pay.
He does feed us, mind. But like my mate Jimmy just said, it ain’t proper food, grub you can get fat on. Scraps and rubbish are all we get, stuff other people don’t want. Like hard, mouldy bread and stinky old cabbage soup. Stuff that makes you fart.
I don’t have to tell you how Belter got his nick-name, for he’s beaten every one of us here with his leather belt. He calls it his ‘pal’ and if he’s in a real bad mood, he’ll try and catch you with the buckle. And I ain’t never seen him smile.
Belter ain’t no beauty to look at, neither. His hair is black and straggly. His huge, fat face is greasy and has a red, blotchy nose stuck right in the middle of it. It’s a horrible face with great big holes all over it. Jimmy reckons that’s ’cause Belter had the Chicken Pox.
Jimmy Ellis is my best mate and we’re the oldest lads here. He’s ten, same as me, and we’ve both seen life on the streets, know how to get by.
I was born in 1830. (My ma always said it was important to remember when you were born.) And I’ve been working since I was five years old. That’s when Pa went running off, and Ma and I had to look out for ourselves. But Ma ain’t here no more.
Jimmy and me, we’re like family now. We look out for each other. We’re climbing-boys and we both belong to the master, Mister Ackroyd who is a flue-flaker (a chimney sweep).
You have to be small and skinny to do our job, for we climb up the inside of chimneys and clean them. And Old Belter reckons me and Jimmy’s his best climbers. Even so, I don’t like climbing chimneys. They’re always dark, and I ain’t so fond of the dark. It’s hard and dirty work and sometimes you choke on the dust and soot. Sometimes you get scared, and your insides shake so hard you think they’ll fall out. And you wedge your bare feet tight into the blackened bricks, and don’t want to climb no higher. That’s when Belter lights a fire under you. Then there ain’t nowhere else to go but up.
So you take your small brush and your metal scrapper and get back to work. But you know that when you climb out the chimney, you’ll have a clout round the head for taking too long.
Climbing-boys like me and Jimmy get loads of clouts. ‘Cause nobody really cares about us. We’re orphans see, no family to look out for us. And if it wasn’t for Mister Ackroyd, we’d have no food and nowhere to sleep. Still, if I had somewhere else to go, I’d run away.
‘You awake, Jimmy?’
I shook my mate and some coal dust from his sleeping-sack flew up in the air in a black puff. We sleep in our sacks, the things we collect the soot in. They ain’t perfect. They’re rough and scratchy and sometimes soot gets left in there, and you wake up choking. But that’s all climbing-boys get for their bedding.
I tried again. Only this time I shook him harder. ‘Jimmy, you awake, mate?’
‘I am now!’ he said, and I could hear the growl in his voice. ‘Wha’d you want?’
‘Listen to that,’ I said. There was somebody crying in the corner of the cellar.
‘Must be the new kid. Maybe we should do somethin’.’
‘What? Take him to his ma?’
‘C’mon Jimmy. Remember what it was like when we first came? Poor little blighter’s scared. He’s only seven.’
‘You wanna be his ma, go ahead mate. But he needs to look out for hisself,’ said Jimmy. ‘And I needs me shut-eye.’
‘It’ll be all right, mate,’ I shouted in the direction of the sobs. ‘I’ll look out for you.’
‘He’ll get used to it,’ said Jimmy’s sleepy voice. ‘Get back to sleep before I clods ya with me sack.’
Jimmy likes to think he’s hard. But deep inside he’s soft as dough.
Next morning I went to check on the new lad. He was strange looking, not like the rest of us. You could see his face for a start, for he wasn’t covered in black soot. He had curly, black hair and dark brown eyes that looked sad. And there were big red circles round them, like he’d been crying all night.
Sometimes, I forget what the rest of them look like. I know I have blond hair under the grime and coal dust, and a thin face that ain’t likely to get no fatter. Ma always said I was the handsomest lad in the world. But then she was my ma. I got the same green eyes Ma had. And real pale skin too. Not that you can see it now, for I ain’t been proper clean - not for a long time.
We’re s’posed to have a bath every week, but Old Belter’s missus only baths us once a month. In a big tin bath out in the freezing cold yard. And she ain’t gentle, like a mother. She believes in rough handling. Says it gives the little savages (that’s us) a bit of backbone.
Don’t get me wrong. Before I was a climbing-boy, washing wasn’t something I was keen on. But I’d do it now, quick as a wink if they’d let me. For it ain’t good when your eyes sting from coal dust and your nose gets clogged up. And it ain’t that easy to breathe.
‘Right, you ugly lot. Get on with breakfast. We got an early start.’
That was Mister Ackroyd – Belter. Don’t know what he’s talking about, ’cause we always have an early start. And breakfast never takes long. It’s a curled-up piece of bread that should have been thrown out long ago.
But we ate it anyway and went up above ground. We sleep in the cellar of this crumbling old warehouse at Wapping on the River Thames, and sometimes at night you can hear the rats running round. We play a game with the rats, my mates and me. Throw stuff at them and see who can clobber the most.
You wouldn’t believe me if I told you who wins most times. It’s a girl. Her name’s Lucy. And girls ain’t s’posed to be able to throw. We only got one girl here - which Jimmy says is just as well. ‘Cause he don’t go much on girls. Mind, she ain’t a bad climber.
It was still dark when we went to our work. Not that we work every day. The master gives us Sunday mornings off, so we can go to church. It’s not much of a holiday and the church bit is dead boring. Then some smelly old geezer takes you into Sunday School and tries to teach you your letters. That’s so you can read the Bible. I like them pictures in the Bible, but I ain’t good at the reading bit. I reckon I’d like to read, but nobody’s taken time to try and help me.
‘Keep up, you skinny little runt.’ Mister Ackroyd was picking on the new kid. But he always did that when you first came.
‘I’m trying, Sir.’
‘Well, you ain’t tryin’ hard enough. For that, you’re up first this morning, you slimy little toad.’
I looked at the poor kid’s face. It went stiff and white with fear. But he ain’t the only one’s been scared. We all get like that. Scared of falling. Scared of getting stuck in a narrow chimney.
‘I’ll go up first, master,’ I said - trying to smooth Old Belter down. We all knew how bad he could be when he had a strop on. But it was best to keep your mouth shut. Don’t know why I hadn’t. S’pose I felt sorry for the lad.
‘Oh lookee here, lads! Old Tom’s turned into somebody’s ma. You wanna look after him; you can have the snot-nosed little beggar.’ Belter smacked the new kid round the head and sent him flying. ‘Pick him up then. And make sure he’s first in line for today’s job.’
‘I’m exceedingly sorry, Tom. I expect I got you into trouble, as well,’ he said.
It was the first time I’d heard the new kid speak. His voice was soft, and real posh, like he came from a family of toffs (that’s short for toffee-nosed). Rich people who live in them big houses where we clean chimneys.
‘Nah, I’ll be all right,’ I said. ‘I can look out for meself.’ And so I can.
The screeching was real loud. That’s what happens when you’re up a chimney. The noise goes round and round, same as an echo. This came out the fireplace like a wailing ghost was up there.
‘Stupid little blighter’s stuck,’ said Belter. ‘Get in there and push him on up.’
‘What me?’ I said. My insides turned to jelly. It was dead scary, trying to get a lad out when he’d wedged hisself in. Last one did that, we had to send a stone mason up outside to take some of the chimney bricks out, gentle-like. It took hours, and old Belter wasn’t happy. And it didn’t do the lad no good neither. He choked hisself with soot – all that panicking and struggling. Kilt! Stone dead!
Trouble is most chimneys ain’t that wide. That’s why Mister Ackroyd don’t do the climbing hisself. He’s too fat. And them chimneys got twists and turns in them, so you can’t put a brush straight up there neither. It’s why it takes lads like us climbing-boys to do the job.
What they call the ‘flue’ - the bit goes up the middle of the chimney to take away the smoke - was real narrow in this fancy house. One of the narrowest I ever did see. Two bricks across and two bricks wide. And them bricks are only 9 inches.
This new lad was skinny which should have been okay, but it was his first chimney. He hadn’t had no proper training, exceptin’ me telling him to climb like a caterpillar, using elbows and knees to crawl up. And it’s dark up there, so I reckon he just got scared, tried to scamper up too quick. Got hisself wedged in.
‘Get on up there, Tommy Hopkins. Or I’ll light a fire,’ screamed Master Ackroyd at me.
I went pounding up the chimney, elbows and knees scraping the rough bricks. Your skin gets hardened from years of climbing and scabs over. But it still hurts and bleeds if you go too quickly. And I knew I had to be sharp, for the master might light a fire anyway.
‘Take it easy, Screecher,’ I yelled. ‘You’ll do us both in.’
‘I don’t want to die,’ he sobbed.
‘Me neither, mate. Just stop crying like a baby, will you?’
He went quiet. The baby thing must have done the trick. ‘You got your knees wedged under your chin, mate. You need to move one leg down at a time,’ I told him.
‘I can’t. I’ll fall.’
‘I’ll catch you. Just move one leg, c’mon – gentle-like.’
He did it. It took a long time to get him in a straight line. And I had to keep talking to him, like cooing a baby, like I remember my ma doing. Then I pushed him all the way up. It weren’t easy.
I was dead proud of meself. Not that I got no thanks for it, just a belt when my head poked out the chimney top. Screecher (I still didn’t know the new lad’s name) was sitting on the roof holding the side of his head, like he’d already had his belt.
‘Get back to the bottom and start bagging that soot,’ shouted Mister Akroyd.
Screecher looked as miserable as you ever saw. He looked like he might answer back, but I gave him the eye and he shut his mouth again. It didn’t do no good arguing with the master. Just meant you wouldn’t get no food.
We walked home to the cellar in the dark. We’d done six chimneys and Belter wasn’t happy, for we usually did more. But then we didn’t always have to get a climbing-boy unstuck. Belter was so mad, that it didn’t even matter I’d rescued the new lad, we got no grub anyway.
‘I want my mother.’
‘Hey, Little Lord Wotsit, will you pack it in? It’s your fault we ain’t had no grub,’ said Jimmy.
‘Leave him alone. It weren’t his fault,’ I said. ‘And his name’s Screecher, not little lord anything.’
‘My name’s Anthony. Anthony Ashley.’
‘Listen, mate. I rescued you, so I can name you. You’re Screecher from here on. Don’t like it, that’s tough,’ says I.
‘My mother was a beautiful angel,’ the lad said. His voice was sad.
‘And mine wos an ugly old hag wot threw me out,’ said Jimmy and laughed. ‘You wos lucky mate, so stop whining.’
‘What happened to your ma then, Screecher?’ I asked. I was interested. We all had different stories. Different reasons for being here.
‘The Cholera took both Mama and Papa,’ he said.
‘Oh, posh, ain’t we?’
‘Leave him alone, Jimmy. Ain’t his fault he’s posh,’ I said. I felt sorry for the kid. I’d lost my ma to the Cholera as well. I could understand the poor blighter. He was seven, same age as me when Ma died. He was only little to be set adrift in the world all by hisself.
‘You needn’t worry about me. I can take care of myself,’ said Screecher, real proud. ‘And I’ve still got family, only my aunt doesn’t know where I am. She wasn’t there when Mama and Papa got sick and died. She was off somewhere foreign, teaching children. And I ran away when they put me in this awful school. They used to beat us, and we had no proper food, and we had to learn Latin for hours.’
‘Just like here, mate – all ‘cepting the Latin. You’ll fit right in,’ laughed Jimmy.
But Screecher didn’t laugh. Maybe he didn’t understand jokes, I thought. He went quiet for a while, and then he made a noise between a sigh and a sniffle.
‘I’m leaving here,’ he said. ‘I’m running away to the sea. My aunt has a great, big house by the sea. If you want, you can come with me.’
I could barely see his face in the miserable, dark cellar. We had just one candle for the lot of us. But I could tell by the way he held his head up high and his jutting chin that the kid meant it.
I went to sleep with a smile on my face. If he could run away, then so could I.
‘Oiy, you little rat! You mind your manners.’ Mister Ackroyd was giving poor Screecher an earful again.
The lad had asked why we were up so early today. But you NEVER asked Old Belter questions. All you got for that was a swift boot up the arse. And Screecher’s arse was real skinny. It wouldn’t be fun.
I knew why we had to turn out at three o’clock this morning. I’d overheard Belter and his missus talking. Seems today was one of them lucky days, for he’d got hisself a ‘nice, juicy little earner,’ he’d said. One of them big, fancy houses on the other side of the River Thames. It had four stacks with four chimneys in each.
All it meant to us climbing-boys was a long march across London in our bare feet. Then clawing your way up chimney after chimney, some of them still hot. Scorching your hands and feet. And burning soot and tar falling on your head, for sometimes folks would call us in to sweep when they’d had a chimney fire. Some of us lads were lucky and had caps, and you could pull them over your face, so your eyebrows and hair didn’t catch fire.
All this, just so Old Belter and his missus could earn some extra cash. Not that we ever saw none of it, for we didn’t get paid. Only in clothes and grub. But you already know about the grub, and the clothes were just as bad. Rags, most of them. Smelly and real thin. Not much good in the winter.
‘Right, Jimmy. You’re me number one today,’ said Belter. ‘You can keep this rabble in order. Get up them stairs now and get the scrapers.’
I saw Jimmy’s long face and felt sorry for him. Being specially picked by Belter weren’t no kind of prize. If we all stuffed up, Jimmy would pay for it first.
But we didn’t. Stuff up that was. We all tried real hard, not for the master, but for Jimmy. Even the new kid didn’t do that bad, exceptin’ he sat down and rested in the hearth after he’d done his second chimney. But all Belter did was grind his teeth. Maybe he was getting kinder.
Turns out he weren’t getting no kinder. He needed us all in good working order today. Was saving up the worst for poor little Screecher when we got back home. First we knew about it was when Screecher disappeared upstairs into the yard and didn’t come back down to the cellar with his sleeping-sack.
We got a couple of skinny cats in the yard, s’posed to kill off the rats. But I reckon we puts paid to more rats than them cats do. So, when I heard the noise, I figured it was them pesky cats. But then I heard my name called in the middle of all the wailing. And unless cats can talk now, I reckoned the woeful noise weren’t made by no cat.
‘Jimmy, give us the candle.’
‘I ain’t climbing them stairs in the dark,’ I said. The stairs were rickety and some of the wood was rotten. You had to see where to put your feet or you might fall through to the stone floor of the cellar. And get kilt.
‘You ain’t going up there? You’re mad, mate.’
‘Sounds like Screecher’s in trouble. We can’t just leave him.’
‘Yeah? You go up there an’ you’ll be in trouble,’ said Jimmy.
‘C’mon, mate. He needs us.’
‘You askin’ me to go up there?’
‘You ain’t scared, are you?’ (Jimmy don’t like no one to think he’s scared.)
‘’Course I ain’t scared,’ he said. ‘But I ain’t no looney neither.’
I heard a rustling noise behind me and somebody jumped out and grabbed the candle. It was Lucy.
‘’C’mon, Tommy. I’ll go with ya. I ain’t scared.’
And that’s how the pair of us ended up edging our way up the steep, narrow stairs. In the pitch black. With only the faint light from a half-penny candle. And the sound of the rats scampering below.
I never was so scared in my life so far. I led the way and held the candle high so Lucy could see it too. And with the other hand, I tried to keep a hold on the wall. It was wet and slimy and my hand kept slipping. It was smelly as well, from the mould that grew in our dark, damp cellar.
If Lucy hadn’t been there, I might have changed my mind and crept back down the cellar steps. Left Screecher to sort hisself out. But you can’t give up in front of a girl. It wouldn’t be right. So we kept on going, till we got up to the yard – both of us.
We found him. All huddled up like a sack of rags, bundled into a corner of the yard.
‘He ain’t breathin’,’ said Lucy. ‘’Spect he’s dead.’
‘No, I’m not,’ said a small, timid voice. ‘But I don’t think I can walk.’
‘We’ll get you back down,’ I said.
‘I’m not going back down. I won’t stay here another minute, even if I have to crawl away.’
You had to give the lad his due. He had guts. Even if he had no brains.
‘Don’t talk wet, Screecher,’ says I. ‘You won’t get five yards. Somebody sees you like that, all bloodied up – they’ll send for the coppers and they’ll know you’re a runaway. You’ll be up in front of the beak before you know it.’
‘The beak?’ he said.
‘Magistrate,’ said a deep, rumbling voice behind us. ‘The law. Don’t you know nuthin’ lad?’
My nerves all twitched and my heart slipped down to where my stomach was. But when I turned round, it wasn’t Old Belter – just Jimmy pretending to be him.
‘Gawd, Jimmy. You took my heart and liver and mashed them up. What you doing here?’ I said. Not that it weren’t good to see him, but pretty soon we’d all be up here and Belter wasn’t deaf.
‘Couldn’t let you idiots do this on your own.’
But secretly, I figured it was Lucy that made him move. Jimmy wasn’t the sort to be shown up by a girl. And Lucy’s real brave.
We all laughed and that’s when it happened. The next voice really was Belter’s and he came charging out like an angry great bull.
‘Slimy little rat-toads. You’re all in for it. I’ll belt ya to within an inch of your miserable little useless lives.’
That’s when my life changed. Not that it had been grand anyhow, but I guessed it would be a whole lot worse now. I did it without thinking, but the cruelty of our master finally did me in.
I slung a foot out and Belter - who ain’t no lightweight anyway - went skittering over it and landed on the slippery, wet cobblestones of the yard. Wham! His head hit them cobbles with a terrible crunching noise. Then he just lay there. Dead still.
‘Gawd, Tommy. Now we’re in for it. You’ve kilt the man,’ said Jimmy.
‘He weren’t no proper man,’ I said.
‘So wot you wanna do now?’ Jimmy’s voice was all nervous and crackly. I’d never heard him like it before. And the whites of his eyes popped right out of his sooty face.
‘Do? There’s only one thing to do,’ I said. ‘I’m scarpering. I’m taking young Screecher here off out of it. I’m rescuing him. Taking him to the sea.’
I felt a small, warm hand grab mine. A girl’s hand. ‘Can I come too Tommy? I ain’t never been to the sea.’