The convenience of eavesdropping

‘Out of the Smoke’ Author’s Commentary

Chapter 4: Aggie

The shop was narrow, but deceptively deep; Aggie’s counter lay at the far end, through a dusty maze of ancient display cabinets. A gas-lamp burned in the depths, barely illuminating the cave. Aggie’s voice dropped low and continued speaking, picking up the conversation from which it had been interrupted.
“What was it ye were sayin’? About this Act o’ Parliament?”

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 4: Aggie

Children tend not to be invited into the thick of the action, and so when they need to learn something important about the larger world they inhabit a convenient way is for them to overhear it (or to watch it happening from a hiding-place). Think Lucy and Susan watching the sacrifice of Aslan, Jim Hawkins hiding in a barrel and learning that Long John Silver is a pirate, or Samwise Gamgee overhearing Gandalf and Frodo talking about the Ring of Power (although not children, it could be argued that Hobbits are child surrogates in the fiction of Middle-Earth). Of course, this can be over-used, especially if the entire plot hangs on an overheard conversation–but I wanted to pay homage to it here, and introduce the character of Lord Shaftesbury in a way that allowed for a little suspense.

Harry sniffed. “Folks knows what’s good for ’em, doesn’t they? Tryin’ ter tell us we can’t send the lads up the flues? Bah! Everyone knows it’s the best way ter clean a chimney – send ’em scurryin’ up, they’ll get it clear better ‘n any brush. But I ‘ear there’s one o’ them lord ‘as taken a special int’rest, ain’t ‘e? Goin’ around like, ‘Oh, them poor little chiddlers, ain’t they sufferin’!’ Sufferin’? Pah! They knows what’s good fer ’em, that’s what I say!”

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 4: Aggie

It was also a way to help the reader understand contemporary attitudes towards child labour in general and chimney sweeps in particular. The fact is, many people did believe that children were the most efficient means of cleaning chimneys. There were machines and equipment that could be used instead – but people just didn’t want to use them.

To me, this speaks to the human tendency to shy away from change, even if that change is for the better. Change is vital: as we grow we learn new things, and we adjust our understanding of the world. If we refuse to change, refuse to even consider the possibility that we might be wrong about something, then we will stagnate and become like Harry: so caught up in the notion that he is right and everyone else is wrong that he has ended up just becoming cruel.

One of the major themes of Lord Shaftesbury’s work was change. He questioned long-established ‘truths’ – such as children being a cheap source of labour, or so-called ‘lunatics’ being good for nothing but to be shut away and forgotten about – and challenged people to find a more humane path. Unfortunately change did not come quickly. Shaftesbury spent much of his political life trying refining the laws that prevented the use of chimney sweeps. By the time of ‘Out of the Smoke’ Shaftesbury is in his 60s, and he is still fighting to criminalise the practice.

The Act that Harry and Aggie are talking about is the Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act 1864, championed in Parliament by Shaftesbury. It came about mostly through public pressure following the publication of ‘The Water Babies’ in 1863, and reports of child sweeps dying in horrifying circumstances.

The 1864 Act allowed 10 year olds to be employed, but no one under 16 was to be present when chimneys were being swept. However, this Act was largely ignored, and it was not until 1875 and the death of 12 year old George Brewster that another Act was passed that required chimney sweepers to be authorized by police, giving some force to the law.

Tosher and Billy looked at each other. A pound was more money than they had ever seen in their life, more than Gerard would take in some weeks. And it would be all theirs.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 4: Aggie

There are some things that are really difficult to communicate to younger modern readers in an historical novel. Money is one of these things. Quite aside from shillings, crows, half crowns and farthings, there’s the idea of how much something like a pound was worth. I remember I found a fascinating table that showed how much certain things cost in the mid 19th century, along with a list of example wages that different professions could expect to earn, which helped me get the measure of how much Billy and Tosher should be getting for this silver spoon – nothing close to what it was worth, but enough to be an impressive amount.


In many ways this was a difficult chapter to write. It needed to do two things: introduce the idea of Lord Shaftesbury, and move the plot along by getting the boys some money to spend (and lose). I also wanted to show a little bit that Billy was a person who used his wits to get out of trouble, and to demonstrate that he was used to relying on them – hence his haggling with Aggie, which was (mostly) successful.

There are always chapters that feel like they’re fillers between more interesting incidents, and this was one of them for me (whether rightly or wrongly). The challenge for an author with these kinds of chapters is not to relinquish them to obscurity, but to find some way to make them into interesting chapters in their own right. Whether or not I achieved this with Aggie’s chapter is debatable; happily, there are far more definitely exciting chapters just around the corner …


Header illustration copyright Jaime Dill, 2020

One thought on “The convenience of eavesdropping

Add yours

  1. You are right about eavesdropping in junior fiction. It is a very useful device. It is closely related to that other device the fictional companion/servant/friend of a real historical character who is able to narrate events because he or she has witnessed them.
    I would say change is a neutral thing and it can be for good (as with Shaftesbury) or evil (as with the 1967 Abortion Act). Sometimes stability is more beneficial than change. There is a hymn “Awake O Lord as in the time of old” (not in most evangelical books) with a line makes me shudder: “Change marches onward: may all change blest.” Rather than all changes being blest regardless of what they are, some change would be better avoided!

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