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The Queen's Footman

by Charles Lacey

Chapter 5

At that moment our lives changed for ever. We took the boy – his name was Joe – and fed him, and found him some clothes to wear. He was grateful far beyond any need and indeed became not only a most invaluable coadjutor but also a good and reliable friend.

But all over London's East End, poor children like him were sleeping in the streets, and dying there too. We wondered how best we could help. After a little thought we made a partition around a corner of the warehouse, and installed another cast-iron stove, which we surrounded with a guard. We furnished the room thus created with wooden box-beds and a long table with benches. We let it be known that it was there, and we advertised for a respectable woman to help us. Mrs Toller was a widow, and glad of the employment. She cooked a great cauldron of soup every day and our young visitors ate that, with yesterday's bread that we bought in from the bakers. Every night our little box beds were full, sometimes with two or even three boys crammed into each one. We tried never to turn away one who was in need.

The boys knew that it was my warehouse, and that it was by my permission that they were able to come to it. I was respected, but at a distance. Mrs Toller fed them, and despite the fact that she scolded them, she was liked. But Alec, my dearest Alec, had found his calling at last. He loved those boys as if each and every one of them were his little brother, and he was loved, nay, he was adored, by them. Despite the fact that at the end of every day he had to take a bath with carbolic soap, he spent his time talking to them, finding out their names, what they did – if anything – for a living. I had never known real poverty and was astounded to discover the shifts that really poor people are put to just to survive, for one cannot call it living. There were mudlarks who sorted through the filth on the edge of the river, for anything that could be sold for a farthing or two. There were crossing-sweepers who waited at the roadside with a broom of birch twigs, chimney-sweep's boys – these poor little souls were often racked with pain from the sickness caused by their occupation - lads who held horses in the street for ha'pennies, even the 'toshers' who sifted through the outfall from the sewers for odd coins. These were the sweepings from the slums, from whom most people would draw aside. But despite their ignorance, their dirt – and often foul smell – Alec recognized them as fellow mortals and cared for them.

When the weather grew warmer and our population of little waifs diminished (though a good many still came for the daily soup and bread) we discussed what to do. My business venture had left us with more money than we knew what to do with. Eventually we bought another warehouse building in Limehouse, again not far from the river, and furnished it with tables and chairs, with box beds and proper water closets. We installed Mrs Toller as Matron and opened our Boys' Home. We still had a floating population of street Arabs at the warehouse, but at the Boys' Home we insisted upon a degree of cleanliness.

We found that the Boys' Home a very good source of reliable staff for the warehouse. I have always believed that if you want a job done, unless it is something very specialized or requiring great physical strength, an intelligent and willing boy is by far the best person to do it. When we had a rush of work we might call upon three or four; we tried to choose different ones each time. We insisted upon a good standard of deportment in our boys, and they very seldom let us down. As time went on, we sent some of them into apprenticeships with respectable masters, others into service. One boy, Freddie Hanbury, went into service as a garden boy, rose to become a gardener in his own right and is now fulfilling that vocation at my own old place of employment: Buckingham Palace.

And two boys, Joe Priest and Douglas Harriman, joined me as warehousemen when they reached fourteen. Within six months they knew the job thoroughly and could be trusted to deal with all the routine work. Of course, we had our disappointments. There were a few boys who were incorrigibly dishonest and, sadly, a couple who were merely vicious and would attack others with little or no provocation. It saddened us deeply that we had to put them out, but we had given them every chance to reform. I sometimes wondered whether perhaps they had some kind of illness, not of the body but of the mind or of the spirit. But we could not allow them to endanger the lives of other, and often younger, boys, so they had to go.

As time went on, and we became wealthier, we found more and more people wanting to know us. Our lack of education and social position seemed to be becoming less important. Of course, there were still some who sneered. Well, we thought, let them sneer. In all probability they are jealous. If anyone asked me about my father, I generally said that he was a Canon of Canterbury Cathedral. Well, if he had not died when he did, I am sure he would have become one. But as far as I know, no-one ever thought to check that statement for its veracity. By imperceptible stages, I was becoming Alec's social equal. Not that he had ever cared in the least for the difference; he cared deeply for me personally (as I did for him) and nothing else seemed to us to be important. But it looked better from the point of view of the world.

But the time had come for us to leave our comfortable, economical lodgings. We needed a house in which we could entertain, and an address which would impress enquirers. We finally found a house in Golden Square. It was one of those tall, flat-faced town houses; double-fronted with four steps leading up to the front door and bridging the area below, which was approached by a narrow gate in the railings and a separate flight of steps.

On the ground floor were a morning room, drawing room and dining room; the kitchen and domestic offices were separated from the rest of the house in the usual way by a green baize door. On the first floor were four bedrooms; further servants' rooms were in the attics. We appropriated the largest and most comfortable bedroom for ourselves, furnished two more for possible visitors, and converted the smallest into that exciting novelty, a bath-room. A copious supply of hot water was provided by Mr Waddy Maughan's wonderful invention called a Geyser – named, we were told, after the hot springs in Iceland. It could be a little awkward to set in motion, but once properly lit it provided a copious stream of hot water which made bathing a positive pleasure.

Alec and I were closer than any married couple. We had not spent a night apart since we first moved into Mrs Coaten's lodgings. We now employed a most respectable widow, Mrs Dubber, as cook and housekeeper, and we always had one of the boys from the Home in training as a Hall-Boy. Apart from charwomen to do the cleaning, which was organized by Mrs Dubber, we needed no other service. When we entertained, we brought in three or four of the older boys from the Home to act as waiters. We also had two boys who had reached sufficient years to be our gardeners. Alec proved himself to be a more than proficient garden designer in addition to his other talents.

And Alec and I were evolving our separate roles I worked in the business, he in the Boys' Home. I visited there from time to time and never failed to be astonished at the gentleness and care that he lavished upon the boys. It is no exaggeration to say that they would have done anything for him. Alec saw them through, from their first appearance as dirty, frightened urchins to their final departure as confident young apprentices. He spent most of the days there, encouraging the boys, teaching them to read and write and cipher, teaching them too to be generous, good-humoured and self-reliant. Truly, he had discovered his vocation. Though he had the body of a man, within it was the heart and the spirit of a child, which ever appealed to the heart of the children we looked after.

But the evenings, and the week-ends, were ours. Alec had lost his boyish prettiness, but had instead a man's firmer grace; to me this was true beauty. I too had grown up. My work in the warehouse, for I did not disdain to take my part in the labour which our work there involved, had given me great strength in the arm and shoulder – indeed, I sometimes had to be careful not to hurt Alec when we wrestled together in bed – but Alec always said that when he looked at my muscular arms and chest he found them almost unbearably exciting.

We were "at home" on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and very often friends would drop in. David and Peter were just two – and we were beginning to realize that there were many couples just like ourselves, two men living together and sharing their lives. As long as we didn't make a spectacle of ourselves, no-one seemed to notice. As the redoubtable Mrs Patrick Campbell said, "Who cares what these affectionate people do, as long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses?" It was not until that posturing ninny Oscar Wilde made such an exhibition of himself in the 'nineties that life for men such as ourselves started to become difficult. Until then we just kept quiet, and the authorities left us alone.

But we felt safe enough. We were well, and favourably, known in the area. Our local Sergeant of Police occasionally brought one or another unfortunate urchin for us to look after, and he and his colleagues knew that our aim was to train our boys to an honest trade. And who cared whether we shared a bedroom, or a bed?

We kept a good table, and a good cellar, too. Mrs Dubber was an excellent cook and we had made friends with Oscar Hannington, a man of our kind who worked for Berry Bros., the wine merchants of Piccadilly. We always took his advice and ordered many a case of admirable wine from their warehouse.

We had our detractors, of course. There were those who thought that children should not be "cossetted", even those who were destitute. As Mr Dickens was to put in the mouth of his Ebenezer Scrooge, "let them die, and decrease the surplus population". Well, we gave the lie to such as these when our little urchins grew up to be fine young men who worked hard at their trades and prospered.

We kept in touch with the Court, mainly through Alec's father who had become an Equerry to His Royal Highness the Prince Consort; following the Prince's tragically early death he held the same post with Prince Arthur, the seventh of Queen Victoria's children and the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn. Prince Arthur was one of the least troublesome of the Princes and Princesses. He enrolled at the Royal Military College in Woolwich, following which he served with distinction as a soldier in many parts of the world including South Africa, Canada and eventually India.

But it was the Prince of Wales, Bertie as he was referred to in the Royal Family, who was the most troublesome of all the Queen's offspring. He was a very good-natured child, friendly and forthcoming, but not academically gifted. Alec and I often wonder what sort of a King he will make: probably a very good one, though his Royal Mamma seems set to go on for a good many years now.

But to return to my story; The Boys' Home flourished – and the fact that it did, and that we were always full to bursting point, shows that there is a real necessity for such places.

Earlier on I mentioned two lads, Joe Priest and Douglas Harriman. They were among the first of the strays who came to us and they proved to be thoroughly reliable and honest men, of immense help to me in keeping the business running smoothly. I took on a clerk as well, another boy from the Boys' Home, called Henry Caldicott. Henry had been well educated, until his father died and he got in with some wild companions. By the time he realised what had happened it was too late to do anything about it. Coming to us gave him the opportunity he needed to change his life. Alec spent a good bit of time with him, teaching him something of correct English as well as some basic accounting practice. Well, Joe and Douglas are both married now and Douglas has a baby son. Henry is still single, but there is a young lady who may well put an end to that.

Once I'd got the business really well established with reliable staff to run it from day to day, I began to wonder what else to do. The question of Alec's and my relative social positions was becoming of less and less importance; people who cared about that kind of thing would have felt that Alec was lowering himself by associating with poor children. But he cared not a whit for that. And I, who could see him as he cared for and befriended countless needy children, cared only for him and his happiness.

But other folk were taking notice of us both. The first intimation we had was when I had a visit from a seedy-looking man who introduced himself as Joey Bartles. He was a long time getting to the point, but I eventually grasped that he was looking for boys who could enter a house through a small window and then open a door so that Bartles, or his associates, could enter and help themselves to whatever they found. Well, I sent Bartles away with a few well chosen comments, but that was not the last I heard of him. A couple of weeks later I had a very unwelcome visit from two large and surly men who gave me to understand that "Mr Bartles" was not pleased with me.

Several years of fetching and carrying as a footman, followed by a spell working hard in a warehouse, had given me considerable strength in the arm and shoulder. When one of the plug-uglies went for me I had no difficulty in disposing of him, but I was grateful to Joe and Douglas who helped me with the second one.

Poor Alec! I arrived home early with a black eye, a split lip and various bruises and contusions. Fortunately, dealing with his young waifs had taught him a good deal about first aid and he attended most professionally to my injuries.

The next unexpected visit was from one Inspector Jones. He'd heard (I do not know how) about this and wanted details of all three villains. I gave him what information I could. He then enquired about the Boys' Home. I brought in Joe and Douglas, then Henry, to tell him their own experiences, and then asked Joe to take Inspector Jones to the Home and show him round. He returned the next morning, much subdued in manner. "I had thought you were running some kind of immoral house," he said, "and I hope you will forgive me. I shall mention this to my superiors and if you ever have need of our services, I hope you will call upon me without delay."

Now that the business was in reliable hands, I began to look about me, wanting something new to do. It was already clear that what we were doing was valuable; we must have saved a great many lives and we certainly gave the tradespeople of the Metropolis a steady flow of reliable apprentices. Eventually I hit upon the idea of doing something for chimney sweeps' boys.

From time to time we had had a sweep's boy come to the warehouse or to the Boys' Home. Without exception they had permanent black marks all over their bodies; where they were sent up a chimney to dislodge soot, they scraped their skin; the soot filled the grazes and then as they healed the soot remained beneath it. Sometimes the cuts would fester; Alec became adept at cleaning them in such a way as to cause the least pain. But worse, far worse were the canker sores around the genital area which was caused by constant exposure to soot and creosote. I have known a fourteen year old boy crying aloud with pain from this cause; he died in Alec's arms, so that he had at least one friend when he departed this life. That night I held Alec in my arms as he wept for grief at the boy's unnecessary agony and death.

Legislation was desperately needed. The sweeps, of course, were to a man opposed to change. Boys, the smaller the better, came much cheaper than men, and were much more able to crawl into the secret recesses of chimneys. But I took up the cause. Letters to newspapers, pamphlets, even letters to clergy that they might include reference to the topic in their sermons, all came from my pen. Of course, I was the recipient of a good deal of abuse as well as sympathy for my cause. Fools wrote back to the papers with all kinds of nonsense. Some clergy took the view that boys of the labouring class needed the work, and it harmed them far less than it would have harmed boys of better class. Try telling that to a fourteen year old who is dying of cancer, I thought.

So I began public speaking. I began with our local church hall, where I spoke to a mere handful of people. I hired some halls of the smaller kind, where I illustrated my talks with lantern slides. With these, I instructed the ladies to avert their eyes. They didn't of course, and they saw pictures of boys' flesh eaten away by disease. This proved so effective that I hired the Exeter Hall and a professional manipulator of the Diascope to show my pictures.

As you can imagine, this stirred up a good deal of interest, as well as a considerable amount of vituperation aimed at me from people with a vested interest in keeping things as they were. But among my audience was a young man named Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Lord Ashley. Like me he was a younger son; unlike me his father was not a parson but a nobleman, the Earl of Shaftesbury. Another man among my audiences was a priest and writer named Charles Kingsley. Both of these good men took careful note of the facts and figures that I presented.

It was a long, hard struggle, of course. The vast majority of people simply were not interested. Their sole contact with chimney sweeps were the occasional visits of them to their own houses; as a rule they went out and left the business of dealing with the sweep – and the resultant mess – to their servants. The servants likewise were greatly divided; it was mostly the younger and lower ranking servants who were both the most sympathetic and the least able to help. But I reassured myself that some, at least, of them would progress to higher rank in service and become able to wield greater influence.

But in the end it was the great British public who gradually began to see the appalling waste of health and even of life caused by this practice. One or two ingenious inventors devised machines by which chimneys might be swept without the need for human intervention. As an experiment, Alec and I had one such inventor come to our house to demonstrate his machine. It was fairly effective at removing soot from the chimney; it was also highly effective at distributing the soot over our Kidderminster carpet and every horizontal surface in the house. However, it was a start; the machines were improved to the point where they were actually quite effective and I am glad to see that sweeps are now using machinery of various kinds in preference to little boys. The man who cleans our chimneys now comes in with a big mahogany and steel box which he puts up to the fireplace, and he goes away with a big bag of soot, leaving not a trace of his presence.

It was Mr Kingsley's novel The Water Babies, published in 1863 that first presented the notion to the reading public that not only were countless numbers of little children being compelled into filthy chimneys but that a good many died either while there or as the result of disease. But it was one of my lectures that first brought the subject to my notice. I remember him coming up to me at the end and saying, "Mr Dearborn, I am forever in your debt. You have opened my eyes to a terrible evil."

And of course it was the young Lord Ashley who, as Lord Shaftesbury, finally brought about the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1885. But it was I who first brought the matter to his notice; I wrote to him as, indeed, I wrote to nearly every Member of Parliament at one time or another. But it was he who took up the Parliamentary cudgels on my behalf or, rather, on behalf of the sweeps' boys. There is talk of putting up a statue to him in London, possibly in Piccadilly Circus. Well, he deserves one.

Well, when all is said and done, I am a parson's son, so perhaps preaching is in my nature. I have been very lucky in my life; I was first brought up by gentle and kindly parents, then employed in useful and interesting work, then partnered by a man who not only embodies the virtues of kindness, generosity of spirit and compassion but is also the handsomest man I have ever met. Then my business venture, though it was hard work at first, prospered and brought me a large fortune; some of which I have been able to use to the benefit of some of my less fortunate fellow creatures.

Just one more scene, and then I have done.

It was at Buckingham Palace, where a footman, the image of myself many years earlier, conducted me, with Alec at my side, through to the Audience Room. I didn't tell him I already knew the way! The Queen stood there, an equerry at her side. She was much as I remembered her, stouter than she used to be and with greying hair, but the same person.

"Mr Dearborn, Ma'am," said the equerry. She looked at me, and said, "I am sure we have met before; is it not so?"

"Yes, Ma'am. Many years ago I was your Majesty's Page."

"Of course. I remember you now. Well, well. You have evidently prospered."

"Indeed, Ma'am." I knelt on the cushion at her feet. As I did so I remembered placing cushions for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chancellor to kneel upon, the day that she became Queen.

The Equerry handed a sword to the Queen, with which she touched me upon the shoulder.

"Sir Thomas." I rose, bowed, walked backwards. Alec took my arm and we made our way, escorted by another footman, to the Palace gates, where we chartered a Hansom cab to take us home.

So now I was Sir Thomas Dearborn. Well, the title would be useful in persuading people that my causes were to be taken seriously. But the title that meant very much more to me was the intimate one that Alec gave me, that night. But that is just between ourselves.

The End.

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