Jimmy Drew: Chimney Sweep

I shall never forget a lesson I learned many years ago as a boy in the little country of Wales. My family lived in a small mining village where coal not only provided us with a livelihood but was also used for cooking and was burned in the fireplaces to keep us warm when the weather was cold. So much coal was used that the chimneys would become clogged with soot, and it would be necessary to have it removed by a chimney sweep.

There was in our village a quaint little man who did this menial task. His appearance was almost repulsive. His hands were bent and gnarled, and his shoulders were bowed as if he carried a load. But the strangest thing about him was that he never talked. The only sound that left his lips, and this could only be understood by those who knew him, was the cry of “Chimney sweep, chimney sweep!” This man was Jimmy Drew.

Jimmy never bothered anyone. He would walk through the village streets with his bundle of brushes over his shoulder, calling out his strange cry. If someone accepted his services, he would sweep the chimney and load the soot into a sack that he carried away. His fee was two shillings, and the transaction was a silent one, for Jimmy was almost mute.

Ofttimes we boys in the village would make fun of Jimmy. We would walk behind him hunching up our shoulders and holding our hands like claws, just like Jimmy’s, and try to imitate his strange cry. But he didn’t seem to mind; he went about his business as if we were not there.

One day Jimmy was on our street, and as usual we proceeded to make fun of him. But it so happened that on this occasion my father came up behind us and observed what we were doing. Normally my father was a gentle man, but now he grasped my arm and unceremoniously marched me home. He took me to the big bay window from which we could see the valley below. He pointed with his finger and said to me in quite a stern voice, “Son, do you see the old Prince of Wales Colliery?”

Yes, I could see the old colliery; for as long as I could remember it had been there. The structure above the deep shaft was still there, but rust and decay were taking their toll.

The cages that lowered the coal miner down into the shaft were gone. The shaft itself was covered over with heavy boards and surrounded with a well-rusted cable. There was something about this old mine that made you feel uneasy when you were around it, and once some of us boys pried a board off the top of the shaft and dropped stones down into the inky blackness. It seemed like we waited for an age until the stones splashed into the water below.

“Yes, Father,” I replied, “I can see the old Prince of Wales.”

“Well, listen carefully,” he continued, “for I want you to always remember what I am going to tell you.”

Then, in words of soberness, he told me this story. When he was quite a young man, the Prince of Wales Colliery was the pride of the valley. Almost every family in the village had someone who worked there. But one spring day an explosion occurred deep underground, and a fire broke out in the passages where the coal was mined. Rescue teams tried to reach the trapped men, but each time the tire drove them back. So, in a desperate attempt to save the mine, the owners ordered the canal that ran close-by to be turned into the mine.

One hundred and eighty-four men and boys were trapped in the bowels of the earth. Those who were not burned by the explosion were drowned by the water that came pouring in. Hundreds of the villagers gathered around the mine, waiting to see if any were rescued. But as the hours passed, hope turned to despair. The rescue team that went down returned with saddened faces.

“No one”, they said, “could possibly have lived through those awful conditions.”

Still the villagers waited, for down below in the earth were their loved ones, and they did not wish to return home without them.

It was when the sun had touched the hilltop and the first shadows had settled on the village that it happened. Someone cried out, and a pair of hands could be seen climbing the cables that raised and lowered the cage. Eager hands assisted the man from those awful cables. The flesh was hanging in shreds from his hands, his clothing almost burned from his body. Tenderly they laid him down, and the doctor ministered to him as best he could. The man was near to death, but the courage that caused him to climb from the darkness of the mine to the day above would help him to live again. The man was Jimmy Drew.

The question on everyone’s lips was, “How could a man live through explosion, fire, and water and then climb those hundreds of feet on a steel cable and still live?”

That question was never answered, for God in his mercy had closed the mind of Jimmy Drew so that he would never tell of his terrible ordeal. I remember still how my father put his arm around me and pulled me close to him, and together we shed tears.

I have never been ashamed of those tears, for even though I was only a boy, the moral of this true story was quite clear. From that day on, whenever I was tempted to ridicule any of my fellowmen who had suffered misfortune or injury at birth, I would stand once again by the big window in the little Welsh village, look down the valley to the Prince of Wales Colliery, and think of the little chimney sweep, Jimmy Drew.

[illustration] Illustrated by James Christensen