Chimney sweep from Ely workhouse whose death changed the law

In 19th Britain the life of a chimney sweep was grim.

In 19th Britain the life of a chimney sweep was grim. And as a new exhibition recalls one 12 year old sweep tragically lost his life. - Credit: Archive

The death of a young chimney sweep whose death caused outcry in the British press. 

And it led to a change in the law that has come under the national spotlight with a new exhibition. 

George Brewster was just 12 years old when he suffocated in a chimney at Fulbourn Hospital (then the county asylum) in 1875.  

His parents were from Ely where his father worked as a wood chopper. 

George was one of three sons but historians point to the death of a baby sister led to the parents moving to London.  

And they left the boys – including George – in Ely workhouse.  

In 1871 was adopted by his elder brother and sent to work for William Wyer, a Cambridge chimney sweep.  

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George was working with Wyler at Fulbourn hospital and was sent up the tiny flue and became trapped.  

The chimney was partially demolished to release him but by that time his lungs were too full of soot and he died. 

Wyler was tried for manslaughter and given six months hard labour 

Later that year the Chimney Sweepers Act was passed, requiring chimney sweeps to be authorised by the police to carry on their business.  

This act finally stopped the practice of sending boys up chimneys. 

George Brewster was the last 'climbing boy' to die in England. 

Many regard George’s death as a turning point in ending the exploitation of child labour in many other industries.  

And it formed part of the campaign to ensure all children could attend school. 

George’s story was one of only three told at the launch event for a British Library exhibition ‘Breaking the News’. 

It explores what makes an event news, press freedom and issues of trust through a selection of news stories spanning 500 years of news production in Britain. 

The story was put forward by the team at the Cambridgeshire Collection, who feature in the video. The collection includes 90 local newspaper titles dating back from 1962. 

The exhibition launch was live streamed at a special event at Cambridge Central Library on February 24. 

Pop up displays from the exhibition will be on show at the library from February 24 to April 8, before travelling to St Neots and Ely libraries.