Ely chimney sweep, 12, whose death changed the law

Published:
06:00 25 February 2022



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

And that led to a change in the law that was nationally spotlighted with a new exhibit.

George Brewster was just 12 when he choked in a chimney at Fulbourn Hospital (then the County Asylum) in 1875.

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

George was one of three sons, but historians point out that the death of a younger sister led the parents to move to London.

And they left the boys – including George – at Ely’s workshop.

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

George was working with Wyler at Fulbourn Hospital and was sent down the tiny flue and became trapped.

The chimney was partially demolished to free him, but by then his lungs were too full of soot and he died.

Wyler was tried for manslaughter and sentenced to six months hard labor

Later that year, the Chimney Sweeps Act was passed, requiring chimney sweeps to be licensed by the police to operate.

This act finally ended the practice of sending boys down chimneys.

George Brewster was the last “climber” to die in England.

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

And it was part of the campaign to ensure that all children could go to school.

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

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

The story was brought to the fore by the Cambridgeshire Collection team, who are featured in the video. The collection includes 90 local newspaper titles dating back to 1962.

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

Pop-up showcases of the exhibition will be on display at the library from February 24 to April 8, before traveling to the libraries in St Neots and Ely.

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