Forgotten story of Victorian ‘chimney boy’ George Brewster, whose tragic death saved thousands, to be marked with Fulbourn blue plaque
His tragic death at the age of about 11 may have saved thousands of lives, and now the largely forgotten story of Victorian chimney sweep George Brewster is to be recognised with the first-ever blue plaque honouring a child, writes editor Paul Brackley.
Cambridge ‘chimney boy’ George was forced by his master to climb and clean a chimney at a former Victorian asylum in Fulbourn in 1875.
He struggled to escape its narrow confines and 15 minutes after he entered it, an entire wall had to be pulled down in a desperate rescue attempt.
He was eventually pulled from the chimney, but died soon after – another victim of Victorian child labour, the shameful backbone of the Industrial Revolution through which the rich enslaved an endless supply of expendable young workers.
George’s employer was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six months in prison with hard labour.
The boy’s death, however, proved a vital catalyst for change. When reports in London newspapers of his inquest were read by the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, he vowed to act and led the successful campaign to push a Bill through Parliament. It was in September 1875 that the law was passed ending the use of children as ‘climbing boys’ in England.
George was the last such climbing boy to die in the country, and his death helped provoke the change that led to the end of all child labour practices in industries such as farming, mining and in factories.
In 1876, compulsory education for children was recommended and four years later a further Education Act made school attendance compulsory.
Amateur historian Joanna Hudson, a mother of two from Pampisford, stumbled across George’s story three years ago and was moved to launch a campaign to honour his legacy. Her first move is to raise funds for a blue plaque and negotiations are under way to place it in the grounds of the old Fulbourn asylum where he died.
Joanna is also raising funds for a marker on his unmarked grave in Mill Road Cemetery and a commemorative statue depicting the ‘Last Climbing Boy’ in Cambridge, representing the plight of abused children in Victorian England.
She said: “Over the past two years I have been on a whirlwind journey, finding out the true story of George Brewster, a seemingly insignificant 11-year-old boy, who died not knowing that he changed the lives of thousands of children across the land – a story of huge historical significance, for not only Cambridgeshire, but the whole country. When you realise the momentous turning point George Brewster’s death brought to changing child labour laws in England, you realise how important his story is and how vital it is that we share it with everyone.
“George Brewster deserves our recognition. I have launched this campaign to remind people today of the sacrifice and extreme working conditions Victorian children endured.
“A blue plaque and commemorative statue would be a powerful reminder of how far we have come since those dark days and that we shouldn’t take our child labour rights for granted. It took the tragic death of one of our own Cambridgeshire children to change the law that all now enjoy.”
Joanna applied to the Cambridge & District Blue Plaque Scheme, run by the charity Cambridge Past Present & Future, which commemorates significant people and events.
James Littlewood, the charity’s CEO, said: “Cambridge Past, Present and Future was intrigued when we received the application for a blue plaque for George Brewster.
“This is the first blue plaque application we have received for a child. Usually we receive applications for people who have done amazing things in their lives.
“George’s story is different and special. He didn’t get the opportunity to do amazing things in his life, but his death was the catalyst for a change in English law that improved the working conditions for all children in England. We believe that George’s story deserves a blue plaque, so we granted Joanna’s application.”
While researching George’s story, Joanna met Mary and Caro from the Friends of Mill Road Cemetery (FOMRC), who helped her find George’s final resting place. They laid flowers on his unmarked grave in November 2019. Other members of George’s family, including his father and brothers, are also buried there.
Caro, from FOMRC, and Mary, who also represents Cambridgeshire Family History Society, said in a joint statement: “The story of George Brewster is a significant one and we were delighted to help Joanna in her search for the site in the cemetery.
“We were very pleased that, recognising the importance of the story, the parishes committee and the city council – the two statutory authorities for the cemetery – allowed some clearance of the site.”
The Museum of Cambridge also supports the project.
Lucy Walker, chair of the trustees, said: “The Museum of Cambridge is pleased to be involved in Joanna’s project to raise awareness of George Brewster’s remarkable story and to show children of today what difficult lives Victorian children had.
“We hope to be able to remember George’s life and times and how his death has left a legacy for all children in today’s society that should never be forgotten. This is also a great story for our Capturing Cambridge website, which is an increasingly important digital resource for local history.”
Joanna has also earned the support of Nicholas Shaftesbury, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury and a direct descendant of the 7th Earl who campaigned for change.
He said: “During his life, the 7th Earl campaigned tirelessly to help the downtrodden and neglected in society. Perhaps no other cause captured his attention more than the plight of the chimney sweeps’ boys. It was a cause that took him 35 years of campaigning to finally bring to an end. It is a tragedy that George and so many others were not saved by the change in the law, but this plaque will ensure he is never forgotten and will act as a poignant reminder that we have much to be thankful for.”
The Earl plans to travel up from his home in Dorset to unveil the blue plaque in a ceremony that it is hoped can take place later this year.
Meanwhile, George’s story was one of only three told at the launch of the British Library exhibition called Breaking the News, which explores what makes an event news, along with issues of press freedom and trust through a selection of stories spanning 500 years of news production in Britain.
The story was put forward by the team at the Cambridgeshire Collection, who featured in a video live-streamed from the launch of the exhibition in Leeds last Thursday. Pop-up displays from the exhibition are on show at Cambridge Central Library until April 8, and will then travel to St Neots and Ely libraries.
You can donate to Joanna’s Just Giving fundraising campaign, seeking £1,000, at https://bit.ly/3BUyDix.