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I sent the photo to the chimney guy I recommend; here is his reply-

There were several purposes for grates in chimneys in attic areas. Pending time of repairs or alterations to the home it was for one of the following:

1 attic venting. Prior to ridge and soffit venting, abandoned chimney cavities were utilized.

2. Central heating. There were circumstances where inactive chimney spaces were used for heat delivery.

3. Related to both 1 and 2, balloon framed homes sometimes had a center vent to induce natural convection throughout the house.

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Attic ventilation would have been my guess, as well. If it were a clean-out, that would present an opportunity for sparks and embers to possibly be drawn into the attic under some weird situation.

The joints and color change in brickwork left of that grate suggest it might have been added later.

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