satirical scene poor patients receive the cowpox vaccine and develop bovine features
James Gillray 'The Cow-Pock or the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation 1802 (c) Trustees of the British Museum

‘A long career of brutality to the poor’: Popular resistance to the Vaccination Acts in the nineteenth century South West

By Holly John

New Series 2020/2021

At Stroud in 1897, protesting crowds congregated outside the market hall for three days in an attempt to prevent a public auction of household effects, seized by the authorities in a ‘distraint sale’.  These were the belongings of a local family who had refused to let their children be vaccinated against Smallpox as the law required. Distraint sales like this had increasingly become an arena for protest and carnivalesque displays of public outrage and the Stroud riot was no exception. The crowd set fire to heather bushes, acted out pantomimic scenes in fancy dress, and pelted eggs at police constables and auctioneers. They overwhelmed the local police force, as well as the police who had been sent in from neighbouring towns and cities. But why would anybody riot against a vaccination programme set up to combat Smallpox? In this article, Holly John investigates a nineteenth century medical controversy and discovers that  despite being the home of Dr Edward Jenner, the ‘Father of immunisation’, the south-west of England was also once home to a fervent anti-vaccination movement.

The nineteenth century saw unprecedented state regulation of public health. Social anxieties of the period were imbued with ideologies of class, morality and growing concerns about ‘urban decay’. Similar protests met both the Education Acts and the Contagious Diseases Acts, as concerns grew about excessive state control and public surveillance in matters previously regarded as private and personal. These new state interventions were regulated through the criminal justice system; the same mechanisms that were used to punish crime were now being used to regulate arguably non-criminal behaviours. Many felt that compulsory health legislation was tyrannical, and that it was especially unjust to use the full weight of the criminal law over matters of personal choice.

In 1840, the British government offered free smallpox vaccinations to all citizens, and banned the older practice of immunisation through inoculation. By 1853, vaccination was made compulsory for all children born in England and Wales. Every child, whose health permitted, was to be vaccinated within three months of birth either by the public vaccinator of the district, or a medical professional. Parents were fined 20s for failing to have their children vaccinated and faced up to three months imprisonment or a distraint of goods if they failed to pay.[1]Throughout the remainder of the century, there was growing opposition to compulsory vaccination. The Vaccination Acts, it was believed, were a breach of civil liberties: dissenters were fighting for the right to manage their own, and their children’s bodies. Public agitation quickly evolved into an organised movement. Legal sanctions were imposed on those in breach of the Act but many working-class communities believed themselves to be singled out for punishment. Consequently, Trades Unions and Working Men’s Associations were often involved in the anti-vaccination movement, as it was seen to be part of the wider struggle against their exploitation by the upper-classes. Opposition to compulsory vaccination also came from members of the middle- and upper-classes, forming a cross-class alliance.  A pamphlet published by the National Anti-Vaccination League in 1883 quoted Sir Wilfred Lawson, Bart., M.P, who emphasised the social inequity of the acts. He was:

‘opposed to the present system of what is called compulsory vaccination. The existing system is not compulsory, since the rich man, by giving or paying fines, can avoid it; and so can the poor man, although he is sent to prison.’[2]

The unpopularity of vaccination was compounded by the fact that it had become associated with the New Poor Law. The free vaccination which was offered by the government throughout the 1840s was administered by poor law medical officers. The New Poor Law of 1834 intended to force all recipients of government relief to enter the workhouse, so any association with this harsh regime served as a powerful deterrent.  There was a common misconception that accepting free vaccination counted as receiving poor relief, which would result in one being classed as a pauper, and consequently ineligible to vote. The perceived links between vaccination and pauperisation were highlighted In the Salisbury and Winchester Journal in 1840:

 ‘A paragraph has been generally circulated in the newspapers, stating that all persons who are vaccinated under the provisions of the recent Act of Parliament, would be considered as having received parochial relief, and would consequently be disenfranchised as voters. The exposition of the Act has been publicly contravened by the Poor Law Commissioners who contend that the benefit of vaccination is not conferred by the Act as a relief of the poor, but is extended to all residents, whether rich or poor; and that to accept the benefit is not to accept relief in any sense, and, therefore, no such consequence as disenfranchisement is to be apprehended’.[3]

When vaccination was made compulsory in 1853, Poor Law Guardians were appointed to oversee the vaccinations, locate the non-compliers and organise public vaccinations. Using the poor law officers to administer the system only strengthened the links between vaccination and poor relief, and consequently the stigma surrounding it.

As well as the negative associations with poor relief, one of the main reasons for objection was a suspicion that the procedure was unsafe. A surgical knife was used to cut scores into the arms of infants, usually in at least four places, whereupon matter taken directly from the blisters of another infant, who had been vaccinated eight days earlier, was smeared into the open wounds.[4]  These fears weren’t wholly unfounded. In the early days, the procedure was very unsanitary and public vaccinations did not have to be carried out by a medical professional. It was not uncommon for an infant to become severely ill from the procedure. The open wounds could easily contract infection, especially in urban slums, which could prove fatal for an infant.[5]  The Public Health Act of 1858 was intended to ensure that training was introduced for public vaccinators, and that the service was regulated and supervised by medical professionals. It was passed on the recommendation of Sir John Simon, medical officer for the Privy Council. In his inquiry, he found ‘throughout the system of public vaccination flagrant evidences of unskillfulness’.[6] Another inquiry into the system in the early 1860s led to the passing of another Vaccination Act in 1867, which legally required all local authorities to appoint vaccination officers, and gave the state unprecedented powers of compulsion.[7] The new legislation made vaccination compulsory for all children under the age of fourteen, and allowed the authorities to penalise non-vaccinators more effectively, through cumulative fines and punishments.[8]

In May 1883, the Western Daily Press reported that Mr. Neale of Cotham Park in Bristol was fined £7 13s for failing to have six of his children vaccinated. His first child was apparently made seriously ill by the vaccination. The report revealed that he had previously been fined about £90 plus costs for the same children.[9] Local papers frequently reported trials of those who had been summoned under the vaccination acts, and cases such as this were common.

A monster being fed baskets of infants and excreting them with horns; symbolising vaccination and its effects. Etching by C. Williams, 1802(?). Wellcome CollectionAttribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Parents feared that other afflictions such as cancer, mental illness or syphilis could be spread through the procedure.[10] The House of Commons appointed a select committee in 1871 to inquire into the effectiveness of compulsory vaccination; the evidence was given by surgeon John Hutchinson, whose report included two accounts of syphilis having been transmitted via arm-to-arm vaccinations.[11]  Many also contended that there was no way of knowing if they were transferring a myriad of other animal diseases into infants along with the cow pox. Other concerns were religiously charged, and founded in the fact that the vaccination came from cowpox and the belief that it was ‘unchristian’ to contaminate one’s child with a ‘disease of the beast’.[12] The vulnerability of infants was consistently stated, and many stories circulated of infants becoming seriously ill or worse. It’s little wonder that parents were reluctant to subject their children to such an unpleasant and potentially fatal procedure, especially in the years when smallpox was less prevalent.

Large scale popular resistance to compulsory vaccination came after the legislation of 1867, with the emergence of over 200 organisations by the 1890s.[13] The most influential was the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League. The movement was characterised by social and political diversity, and the league engaged with a wide range of movements that campaigned for citizens’ rights in terms of both class and gender. The AVL successfully popularised itself by linking their cause to feminist campaigns such as the fight against the Contagious Diseases Act, and drawing on the rhetoric and strategies of those campaigning for manhood suffrage.[14] Language of rights and citizenship were frequently evoked; middle-class campaigners based their arguments on civil liberties and the sanctity of the home, while their working-class counterparts emphasized their right to control of their own and their children’s bodies.[15] Pro-vaccinators too took on the language of citizenship, considering themselves to be the ‘embattled vanguard’ of preventative medicine and public health.[16]

Medical opinion continued to be divided on both sides of the debate; a debate which was inseparable from politics right up until the act of 1907, which gave full legal recognition to conscientious objection. This division was largely due to the fact that although vaccines had been proven to work, there was no understanding of the science behind vaccination at least until the 1900s, when scientists such as Emil von Behring and Paul Ehrlich began to develop the theory of antibodies.[17] Throughout the century, statistics of smallpox deaths among those who had been vaccinated and those who had not varied greatly depending on the source. Some anti-vaccinators still argued that it simply did not work over a century after Edward Jenner’s first publication.[18] In a meeting at Gloucestershire as late as 1903, Dr. A Sibley proclaimed that:

‘the time would come when people would recognise not only that vaccination had done a great deal of harm, but also that it was a superstitious right without the slightest value in it, but a great deal of danger.’[19]

In 1889, a Royal Commission was appointed to carry out another inquiry as a result of political pressure from anti-vaccinators. There was support for an inquiry from both sides. Those against vaccination felt the inquiry of 1871 had been ‘against a weight of evidence, [and that it] was not sufficiently alive to the repeated failures of vaccination to protect communities’, calling into question the statistics and methods used by the special committee in the House of Commons.[20] On the other hand, those in support of vaccination advocated for an inquiry from a different standpoint, ‘in full confidence that it will come out of the inquiry unscathed, and, indeed, largely strengthened.’[21]The inquiry took seven years, during which many boards of guardians halted prosecution.[22]

In the final report, a statement of dissent from two of the select committee was included. Dr. Collins and Mr. Picton had gladly added their signatures in support of the recommendation to abolish repeated prosecutions, but they refused to sign their names under the committee’s recommendation that the practice of compulsory vaccination be continued, albeit with the inclusion of a new clause which would recognise the right to conscientious objection. They felt that not enough consideration had been put in by the committee into less objectionable forms of protection against smallpox, such as isolation, measures of disinfection, cleanliness, and sanitary organisation. [23]

In Gloucestershire, the 1890s saw intense campaigns and protests which many anti-vaccinators felt had been validated by the Royal Commission into vaccination. The anti-vaccination movement had been active in the South West of England since the mid-nineteenth century, and Gloucestershire in particular had become an anti-vaccination stronghold. During the smallpox epidemic of 1895-6 in Gloucester, an intensive programme of vaccination and re-vaccination was carried out throughout the city. House-to-house vacations were carried out and employers demanded that employees were vaccinated. According to a report of the Vaccination Committee of the Gloucester Board of Guardians:

 ‘though some of their employees resented the pressure that was put upon them to discard their prejudices for the public good, the great majority readily accepted the offer of free vaccination which was made to them.’[24]

Local anti-vaccinator Dr. W Hadwen later called the policy one of ‘vaccination or starvation’, which forced employees to vaccinate or lose their jobs.[25] This was the last large-scale smallpox epidemic in Gloucester, and over the two years upwards of 36,000 people were vaccinated or revaccinated. By July 1896, no new cases were reported. Nevertheless, just two months earlier in May, a newspaper article in the Cheltenham Chronicle covered the ‘crusade’ of the Gloucester anti-vaccination movement. In their meeting, the chairman suggested that rather than calling them ‘anti-vaccinators’, ‘anti-mutilators’ was a better name.[26] He felt that:

‘If they [the medical men] had tried to save their patients with the same energy they had displayed in trying to break the back of the Anti-Vaccination League, the death roll would not have been so great.[27]

Meetings of the Anti-Vaccination League often took on the language of the people versus the state. They believed that rather than forcing vaccination on the people, a state should pursue a policy of sanitisation and the general improvement of public health. They argued that clean air and drinking water were their rights, and that by increasing public health in this way, the population was in a better position to resist disease.

By the 1880s, the movement had a well-organised and generously funded defence committee who offered legal and financial aid to parents facing prosecution under the Vaccination Acts. The Western Daily Press reported in November 1894 that the defence committee had ‘been able to render much assistance to members’ of the Anti-Vaccination League against whom legal proceedings had been taken. The local League had taken on the duty of appearing on their behalf at police courts, and in the last year their income (which was largely used to pay the fines and court costs of its members) had trebled.[28]

As well as public meetings, opposition took the form of debates, canvassing, local committees, organised petitions and propaganda. They actively challenged political candidates who were not committed to abolishing compulsory vaccination. In September 1900, a letter addressed to the candidates for the local election of MPs was published in the Western Daily Press. The letter asked the candidates whether they would pledge themselves to vote for the abolition of compulsory vaccination, and whether they would vote for the immediate alteration of the law to allow for parents to make a declaration of conscientious objection, which would be accepted as a bar to legal proceedings being taken against them. Their responses were varied. Three of the six candidates were opposed to any alteration of the laws, two were passionately in support of the abolition of the act, and one declared that he agreed that a parent should be permitted to obtain exemption from the act, but that vaccination should otherwise remain compulsory.[29]

Opposition was not confined to ‘respectable’ channels of protest; drawing on older popular customs and traditions, the grievances of dissenters were occasionally voiced in an altogether more theatrical manner. In Tetbury in 1897, a crowd gathered at the Market House hours before the advertised time of the distraint sale. The auctioneer arrived surrounded by police. A local pawnbroker bought the lots, which were then rebought on behalf of Mr. Tugwell (from whom the goods had been seized).As the auctioneer left the Market House, the crowd pelted him with eggs amongst other things, causing him to take refuge in the police station. The crowd then formed a procession through the town which followed a donkey and cart, upon which a man sat wearing a banner in the shape of a tombstone which read:

 ‘In memory of that honorary old imposter, Compulsory Vaccination, which died in England … after a long career of brutality to the poor and defenceless only’.[30]

The furniture bought back from the sale was also carried around with the procession which continued throughout the day.

In Stroud in April 1897, great crowds gathered around the market hall in the hours before a distraint sale. Local boys carried sandwich boards to feed the crowds; some men held a mock auction, and others dressed in women’s clothing carried in their arms small bundles that were intended to represent vulnerable infants. The heather bushes near the market square were set ablaze before the auctioneer had even arrived. When he appeared, he was surrounded by sixteen police constables. The crowds ‘surged to and fro like the waves of a tempestuous sea’. Reports claimed that:

 ‘the police worked like Trojans … [but] once the crowd felt its strength and got into full working order, the constables were tossed about like cockle-shells’.[31]

The police retreated, escorting the auctioneer to safety. The crowds remained in the market square to see if the auction would go on later that day. The streetlamps were lit, and the auctioneer returned hours later with the sixteen constables from Stroud and twenty more from Gloucester. The Market Hall filled with people who heckled the auctioneer and threw eggs at him until he was escorted out again. The following evening a third attempt was made to hold the sale. The short notice of the auction did nothing to prevent the protest; criers were sent around the town, calling on working men to attend the sale, but not bid. Police constables from Gloucester, Tetbury, Cheltenham and Dursley were in attendance, many of them in plain clothes. Again, the crowds spilled out of the hall and into the street. Once more, their heckling and egg-throwing prevented the sale from taking place. Despite ‘pantomimic gestures’ and the striking of his hammer, the auctioneer could not be heard over the crowd. According to reports, ‘Rule Britannia’ was sung several times. Being once again escorted out of the hall, the crowd was left with the remaining police force, and the goods that were up for auction. The barriers that had been erected prevented the crowds from taking the lot home to their rightful owner then and there. Not wanting to leave the goods unattended for fear that they might be removed in their absence, they told the chief constable that they would not leave unless he gave them his word that the goods would not be moved until their return the next day, apparently singing ‘we won’t go home ‘till morning’ until he agreed.[32]

Prisoners who were released after serving a prison sentence under the Vaccination acts were often received as martyrs by crowds who paraded them, still in their prison garb throughout the town. Anti-vaccination protests even featured in unrelated celebrations, as in the case of bonfire night in Somerset in 1880, when an effigy of a local magistrate who was particularly strict in terms of enforcing the vaccination laws replaced Guy Fawkes as the figure being burned on the bonfire.[33]

Our understanding of the anti-vaccination movement should not be reduced to an ‘anti-science’ movement, and the lack of public acceptance of vaccination should not only be explained, as it often is, in terms of a knowledge and information deficit. Contemporary anti-vaccination campaigners were aware of this trope, and aimed to combat it by organising and presenting the movement in a respectable way, publishing anti-vaccination literature, and amplifying the voices of public figures and academics who supported the cause. Despite the concerted efforts of anti-vaccinators to portray themselves as ‘respectable citizens’, customary forms of protest still occurred as flashpoints of public agitation in anti-vaccination strongholds. These displays of community outrage, to borrow from Edward Thompson, reflect a sort of ‘moral economy’, where local communities did not accept the state policy of vaccination as legitimate, being at odds with their own understanding of their rights.[35] Even as moral regulation was increasingly secularised, many refused to endorse the idea that the state had a part to play in matters which concerned the family or one’s body. Public health in the Victorian era was an intensely political subject. Debates incorporated ideas about bodily integrity, civil liberties, citizenship and social class. Pressure was put on the working class to ‘clean up their act’, as social commentators of the period linked public health problems to rhetoric of the immorality of the poor and ‘urban decay’. Approaches to public health and solving poverty in the period emphasized the immorality and uncleanliness of the poor, rather than implementing expensive structural changes to address these issues.

[1] Vaccination Extension Bill, 1853.

[2] Francis T. Bond. “The story of the Gloucester Epidemic of Smallpox: … with which is incorporated an abstract of the report of the Vaccination Committee of the Gloucester Board of Guardians”. Gloucester: The Jenner Society, 1896.

[3] The Salisbury and Wincester Journal, 25 November 1840. 

[4] Nadja Durbach. “’They Might as Well Brand Us’: Working-Class Resistance to Compulsory Vaccination In Victorian England.” The Society for the Social History of Medicine, Vol. 3, No. 1 (April 2000).

[5] Dorothy Porter and Roy Porter. “The Politics of Prevention: Anti-Vaccinationism and Public Health in Nineteenth-Century England”. Medical History. Vol 32, Issue 3 (2012).

[6] John Simon. “Public health. Ninth report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council. With appendix” [UK Parliament] Medical Officer’s Report. London,1867.

[7] Dorothy Porter and Roy Porter. “The Politics of Prevention: Anti-Vaccinationism and Public Health in Nineteenth-Century England”. Medical History. Vol 32, Issue 3 (2012): p.233.

[8] Nadja Durbach. “Class, Gender and the Conscientious Objector to Vaccination, 1898-1907” Cambridge University Press. Vol. 41, Issue 1 (May 2013).

[9] The Western Daily Press, 25 May 1883.

[10] Nadja Durbach. “’They Might as Well Brand Us’: Working-Class Resistance to Compulsory Vaccination In Victorian England.” The Society for the Social History of Medicine, Vol. 3, No. 1 (April 2000).

[11] Dorothy Porter and Roy Porter. “The Politics of Prevention: Anti-Vaccinationism and Public Health in Nineteenth-Century England”. Medical History. Vol 32, Issue 3 (2012): p.233.

[12] W Halket. “Compulsory Vaccination!! A Crime Against Nature!! An Outrage Upon Society!! A Libel Upon the Wisdom and Goodness of the Creator!! A Medical Delusion!! A Legislative Blunder!! And A Dark Blot Upon Our Civilization!!” London: G Meyers.

[13] Thomas P. Weber. “Alfred Russel Wallace and the Antivaccination Movement in Victorian England.” Emerging Infectious Diseases. Vol 16, No.4 (2010): pp.664-8.

[14] Nadja Durbach. “Class, Gender and the Conscientious Objector to Vaccination, 1898-1907” Cambridge University Press. Vol. 41, Issue 1 (May 2013). p.61.

[15] Nadja Durbach. “Class, Gender and the Conscientious Objector to Vaccination, 1898-1907” Cambridge University Press. Vol. 41, Issue 1 (May 2013).p.59.

[16] Dorothy Porter and Roy Porter. “The Politics of Prevention: Anti-Vaccinationism and Public Health in Nineteenth-Century England”. Medical History. Vol 32, Issue 3 (2012): p .236.

[17] L F Haas. “Paul Ehrlich (1854–1915) and Emil Adolf Von Behring (1854–1917)”. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. Vol. 7 (2001).

[18] Edward Jenner. “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccine: A disease discovered in some of the western counties of England, particularly Gloucestershire, and known by the name of Cow Pox“. London: Printed for the author. 1798.

[19] Vaccinaton Inquirer, 2 November 1903.

[20] HC Debate 05 April 1889, vol 334, col 1721-60.

[21] Ibid.

[22]Nadja Durbach. “Class, Gender and thee Conscientious Objector to Vaccination, 1898-1907” Cambridge University Press. Vol. 41, Issue 1 (May 2013). p.68.

[23]Final Report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the subject of Vaccination“. London: Printed for HM Stationary Office, by Eyre and Spottiswoode. 1896.

[24] Francis T. Bond. ‘The story of the Gloucester Epidemic of Smallpox: … with which is incorporated an abstract of the report of the Vaccination Committee of the Gloucester Board of Guardians’. Gloucester: The Jenner Society, 1896.

[25] W Hadwen, “The Gloucester Epidemic of Smallpox, 1895—6 The Case for the Anh-Vacanationists”. Weston-Super-Mare: 1896, pp 22-3.

[26] The Cheltenham Chronicle, 16 May 1896.

[27] The Cheltenham Chronicle, 16 May 1896.

[28] The Western Daily Press, 2 December 1896.

[29] The Western Daily Press, 28 September 1900.

[30] The Western Daily Press, 28 September 1900.

[31] The Stroud Journal, November 24 1893.

[32] The Stroud Journal, November 24 1893.

[33] Nadja Durbach. “’They Might as Well Brand Us’: Working-Class Resistance to Compulsory Vaccination In Victorian England.” The Society for the Social History of Medicine, Vol. 3, 1 (April 2000).

[35] E. P. Thompson, Customs in common (London: Penguin, 1991) pp. 185-352.

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