Compulsory Vaccination: History Repeating? (Part 1: England)

Regardless of your own personal beliefs regarding vaccination, the idea that a government can mandate a medical procedure without your consent, should be cause for concern to everyone (in addition, it contravenes basic human rights principles, in regards to informed consent, which must be freely given, “without coercion, undue influence or misrepresentation”) [1].

As we see governments around the world moving ever closer to forced vaccination, it behoves us to take a leaf from history, and remember what happens when the State assumes ownership of a person’s physical body.

The truth is that compulsory vaccination is not a new concept. It’s been tried before! In Part 1, we will take a closer look at how it worked out for England, with compulsory smallpox vaccination.

It began innocently enough, with the British Vaccination Act (1840).

Under this law, free vaccination was provided to the poor, to be administered by the Poor Law Guardians (while the original practice of ‘inoculation’ was outlawed). Many ‘poor and uneducated’, though, shunned the offer of free vaccination [2].

Thirteen years later, compulsory vaccination was introduced – despite evidence that smallpox mortality had been declining for many decades [3].

Compulsory Vaccination Act (1853)

This law required all babies up to the 3mths old (or, 4mths in the case of orphans) to be vaccinated. Parents who refused to comply faced fines of £1 (the equivalent of approximately one week’s wages for a skilled tradesman, and todays equivalent of approximately £80), or imprisonment.

Vaccination during those years was not the procedure that we know today. It was painful and inconvenient – for both parents and children, alike. The vaccinator used a sharp surgical knife (known as a lancet), to make incisions into the flesh, in a scored pattern. This was usually done in several different places on the arm. Vaccine lymph was then smeared into the cuts. Infants were to be brought back to vaccination stations, eight days later, in order to have the pus harvested from their blisters, to be used on other waiting infants [2].

In an era where doctors were incensed at the idea that postnatal infections were caused by their failure to wash their hands after handling dead bodies, and drinking and bathing water was often contaminated with raw sewage, it is hardly surprising that deaths caused by infections of the skin, such as erysipelas, increased as vaccinations were increasingly enforced [4].

The routine treatment of smallpox involved mercury or phenol (otherwise known as carbolic acid, which is highly corrosive, and causes blistering of the skin, on its own) applied topically to sores. Mercury gargles in the throat were also employed. If the patient became delirious (which would hardly be surprising, given the frequent use of mercury), they were given morphine or bromides – which also causes pustular eruptions of the skin [5].

Vaccination Act amendment (1867)

The law was extended to include all children up to 14yrs of age (in order to capture all the children who had ‘snuck through the cracks’, during the previous 14 years of compulsory vaccination). This law introduced continuous fines and cumulative penalties.

In other words, parents could be fined continuously with increasing prison sentences for non-compliance. The UK Court Hansard notes the case of a Mr. Pearce of Andover who, up until 1877, had been convicted some 40 times [6].

Also noted, was the case of Mr. Joseph Abel, who was convicted 11 times over a 14mth period, for refusing to have his child vaccinated [7].

Further amendment (1871)

Ironically, the law was further tightened in 1871, the same year a deadly smallpox epidemic raged through Europe and Britain – regarded by many as the most destructive epidemic during that entire century [8]. The UK suffered approximately 42,000 deaths, over the course of two years.

The new law made it compulsory for all local authorities to hire Vaccination Officers, and introduced fines of 20 shillings (the equivalent of 4 days wages for a skilled tradesman) for parents who refused to allow pus to be collected from their children’s blisters, for public vaccination.

The Leicester Mercury reported the case on a Mr. George Banford, who “had a child born in 1868. It was vaccinated, and after the operation the child was covered with sores, and It was some considerable time before it was able to leave the house. Again Mr Banford complied the the law in 1870. This child was vaccinated by Dr. Sloane in the belief that by going to him they would get pure matter. IN that case erysipelas set in, and the child was on a bed of sickness for some times. IN the third case the child was born in 1872, and soon after vaccination, erysipelas set in, and it took such a bad course that the expiration of 14 days the child died.”

It will come as no surprise, that Mr. Banford refused to have his next child vaccinated…and was fined 10 shillings, with the option of seven days imprisonment [9].

Meanwhile, resistance raged on, especially in the town of Leicester, where rallies attracted crowds up to 100,000 [10]. The resistance was such, that some local magistrates and politicians declared their support for a parent’s right to choose, and a Parliamentary Inquiry was eventually held, which sat for 7 years, and finally agreed to amend the laws.

It should be noted here that compulsory vaccination proved to be the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ for governmental incursion of bodily autonomy and personal liberty.

The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869, were passed very quietly and suddenly, with little fanfare (it was considered unseemly to discuss such matters). The laws were aimed at preventing sexually-transmitted diseases in the Armed Forces where 1 in 3 sick cases were caused by venereal diseases. Instead of targeting members of the Armed Forces, though, the law targeted women who were suspected of prostitution [11].

These women were apprehended by police, and forced to have their genitals inspected by a doctor (no doubt, male), and if found to be infected, confined in a lock hospital for treatment, for up to 3 months. Refusal to co-operate resulted in imprisonment, with possibility of hard labour [12].

Once registered under the Act, she was expected to show up at a designated inspection station, to be inspected, every two weeks [13].

During the 1860’s, there were approximately 26,000 prostitutes known to police, while other estimates say there may have been up to 368,000 prostitutes. The vast majority of these women were poor and uneducated, and resorted to prostitution to survive [13].

After the 1866 amendment, she could be confined to hospital for treatment, for up to 12 months.

The typical treatment for syphilis during that era would most likely have been mercury rubs. Later, the severe side effects of mercury became too obvious to ignore, and it was replaced by injections of arsenic.

Ironically, there were numerous instances reported, whereby syphilis was transmitted via smallpox vaccination [14-15].

The burgeoning feminist movement fiercely opposed the Contagious Diseases Acts, on the basis that they unfairly discriminated against women, and were undertaken in a most humiliating fashion. There was a lot of common ground between the early feminist movement fighting against the Contagious Diseases Acts, and the anti-vaccinationists. Indeed, feminist leader, Josephine Butler, who spearheaded the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts, also served in the Mother’s Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League [16].

In addition to the Contagious Diseases Act, the Notification of Infectious Diseases Acts in 1889, and 1899 required that all contagious diseases, except tuberculosis (which is curious, since it was a major killer at the time) be reported to the local medical officer, who could then forcibly remove the patient to hospital, whether they consented or not. Household contacts and doctors who failed to notify the local medical officer were liable for fines of up to 40 shillings [17].

Again, the accepted medical treatment of the time most likely involved mercury or arsenic.

Finally, after forty-five years of protests, fines and imprisonments, the Vaccination Act (1898) promised some respite to parents – it removed cumulative penalties, and allowed for a conscientious clause to be added. This Act introduced the concept of ‘Conscientious Objection’ into English law. However, parents were still required to satisfy, not one, but two magistrates of their legitimate concerns and objections, in order to gain an exemption. For a number of years (until further amendments were made in 1908), many magistrates simply refused to issue the exemption to parents, resulting in continuing fines.

The UK Court Hansard reveals the case of one applicant, who was told by his local magistrate that “such people as the applicant ought to be set on an island by themselves and die of smallpox” [18].

The 1898 law had also outlawed arm-to-arm vaccination, which was replaced by vaccination of calf lymph, which was deemed to be safer. With little government oversight, however, many entrepreneurial types saw it as a way to make easy money, supplying cheap vaccines which, occasionally included dust, hair, and even animal dung [19]. Cases of tetanus, and other infections following vaccination, continued to be reported.

In 1908, when government realized that magistrates were failing to carry out the 1898 law, it was amended further, to allow parents to make a statutory declaration of their objections to vaccination, within four months of birth.

By 1921, only 40% of English infants were being vaccinated [19].

[1] United Nations General Assembly, 64th Session, 10th August, 2009. Available at: Accessed September, 2019.

[2] Durbach N. They Might As Well Brand Us: Working Class Resistance to Compulsory Vaccination in Victorian England, Soc Social Hist Med, 2000, 13:45-62.

[3] McCulloch JR. A Descriptive and Statistical Account of the British Empire, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London, 1854. Available online at: Accessed September, 2019.

[4] Deaths from Erysipelas After Vaccination, 1859-1880, Vaccination Inquirer, Vol 5, p.84.

[5] Blumgarten AS. A Textbook of Medicine – For Students in Schools of Nursing, Macmillan, 1937.

[6] Hansard, Deb 17 April 1877 vol 233 cc1267-8, Available at: Accessed September, 2019.

[7] Hansard, Deb 11 June 1877 vol 234 cc1569-71, Available at: Accessed September, 2019.

[8] Lankester E. The Smallpox Epidemic, Nature, 1871, 3:341-342.

[9] Leicester Mercury, 10th March, 1884.

[10] Porter D, Porter R. The politics of prevention: anti-vaccinationism and public health in nineteenth-century England. Med Hist. 1988;32(3):231–252.

[11] Walkowitz JR. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

[12] Hamilton M. Opposition to the Contagious Disease Acts, 1964 – 1886, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned With British Studies, 1978, 10(1):14-27.

[13] Ibid. See #11.

[14] Syphilis conveyed by the vaccine lymph to 46 children, The Lancet, Nov 16. 1861.

[15] Lee H. Lectures on syphilitic inoculation in 1865,1866, The Lancet, 87(2224):391-394.

[16] Johnston RD. The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy And The Question of Capitalism, Princeton University Press, 2013, p185.

[17] Mooney G. Public Health versus Private Practice: The Contested Development of Compulsory Infectious Disease Notification in Late-Nineteenth Century Britain, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 1999, 73(2):238-267.

[18] Hansard, HC Deb 06 March 1902 vol 104 c588 Accessed September, 2019.

[19] Ibid. See #16.

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