This post is the second in a 3-part series about an English ancestor who was a fervent anti-vaccinator in the late 1800s. My source for all the newspaper articles was the 19th-century British Library Newspapers online, which were made public in 2009. (They had previously been available to UK higher education communities only.) This is different from the recently launched The British Newspaper Archive, which contains 19th- and 20th-century newspapers and is being updated daily with new pages.

Anti-Vaccination Propaganda Mailing Envelope, 1878

The process of vaccination at that time was nothing like it is today. Public vaccinators first used a surgical instrument to score at least four lines into the flesh, after which the vaccine (prepared from calf lymph) was smeared into the cuts. Encouraged to avoid depleting the government-supplied vaccine, the vaccinator would later harvest lymph from an infant’s blisters, to be directly applied to cuts on a new group of infants. This painful and unsanitary procedure also carried the risk of transmitting blood-borne diseases. Working-class children and those of poor health were especially vulnerable to infection, and some officials believed that cases of syphilis were caused by vaccination.

Many were afraid the vaccination caused smallpox itself, and it didn’t help that it was not clear how the vaccine actually worked to prevent it. Both the anti- and pro-vaccinators relied on murky statistics to bolster their arguments. The dread of having her infant vaccinated was so great, that it even induced one mother to commit suicide. A newspaper reported that Mary Clarke “appears to have lost her senses owing to the dread she had of having her little one vaccinated… when she found that the operation, already much delayed, could be deferred no longer, she tore up the flooring of one of the rooms of her house, and in the cistern beneath, she managed to drown both herself and her infant.”

The anti-vaccination movement in England included those who opposed compulsory vaccination on constitutional grounds, medical grounds, and religious grounds. Quakers, Methodists, Unitarians and other Nonconformists made up many of the anti-vaccinators, as well as those in the labor movement. Societies against vaccination were organized, leaflets were distributed, and a periodical entitled The Anti-Vaccinator was created to support the movement. The envelope pictured at the top of this post is an example of propaganda popular at the time. It depicts a mother and child, with a policeman on one side, holding a vaccination act poster, while a skeleton on the other side inoculates the child.

Four months had now passed from the time of the last action by the Board of Guardians against Joseph. In August 1882, another brief statement appeared in the newspaper. “Further summonses were ordered taken out against Mr. Petvin… for non-compliance with the requirements of the Vaccination Act.” Clearly he had neither paid the fine nor had his child vaccinated.

In December the vaccination officer asked for instructions in the case of two children of Mr. Petvin who had not been vaccinated. It seems that a child born the year before Annie Marian had been overlooked by the vaccination officer! By this time, Joseph had been summoned three times for refusing to have his children vaccinated. The board proposed not to give the officer instructions with regard to the child who had been overlooked, but one board member did not think they should allow any child to “slip through,” and the board voted that the usual instructions be given.
~to be continued



Envelope image from Grosvenor Philatelic Auctions -© 2011