From 'Ignorant Mothers' to 'Conscientious Fathers': Cornwall and the Vaccination Act, 1840-1907

Author: Ella Stewart-Peters

Stewart-Peters, Ella, 2018 From 'Ignorant Mothers' to 'Conscientious Fathers': Cornwall and the Vaccination Act, 1840-1907, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Vaccination has always been a contentious issue; from Edward Jenner’s first successful experiment with the cowpox vaccine in 1796 to the modern day, the procedure has had its opponents. Whilst there have been some inroads made into the history of vaccination, the subject remains under-researched. This thesis builds upon the existing historiography of the procedure and its opponents to undertake a region-specific study of the Vaccination Act, argued to be one of the earliest examples of state intervention into medicine and public health in Britain. The first Vaccination Act for England and Wales was introduced in 1840 and, whilst it did not make vaccination compulsory, it outlawed the earlier practice of inoculation (also called variolation), attracting many critics amongst the lower classes and amongst those employed to perform the inoculation procedure itself. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Vaccination Act would be amended several times, first to make the procedure compulsory, then to strengthen the penalties for those who did not comply, and then to allow for conscientious objectors to exempt their children from the law. The existing body of literature on the topic of vaccination in the nineteenth century takes a broad look at the Act and its opponents. In taking a region-specific approach, this thesis contends that there was no uniform enforcement of the Vaccination Act across England. It is also argued that opposition to the procedure varied from region to region throughout the country.

For many historians of vaccination, opposition to the procedure did not begin to emerge until the late 1860s and early 1870s, as a response to the harsher penalties that were enacted through the 1867 amendment. However, by examining the role of folklore and traditional healthcare practices, this thesis shows that the roots of anti-vaccinationism were already observable amongst the peoples of the South-West, particularly those in Cornwall who clung to traditional ‘Celtic’ beliefs in the face of ever-encroaching modernity. In the earliest years following the introduction of compulsory vaccination, passive forms of opposing the Act continued to spread amongst the population and Boards of Guardians, the local government bodies responsible for enforcing the Act, began the process of prosecuting those in their Poor Law Unions who refused to vaccinate their children. For the most part, early opposition to vaccination was largely dismissed by authorities as being the result of ‘ignorance’ amongst the poor, uneducated women living outside the major urban centres. Following the 1867 amendment, harsher penalties were enforced, and a new type of anti-vaccinationist began to emerge; the ‘conscientious father’, a man who was willing to take any punishment meted out by the government to protect his children from a procedure he considered unnecessary and dangerous.

The ’Conscientious Fathers’ phase of vaccine objection is the focus of much of the existing historiography. However, this thesis contends that a region-specific approach is essential to understanding exactly how the enforcement of the Vaccination Act, and the opposition that subsequently arose, varied across England. Using the example of Cornwall during this period, it is argued that historians cannot simply present a uniform history of vaccination and anti-vaccinationism in England. Individual anti-vaccinationists and their involvement in the movement are examined, through the examples of two brothers from Truro, to examine how anti-vaccinationism as a concept functioned in a county without any formally-established branches of anti-vaccination leagues or societies. With regards to the enforcement of the Act itself, the established concept of two separate ‘Cornwalls’ existing is put into practice, revealing that the Act itself was enforced very differently in the rural North than it was in the more populous West. Finally, the impact of the sustained propaganda campaigns that the urban anti-vaccination societies of the nineteenth century are renowned for are examined in the Cornish context, through an analysis of the role that conspiracy theories played in the development of a uniquely Cornish anti-vaccination movement. This thesis fills a gap that exists between a broad history of vaccination and a more nuanced understanding of the regional and cultural differences that existed across the country.

Keywords: Vaccination, History, Public Health, Cornwall, Social History of Medicine, Anti-Vaccination

Subject: History thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Philip Payton