Anti-vaccinators in Norwich 1882-85: my 2014 MSc dissertation

When I wrote my MSc dissertation in 2013-14, I had no idea how topical a discussion my theme would become in 2020-21. Once again, views about compulsory vaccination are making headlines.

I don’t claim to know all there is to know about those who objected to smallpox vaccination in the 19th century. However, I have completed a study into a subset of anti-vaccinators in Norwich in the 1880s. I am now considering publishing my dissertation here on my website.

Why did I study the 1880s? In 1882, Norwich was at the centre of a national vaccination scandal: The Norwich Vaccination Inquiry. Four children had died after vaccination. Back then, vaccination was far more gruesome than today’s process. Lymph was rubbed into scratches on a child’s arm. This process could allow bugs into the skin at the time of the vaccination. In addition, it left a wound that could be infected afterwards. The Inquiry found that it wasn’t vaccination itself that was at fault, but rather something “superadded” to the process. Understandably, though, the events of 1882 put parents off vaccinating their children. 

Moreover, making vaccination compulsory switched discussion from the science of vaccination to the politics and ethics of making it mandatory. ‘Conscientious objection’ was coined in response to the rejection of smallpox vaccination, not, as many think, as a rejection to taking up arms in the First World War.

The study was fascinating, and looking at it again tonight, many of the themes are relevant today.

Here are further details. Please get in touch with me if you would like access to the full report.

Title: ‘DISASTER, RESISTANCE AND CONSEQUENCE. Anti-Vaccinationists in Norwich 1882-85: who were they, and how were they punished?

Abstract: Opposition to vaccination is not a new phenomenon. This local-level study charts anti-vaccination activity in Norwich, Norfolk, 1882-85 inclusive, investigating the growing turbulence beneath high vaccination rates in the city. During a period of peak campaigning elsewhere, this was a time of change for the city – by the 1890s, vaccination rates had crashed.

The low number of children whose vaccination register entries were left ‘unaccounted for’ between 1882-5 conceals a rising trend, and an early peak in unaccounted for cases in August 1882 coinciding with the Norwich Vaccination Inquiry, which investigated children’s deaths, allegedly after vaccination by the Public Vaccinator. Rates initially recovered after a period of delayed vaccination.

Tradesmen [all men in this study] were found to be parents to 43% of the unaccounted for children, despite making up only a third of city workers overall. They were also the largest group of conscientious objectors in 1898 and made up 50% of all cases at Petty Sessions. Many of the city’s key anti-vaccination protagonists were also tradesmen, often working men from humble beginnings. However, the proportion of tradesmen who used the public station (grown from the Poor Law) was low.

Case studies showed that the unaccounted for cannot be used as a substitute for anti-vaccinators because many moved or were from relatively poor families who do not seem to have been followed up as frequently by the Vaccination Officer. Few were taken to court, and those that were often had influence. Norwich saw no cat-and-mouse fines or imprisonments during this period. Magistrates were inconsistent, and the last cases probably occurred in 1887.

An Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League was formed in 1876, with close links to local radical press and the temperance cause. There was limited civil disobedience, but the key players gained influence during the period until they were represented on the Council and Guardians.

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