WE stand today on the cusp of a programme of mass vaccination as we attempt to overcome the coronavirus. A majority of people regard it with hope in their hearts as a positive step forward, but a minority of “anti-vaxxers” looks at it with suspicion and dread.

Nothing is new.

The same argument was taking place exactly 150 years ago, with the Darlington Anti-Vaccination League being home to one of the loudest and largest “anti-vaxxer” movements in the country.

In 1853, the Government had made it compulsory for babies to be vaccinated against smallpox within six months of their birth or their parents would be fined £2. Non-payment of the fine could result in imprisonment – for the parents, not the babies.

In 1867, a second Government Act made illegal for all children under the age of 14 not to be vaccinated, and it said that they should be re-vaccinated at puberty.

It was this compulsory element that really annoyed the Victorian anti-vaxxers, and they formed the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League.

In 1870, the mayor of Darlington, Alfred Kitching, received a petition signed by 84 townsmen calling for a meeting to discuss the way the council was rolling out the compulsory vaccination programme. He agreed, saying “ventilation of the subject would be good”, although also saying that he would do nothing to interfere with the law of the land.

The meeting was held in the Mechanics Institute in Skinnergate on September 20, 1870. The mayor wasn’t present so the chair, George Gibbs, condemned the “unconstitutional and tyrannical” law. Politicians and doctors were distrusted, and yet they were forcing the working man to do something against his will.

Other speakers condemned the “heinous sin of vaccination”, saying that it was unChristian to introduce unclean substances derived from a cow into the human body.

Tubwell Row chemist John Graham said the vaccination was killing children, and the meeting ridiculed the Government’s claim that it was saving 80,000 lives a year.

“We are killing our children to stop them from dying,” said a speaker.

To a degree, he was right. Vaccines were unsafe back then, even if the methodology was sound, and children did die.

A vicar bravely proposed a motion in favour of the vaccine, but he was “negatived by a considerable majority”, according to The Northern Echo’s long report.

Instead, Coniscliffe farmer Jonathan Snaith proposed: “That seeing that vaccination, after 70 years of experimentation, is not only an utter failure in preventing smallpox but is frequently the means of introducing other diseases into the human constitution, which cause premature and painful death, this meeting pledges itself to use all constitutional means to obtain the repeal of the Vaccination Acts.”

It was passed by a large majority, and the meeting called on the local authority to suspend its vaccinations.

It didn’t. Instead, it appointed Dr Richard Taylor Manson as the town’s first public vaccinator.

He was a doctor from Liverpool who had set up his first practice in Bridge Field House in Howden-le-Wear – a large house that still stands.

His first patient was George Sisman, a baby he helped deliver in Witton-le-Wear on January 17, 1868. Dr Manson was so convinced by the value of vaccination that he vaccinated baby George on three occasions.

In fact, he vaccinated much of Weardale until the early 1880s when he moved to Darlington to become public vaccinator. His surgery was in Derneholme, the turreted end of the terrace of Stanhope Road South where it turns into Duke Street.

Meanwhile, baby George was growing up. In 1881, he became a telegraph boy in Witton-le-Wear on 7s 6d a week, and in 1885, he followed the doctor into Darlington where he became a telegraph operator.

And also he became secretary of the Darlington Anti-Vaccination League.

Nationally, the league was becoming stronger. Its biggest event was a rally in 1885 in Leicester, where the people were vehemently against vaccination and the authorities were keen on prosecution. It was attended by 100,000 people.

In Darlington, the league members continued to keep up the pressure, holding meetings in Central Hall and sending delegations to browbeat the town’s MP.

And, to a certain extent, the Victorian anti-vaxxers were successful. The 1898 Vaccination Act had the first “conscientious objection” clause which allowed people to opt out of the injection for moral reasons.

This lanced the anti-vaxxers’ boil, and it is very interesting that the British Government of today is adamant that it is not going to repeat the mistakes of the past and make the Covid jab mandatory.

The restoration of personal freedom of choice took the sting out of the anti-vax movement, although the improvement in the safety of the vaccine and the growing proof that it worked also helped it to become less controversial.

Back in Darlington, Dr Manson became widely admired. He turned down the role of mayor on three occasions, he became an expert in local geology and history and founded the Darlington and Teesdale Field Naturalists Club, which still goes. When he died in 1900, a 12-ton glacial rock was fished out of the Tees at Winston and placed at the Victoria Embankment entrance to South Park as a memorial to him.

His son, Richard, inherited his practice and the title of public vaccinator, but died just two years later, aged 35, of pneumonia.

But baby George Sisman also became widely admired. He rose to be overseer of the telegraph department and in 1928 he was awarded an OBE for his contribution to postal services. He lived in Elton Parade with his wife and two children,and was involved in the campaign against vivisection.

He was secretary of the Central Bowling Club, of the Darlington branch of Post Office Veterans and of the Sir ED Walker Homes in Coniscliffe Road where he lived out the last 20 years of his life until he died in 1955.