AT Darlington County Court exactly 150 years ago this week, a score of fathers appeared charged with failing to get their children vaccinated against smallpox.

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 and Memories 502 told how in 1870, the Darlington branch was one of the most active in the country. It held anti-vaccination meetings in Central Hall and lobbied the council not to enforce the Act.

But exactly 150 years ago, in the first week of 1871, a score of Darlington men appeared in court charged with failing to have their child vaccinated.

Their objections ranged from the safety and efficacy of the vaccine to the infringement of personal liberty.

Ironmonger John Snaith told the chairman of the bench: “Well sir, I wish to state that the vaccination did not protect me, for after being vaccinated I took the smallpox and was insensible for a week and blind for three weeks.”

Accountant William Cowper said “he did not believe the law should have the power to inflict a disease and undoubtedly vaccination was a disease”.

Grocer Isaac Johnson said that “he considered, from an opinion given by a medical gentleman in Newcastle, that he had lost a child through having it vaccinated. He was prepared to pay the penalty rather than suffer the loss of his children”.

All the accused were found guilty and fined £1 plus shillings costs. If they failed to pay, they would go to jail for one month.

Another accountant, Alexander Wheeler, was a Quaker who had “conscientious religious scruples against the law”. He “stated that cowpox was a disease and he could not acknowledge the right of the step to give it to a child. It was with great reluctance that he was placed in his present position”.

That position included refusing to pay his fine and so he would automatically be sent to jail. However, an anonymous woman had written to the court, without the defendant’s knowledge, saying she would pay to keep him out of the prison.

Thomas Wood of Bondgate made a second appearance before the court. He had already paid his fine for non-vaccination but had still not inoculated his child. This time he was given a magistrate’s order which gave him a month to comply.


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The South Park monument dedicated to Darlington's first Public Vaccinator