There was not universal acceptance of compulsory vaccination. Opposition ranged from its administration through the Poor Law authorities, religious beliefs, libertarian views against compulsion and medical/scientific evidence against its efficacy. Anti-vaccination groups were set up widely following the 1853 Vaccination Act.
In Keighley, such was the opposition that in 1875 seven anti-vaccinators were elected onto the Boards of Guardians and then refused to enforce the Vaccination Act. They were arrested, tried and imprisoned. Records of the Keighley AntiCompulsory Vaccination League are held at Keighley Local Studies Library ( catalogue.wyjs.org.uk).
Leicester was another hotbed of antivaccination activity. In March 1885, a rally attracted 80,000-100,000 protestors, many of them from anti-vaccination leagues across the country. They carried banners, a child’s coffin and an effigy of Jenner that the crowd hung on a gibbet! The protest and continued campaigning by various anti-vaccination leagues, including the London Society for the Abolition of Compulsory Vaccination, led to the establishment of a Royal Commission. This concluded in favour of continued universal vaccination but the resulting 1898 Vaccination Act did insert a conscientious objection clause, which allowed parents to apply for a certificate of exemption from magistrates. Within a year, more than 200,000 had been issued.
Although now associated almost exclusively with the refusal to bear arms, this was the first time the term ‘conscientious objection’ was used. Leicester records can be searched at recordoffice- catalogue.leics.gov.uk/calmview.
In 1907, yet another Act simplified the procedure for applying for exemption under the conscientious objection clause. Compulsory vaccination against smallpox was finally abolished in 1948 with the establishment of the National Health Service.
Many publications of the anti-vaccination leagues are contained within the Reece Collection at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. See more at: www.lshtm. ac.uk/library. Recently many have been digitised by the Wellcome Library ( wellcomelibrary.org) and are free to view.