Con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tion

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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.

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