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Class, Gender, and the Conscientious Objector to Vaccination, 1898–1907

  • Nadja Durbach


In 1898, after forty-five years of enforcing mandatory infant smallpox vaccination, the British parliament passed an act to allow parents to “opt out” of the compulsory system. The 1898 Vaccination Act introduced a conscience clause that entitled parents who objected to the practice of vaccination to claim certificates of conscientious objection by applying to a magistrate for an exemption. This provided working- and lower-middle-class anti-vaccinationists a measure of relief from the repeated fines they had suffered for noncompliance with the law, and from the threat of imprisonment. By the end of 1898, over 200,000 certificates of conscientious objection had been issued. Many of these were granted in anti-vaccination strongholds where exemptions outnumbered vaccinations, but conscientious objection to vaccination was by no means limited to these regions. Once an amended conscience clause was passed in 1907, which made conscientious objector status much easier to attain, the national exemption rate grew to 25 percent of all births.

The vaccination conscience clauses were controversial. As most of the applicants who applied for these exemption certificates came from the working classes, and many were women, these acts generated a national debate over the classed and gendered nature of the conscience and the meanings of conscientious objection. The years between 1898 and 1907 thus mark a significant moment in the making of the modern subject and citizen. For, as the debate over conscientious objection to vaccination reveals, who exactly was entitled to make a claim to possess a conscience, with its concomitant rights, was itself a contested issue.



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1 Return of Statement Showing the Number of Certificates of Conscientious Objection … Received by the Vaccination Officers in the Year 1899 (London, 1900), p. 2; Vaccination Inquirer (1 February 1899), p. 148.

2 Swan, Joseph P., The Vaccination Problem (London, 1936), p. 85.

3 The register of conscientious objectors for Enfield, which was not known as a center of anti-vaccination agitation, documents that most certificates were issued to the working and lower middle classes, specifically a mixture of semiskilled factory operatives, journeyman laborers, and, to a lesser extent, master artisans, policemen, postal workers, porters, and small tradesmen. See Vaccination Officers Birth Books, London Metropolitan Archives (hereafter LMA), Enfield District, Edmonton Union, BG/E/176–BG/E/188.

4 For an early modern view of the conscience that was not predicated on an understanding of the person as a “single integrated centre of awareness,” see Sabean, David, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 35, 42, 78, 170–73.

5 National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Reporter (1 October 1883), p. 4. For an account of the anti-vaccination movement, see Durbach, Nadja, “‘They Might as Well Brand Us’: Working-Class Resistance to Compulsory Vaccination in Victorian England,” Social History of Medicine 13, no. 1 (2000): 4562; MacLeod, R. M., “Law, Medicine and Public Opinion: The Resistance to Compulsory Health Legislation, 1870–1907,” Public Law (Summer 1967), pp. 107–28, 189211; Porter, Dorothy and Porter, Roy, “The Politics of Prevention: Anti-vaccinationism and Public Health in Nineteenth-Century England,” Medical History 32 (1988): 231–52; Behlmer, George, Friends of the Family: The English Home and Its Guardians (Stanford, Calif., 1998).

6 East London Observer (27 May 1876), p. 7.

7 Vernon, H. H., Why Little Children Die (London, c. 1878), p. 144.

8 Ladies' Sanitary Association, When Were You Vaccinated (London, c. 1860), p. 15. For a discussion of public health citizenship, see Hamlin, Christopher, Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800–1854 (Cambridge, 1998).

9 The Anti-Vaccinator and Public Health Journal (15 April 1872), p. 3.

10 Stobbs, Robert, To the Fathers and Mothers of Great Britain, And All Who Groan Beneath the Yoke of a Medical Despotism (n.p., 1886).

11 National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Reporter (1 April 1878), p. 125. On the body and citizenship in France, see Outram, Dorinda, The Body and the French Revolution (New Haven, Conn., 1989).

12 Tebb, William, A Personal Statement of the Results of Vaccination (London, 1891), p. 4.

13 Shafts (14 January 1893), p. 162, (October 1893), p. 155, (March 1897), p. 72; Women's Penny Paper (7 September 1889), p. 6, (19 October 1889), p. 5; National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Reporter (1 July 1882), p. 165, (1 April 1883), p. 116; Bright, Ursula, An Evil Law Unfairly Enforced (London, 1884). On the Contagious Diseases Acts, see Walkowitz, Judith, Prostitution and Victorian Society (Cambridge, 1980). On antivivisection and vegetarianism, see Kean, Hilda, Animal Rights (London, 1998); Lansbury, Coral, The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England (Madison, Wise., 1985); Elston, Mary Ann, “Women and Anti-vivisection in Victorian England, 1870–1900,” in Vivisection in Historical Perspective, ed. Rupke, Nicholas A. (London, 1987), pp. 259–86; Leneman, Leah, “The Awakened Instinct: Vegetarianism and the Women's Suffrage Movement in Britain,” Women's History Review 6, no. 2 (1997): 271–87; Scott, Anne L., “Physical Purity Feminism and State Medicine in Late Nineteenth-Century England,” Women's History Review 8, no. 4 (1999): 625–53.

14 Clark, Anna, “Gender, Class, and the Nation: Franchise Reform in England, 1832–1928,” in Re-reading the Constitution, ed. Vernon, James (Cambridge, 1996), p. 230.

15 National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Reporter (1 January 1884), p. 62. It is interesting to note that although clearly engaged in British politics, this correspondent wrote from Brooklyn.

16 McClelland, Keith, “Rational and Respectable Men: Gender, the Working Class, and Citizenship in Britain, 1850–1867,” in Gender and Class in Modern Europe, ed. Frader, Laura L. and Rose, Sonya O. (Ithaca, N.Y., 1996), p. 280.

17 The Dietetic Reformer and Vegetarian Messenger (October 1867), pp. 125–26.

18 For a discussion of the class, gender, and racial aspects of debates over the 1867 Reform Act, see Hall, Catherine, McClelland, Keith, and Rendall, Jane, Defining the Victorian Nation: Class, Race, Gender and the Reform Act of 1867 (Cambridge, 2000).

19 Vaccination Inquirer (1 September 1891), p. 93.

20 Dr. Skelton's Botanic Record and Family Herbal (2 September 1854), p. 453; Gibbs, John, Our Medical Liberties (London, 1854), p. 7.

21 Eclectic Medical Journal (1 September 1858), p. 180.

12 British Medical Journal (19 November 1870), p. 570; The Times (5 December 1870), p. 11; The Co-operator and Anti-Vaccinator (1 July 1871), p. 413; Case of Charles Hayward, Public Record Office (PRO), Home Office (HO) 144/469/X9911; Vaccination Inquirer (1 October 1892), p. 122.

23 Keighley News (27 February 1875), p. 3; [Allinson, T. R.], How Parents May Protect Their Offspring from the Dangers and Injuries of Vaccination (n.p., ca. 1878), p. 1; Hume-Rothery, William, Vaccination and the Vaccination Laws; A Physical Curse and a Class-Tyranny, 2d ed. (Manchester, 1873), p. 1; The Co-operator and Anti-Vaccinator (17 June 1871), p. 371; Vaccination Inquirer (August 1880), p. 74.

24 Handbill, unknown source, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Alfred Milnes Collection (hereafter LSHTM/AM), vol. 9, pp. 58–59.

25 Vaccination Inquirer (July 1897), p. 54.

26 Fraser, John, An Attempt to Prove That Vaccination with Its Compulsory Law, Instead of Being a General Blessing, Is a Universal Curse (London, 1871), p. 56; National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Reporter (1 September 1881), p. 203.

27 Vaccination Inquirer (June 1884), p. 39.

28 The OED defines conscience as “The internal acknowledgment or recognition of the moral quality of one's motives and actions; the sense of right and wrong as regards things for which one is responsible.”

29 Vaccination Inquirer (November 1884), p. 137.

30 Shafts (March 1897), p. 72.

31 Oldham Chronicle (22 January 1898), p. 2.

32 Until 1854, the right of affirmation was granted only to three religious groups—Quakers, Moravians, and Separatists—but gradually the law expanded to include even atheists and agnostics.

33 Braithwaite, Constance, “Legal Problems of Conscientious Objection to Various Compulsions under British Law,” Journal of the Friends' Historical Society 52, no. 1 (1968): 318.

34 Johnson, Dale A., “Nonconformity,” in Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, ed. Mitchell, Sally (New York, 1988), p. 547.

35 Vaccination Inquirer (1 April 1904), p. 15; An Appeal to Passive Resisters (London, 1905).

36 Notes on Prison Rules, May 1889, PRO, HO 45/9704/A50333B/1.

37 Rutter, Clarence E., Is It Right to Try to Force Parents to Have Their Children Vaccinated against Their Judgment and Conscience? (Wincanton, 1894).

38 Health and Liberty League, Does Compulsory Education Justify Compulsory Vaccination? (London, 1887), pp. 67.

39 The Hydropathic Record and Journal of the Water Cure (November 1868), p. 15.

40 MacLeod, Roy M., “Medico-Legal Issues in Victorian Medical Care,” Medical History 10 (1966): 4449.

41 Furnival, W. J., The Conscientious Objector: Who He Is! What He Has! What He Wants! And Why! (Stone, 1902), p. 3.

42 Daylight (10 August 1907), p. 9.

43 Vaccination Inquirer (1 February 1908), p. 194.

44 Rather, she argues, this decline was due to a number of factors that included variations in the virulence of the virus strain, as well as the expansion of other preventive methods such as isolation and notification, and the development of port sanitary authorities to prevent the importation of foreign disease. See Hardy, Anne, “Smallpox in London: Factors in the Decline of the Disease in the Nineteenth Century,” Medical History 27 (1983): 111–38.

45 W. J. Collins was the only exception: he was both a doctor and a fervent antivaccinationist. The lay antivaccinationists were represented by J. A. Picton, M.P. for Leicester, the foremost antivaccination borough, and the secularist M.P. Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh died before the commission was complete and was replaced, much to the chagrin of antivaccinationists, by John Albert Bright, the less radical son of the parliamentarian John Bright.

46 A Report on Vaccination and Its Results Based on the Evidence Taken by the Royal Commission 1889–97, vol. 1 (London, 1898), p. 292, par. 512.

47 Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Mile End (London, 1896), p. 16.

48 Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Coventry (Coventry, 1895), p. 21.

49 All but two commissioners signed the report. Collins and Picton, the lone antivaccinators remaining on the commission, refused to agree to the principle that vaccination should remain compulsory. In a dissenting statement, which appeared at the end of the report, Collins and Picton critiqued the commission's focus on vaccination and their neglect of the corollary issues of sanitation, notification and isolation of disease, disinfection, and poor living conditions. They nonetheless conceded that a conscience clause would be acceptable as measure of relief until the compulsory clauses were eventually repealed.

50 Vaccination Inquirer (1 May 1906), p. 28.

51 Vaccination Inquirer (1 April 1898), p. 2.

52 Reynold's Newspaper (20 March 1898), LSHTM/AM, vol. 50, p. 72.

53 Hansard (19 July 1898), cc. 345–47.

54 Hansard (20 July 1898), cc. 449–52.

55 Hansard (20 July 1898), c. 466.

56 Braithwaite, “Legal Problems.”

57 Shaw's Manual of the Vaccination Law, 6th ed. (London, 1898), pp. 3637.

58 Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Paddington (London, 1898), p. 12.

59 St. James' Gazette (22 August 1898), LSHTM/AM, vol. 51, p. 38.

60 Vaccination Inquirer (1 September 1898), p. 84.

61 Christ, Carol T. and Jordan, John O., eds., Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination (Berkeley, Calif., 1995); Crary, Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1990); Tucker, Jennifer, “Science Illustrated: Photographic Evidence and Social Practice in England, 1870–1920” (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1996). For similar nineteenth-century problems of the visible, see Owen, Alex, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (London, 1989); Barrow, Logie, “An Imponderable Liberator: J. J. Garth Wilkinson,” in Studies in the History of Alternative Medicine, ed. Cooter, Roger, (New York, 1988), pp. 89117.

62 Morning Leader (4 October 1898), LSHTM/AM, vol. 51, p. 72. The Roentgen ray was an early term for the x-ray.

63 East London Observer (17 November 1900), p. 7.

64 The Times (25 January 1900), p. 14.

65 The Times (28 December 1898), p. 2. For diphtheria, see Hardy, Anne, The Epidemic Streets (Oxford, 1993), pp. 80109.

66 Manchester Guardian (27 September 1898), p. 9.

67 Vaccination Inquirer (1 October 1898), p. 88.

68 Jennifer Davis has argued that magistrates, at least at midcentury, attempted to remain morally neutral. This, however, was not true in relationship to vaccination. See Davis, Jennifer, “A Poor Man's System of Justice: The London Police Courts in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century,” Historical Journal 27, no. 2 (1984): 309–35.

69 East London Observer (1 December 1900), p. 2.

70 Minute from Home Secretary, undated, PRO, HO 45/10322/129038/59; Lancet (8 October 1898), p. 953.

71 Edwards, William Henry, The Small-Pox Epidemic and Its Treatment. A Plea for Common Sense (Boscombe, ca. 1903), p. 5; Swan, Joseph P., Why I Am an Anti-Vaccinist, reprinted from Reynold's Newspaper (29 November 1903), p. 4.

72 British Medical Journal (13 June 1903), p. 1394.

73 Mrs.Fawcett, Henry, The Vaccination Act of 1898: Reasons Why Parliament Was Right to Relax the Compulsory Clauses of Previous Vaccination Acts (London, 1902), p. 24. First published in Contemporary Review (March 1899).

74 Holloway Press (3 September 1898), LSHTM/AM, vol. 51, p. 54.

75 Blackburn Standard (24 September 1898), LSHTM/AM, vol. 51, p. 26.

76 Lancet (8 October 1898), p. 960; British Medical Journal (23 February 1907), p. 457.

77 Oldham Chronicle (3 December 1898), p. 3, (10 December 1898), p. 5; Yorkshire Daily Post (13 December 1898); Manchester Courier (14 December 1898), LSHTM/AM, vol. 52, pp. 4344.

78 British Medical Journal (5 November 1898), p. 1443.

79 East London Observer (26 November 1898), p. 3.

80 British Medical Journal (29 August 1903), pp. 482–83; East London Observer (8 September 1906), p. 6.

81 How to Avoid Vaccination (London, c. 1898), John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford University, Societies Box 5.

82 Vaccination Inquirer (1 October 1898), p. 88.

83 The Star (7 October 1898), LSHTM/AM, vol. 51, p. 56.

84 Memorandum on Vaccination Act, 1898, Conscientious Objectors, 23 March 1904, PRO, HO 45/10297/115475/7.

85 Memorandum from M. D. Chalmers, 1 September 1904, LMA PS/LAM/H1/4/137; Circular from Home Office signed M. D. Chalmers, 18 May 1906, LMA PS/LAM/H1/5/85.

86 Memorandum from M. D. Chalmers, 1 September 1904, LMA PS/LAM/H1/4/137. The Registrar General's returns for 1899, the first year the act was fully and regularly in effect, reveal that for England and Wales as a whole, only 3.5 percent of births were registered as conscientious objectors. See Return of Statement Showing the Number of Certificates of Conscientious Objection.

87 Hansard (15 February 1907), cc. 439–40.

88 Hansard (15 February 1907), cc. 443, 453; (24 May 1907), col. 1279.

89 Hansard (15 February 1907), c. 440.

90 Vaccination Inquirer (1 June 1907), p. 46.

91 Vulliamy, A. F., Fry's Law of Vaccination, 7th ed. (London, 1899), p. 79, nn. g and h.

92 Hansard (25 July 1898), c. 1137.

93 Confidential Circular on the Vaccination Acts of 1867 to 1898, PRO, HO 45/10368/157384/49.

94 Holmes, J. R., A Letter on Vaccination (London, 1898).

95 Punch (1901) quoted in Vaccination Inquirer (1 August 1901), p. 85.

96 Buxton Chronicle (3 March 1899), LSHTM/AM, vol. 50, p. 4.

97 British Medical Journal (23 February 1907), p. 457; Vaccination Inquirer (1 July 1901), p. 72, (2 April 1906), p. 16.

98 British Medical Journal (5 November 1898), p. 1443.

99 Vaccination Bill, 1905, PRO, HO 45/10297/115475/91.

100 Anonymous minute, 28 May 1907, PRO, HO 45/10358/152844/1.

101 Hansard (8 August 1907), c. 286.

102 Hansard (22 August 1907), cc. 1203–4.

103 Hansard (22 August 1907), c. 1202.

104 Vaccination Inquirer (1 July 1907), p. 65.

105 Brown, Kenneth D., John Burns (London, 1977), p. 155; Kent, William, John Burns: Labour's Lost Leader (London, 1950), pp. 200, 250; Lewis, Jane, “The Working-Class Wife and Mother and State Intervention, 1879–1918,” in Labour and Love: Women's Experience of Home and Family, 1850–1940, ed. Lewis, Jane (Oxford, 1986), p. 106; Dwork, Deborah, War Is Good for Babies and Other Young Children (London, 1987), p. 114.

106 Sir Frederick Banbury, a provaccination M.P., denounced the bill entirely. He maintained that it was precisely because the mother nursed her child that she should not be considered a suitable person to claim an exemption. Vaccination invariably entailed a certain amount of suffering, he argued. Mothers would be tempted not to vaccinate in order to avoid the trouble of caring for a sore arm. See Hansard (24 May 1907), cc. 1288–89.

107 Daylight (31 August 1907), p. 16.

108 Hansard (22 August 1907), cc. 1200–1207; British Medical Journal (31 August 1907), p. 546.

109 Vaccination Inquirer (2 March 1908), p. 204. For an additional analysis of the mother as parent see PRO, HO 45/10358/157384/19. The issue was raised after 1908 from time to time in local courts but legally had been settled by this time.

110 Swan, , The Vaccination Problem, p. 85; Vaccination Inquirer (1 November 1909), p. 170.

111 The number of certificates of exemption granted escalated from 57,675 in 1907 to 162,799 in 1908 and then rose steadily to 190,689 the following year. See General Register Office Vaccination Returns, PRO, RG 56/3.

112 Edmonton Petty Sessions, Enfield District, LMA/PSE/E3/12–14.

113 Rae, John, Conscience and Politics (Oxford, 1970), p. 81. See also Martin, David A., Pacifism: An Historical and Sociological Study (New York, 1966); Kennedy, Thomas C., “Public Opinion and the Conscientious Objector, 1915–1919,” Journal of British Studies 12, no. 2 (1973): 105–19.

114 Rae, , Conscience and Politics, p. 29.

115 Ibid., app. C.

116 Kennedy, Thomas C., The Hound of Conscience: A History of the No-Conscription Fellowship, 1914–1919 (Fayetteville, Ark., 1981), p. 84.

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