Medway’s 19th Century Anti-Vaccinators of national prominence


This blog tells of the principled stand that two Medway men, Charles Nye and Samuel West, and their families, took against Britain’s 19th century vaccination laws. These were introduced to curtail the spread of smallpox – a disease that could kill or leave survivors severely disfigured. (Image is of a child infected with smallpox.)

Both men, but particularly Charles Nye from Chatham, experienced considerable hardship as a consequence of refusing to have their children vaccinated. Both men gained national prominence for their actions with Charles Nye becoming the most famed amongst the anti-vaccinators. 

The parallels with today relate to the extent that the Government can take ‘control’ over what we can/can’t do. The efficacy of vaccination is now proven and the Government cannot now compel people to be vaccinated. However, there are many who are questioning the evidence that supports the Government’s ‘lockdown strategy’ that curtails our liberties, and that many argue is unnecessary and does more harm than good. This position is not too dissimilar to the claims made by the anti-vaccination leagues of the 19th century concerning the mandatory vaccination of children against smallpox.

The ‘words’ may have changed but perhaps not the ‘tune’?

There appears to have been many groups against the Government’s vaccination programme of the 19th century that was initially voluntary but later enforced with the “infliction” of fines and imprisonment with hard labour on those who refused to comply.

Simply it appears that the anti-vaccinators fell into two camps:

1). Those who questioned the science, safety and effectiveness of the cowpox vaccination that was used to produce an immune response in the recipients that protected them from smallpox, and

2). Those who may have accepted the prophylactic properties of the vaccine but who were against its imposition as it took away an individual’s freedom of choice.

The accounts of Charles Washington Nye and Samuel Joesph West’s sustained opposition to the vaccination acts illustrates these two ‘positions’. It’s clear from the news-reports concerning their prosecutions that they were both well supported by their wives in their refusal to have their children vaccinated.

Before telling their stories it is necessary to have an understanding of what may have fuelled their concerns and them becoming ‘anti-vacks’ as Edward Jenner called those who opposed vaccination.

Some ‘Science Stuff’

The science of vaccination was new and not understood when it was introduced. It was also counterintuitive – protecting someone from disease by infecting them with a disease! Those questioning the wisdom of vaccination were able to cite examples of people becoming unwell after being vaccinated and some going on to catch smallpox and dying. Further evidence was not collected before 1850 that showed that vaccination with cowpox lymph curtailed the spread and severity of smallpox.

  1. From early in the 18th century vaccination was being used in Britain as a protection against smallpox. The recipient was inoculated with ‘lymph’ collected from a pustule of someone who had smallpox. The problem with this practice was that the recipient often developed full-blown smallpox which they could spread and trigger an epidemic.
  1. Edward Jenner in the 1790s pioneered the use of cowpox – a less aggressive relative of smallpox – as a vaccine. Anecdotally it was known that those who had caught cowpox from cattle were immune to smallpox. Jenner undertook some trials that involved vaccinating someone with cowpox and then exposing them to smallpox. Although there was no ‘control group’ or known science behind the procedure, he found those who had been exposed to cowpox were protected from smallpox.
  1. Jenner wrongly stated that one inoculation provided lifelong immunity – hence some vaccinated people caught smallpox and epidemics continued. This called into question the effectiveness of using cowpox lymph as a vaccine.
  1. In the Government’s 19th century vaccination programme that started in 1840, the vaccine was in the main taken from the pustule of someone infected with cowpox. Although lymph from cattle could be used there were ethical concerns and fears of contracting animal diseases. In order to have a sufficient supply of ‘human lymph’ vaccinated babies had to return to the vaccinator after eight days. The scab of the vaccination site would be lifted to obtain the lymph / matter that would be used to vaccinate another child. (From the mid 1860s lymph from infected cattle was increasingly used. In 1898 an Act was passed that banned arm-to-arm vaccinations. Click for Reference.
  1. The vaccination process would have been at best uncomfortable, and worse painful, and certainly distressing forThe vaccinator a baby or child. It involved using a lancet to score the skin so as to break the surface – not once but on at least four places. The lymph would then be smeared into the scored skin. (Bodily Matters, The Anti-vaccination Movement I England 1853-1907.Nadja Durbach. 2005. p3.)  {It would seem that doctors had their own distinctive style for scoring a child’s skin. In 1892 Mary Egan was arrested by Rochester police for abandoning her baby. Dr. Walter Buchanan, the medical officer, recognised the pattern of the vaccination marks on the child’s arm as having been made by himself. This enabled him to identify the child and in turn its mother. (Mary said she deserted the child because she was afraid to take it to her parents)}. (Yorkshire Evening Post, 27 May 1892).
  1. It was impossible to administer a‘standardised’ dose in this way. Some recipients therefore may not have received enough to provoke an immune response sufficient to fight-off smallpox. This would have further reinforced the case of anti-vaccinators who questioned the effectiveness of vaccination.
  1. Not all vaccinators were competent so some ‘failures’ were due more to poor technique than bad science. (The Vaccination Controversy. Stanley Williamson. 2007. Page 98.)
  1. Lymph taken from another person could be infected with diseases other than cowpox – such as syphilis or hepatitis (Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers’ Gazette, 30 January 1886). {Confirmed as a possibility in evidence taken by the Royal Commission during the years 1889-1897. Click to view.}
  1. It was not until 1867 that Joesph Lister demonstrated the importance of sterile techniques. It is therefore veryLancet possible that the instruments used in vaccinations were not sterilised between procedures, and the site of the inoculation not cleaned before it was cut. This would have enabled germs that the skin had kept out to enter the body. This was an additional risk for children of the working classes who at this time were probably undernourished and thereby poorly equipped to fight infections.
  1. It was not until the 1890s that it was accepted that disease was caused by germs. As much progress had been achieved before then in fighting disease through better sanitation, many believed that smallpox could be controlled in a similar way and without the recourse to vaccinations.

Some doctors were aware of the negative aspects of vaccinating children with cowpox and spoke against the procedure. Others felt they were ‘minor’ compared to the consequences of a smallpox epidemic. Whatever the reasons, there were legitimate concerns about the use of vaccination which the Government did not or could not address. However, as will be seen later some of the better off people of Medway did seem to accept vaccination was worthwhile – they just didn’t want to pay for it!


Some ‘Legal Stuff’

With the Government committed to a vaccination programme to combat smallpox, and growing / better organised anti-vaccinators who opposed it, the Government made vaccination against smallpox compulsory. Those who failed to comply with the Vaccination Acts faced increasing and cumulative penalties.

The Vaccination Acts

There were a series of Acts passed that directed and enforced the Government’s vaccination policy. {Local Poor Law Guardians were responsible for ensuing compliance with the Vaccination Acts.}

1840 Act – provided optional and free vaccinations for the poor, and outlawed “inoculation” with smallpox material. Instead lymph from people or cattle infected with cowpox was to be used.

1853 Act – introduced compulsory vaccination for all infants under 3 months. In doing so the Government was ‘following the science’ by acting on the recommendation of the Epidemiological Society that had been set up in 1850. Many thought this Act was intolerably oppressive. It certainly was a significant shift in the way that the Government was able to control the lives of individuals. {This genre legislation was added too with the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s.} This Act required every medical practitioner to provide the local registrar of births with a certificate for every child he had successful vaccinated. The law though did not require the medical officer to be advised of all births. The law also required every vaccinated child to be reexamined after 8-10 days to confirm an immune response had been achieved, and to provide lymph to vaccinate another child. Parents who failed to have their child vaccinated or reexamined could be fined up to £1 which went into the poor-rate fund. (£1 was roughly the equivalent of £120 today).

On being notified of a birth an order was issued to the parent – “Notice of the Requirement of Vaccination” – was issued. To ensure there was no excuse the notice provided details of doctors and their availability to undertake the vaccination.

Compulsory Vaccination

It would appear that prosecutions under this Act were left to local discretion and were minimal in Medway. Presumably as a consequence of a smallpox outbreak in Medway the Medway Board of Guardians announced in May 1863 that it intended to prosecute parents who refused to have their children vaccinated.  This created great a demand for vaccinations. Dr Hutchins reported that he vaccinated 50 persons in one day and Mr Ely no less that 131 – half of whom were adults. Mr Ely stated that the demand was such that he had insufficient vaccine for another session. When asked if he could borrow vaccine matter from other surgeons he said they were already helping (Chatham News, 9 May 1863).

1867 Act – made it a criminal offence not to have a child under the age of 14 years vaccinated. It also allowed the repeated fining or imprisonment of a parent who failed to have their child vaccinated or failed to pay the fine. {The father was generally prosecuted but should he be unavailable – such as in prison in one account I read – the mother would be prosecuted.}

1871 Act – required Poor Law Boards of Guardians to appoint Vaccination Officers to enforce the law. The Act also introduced a local ‘track and trace’ system that required vaccinators to be advised of all new births, and the vaccinator to return to the registrar a certificate confirming a successful vaccination. This Act reinforced the principle of compulsion and in turn mobilised more opposition to the Vaccination Acts – including the setting up of the National Anti Compulsory Vaccination League by Rev. William and Mary Hume-Rothery – but principally by Mary.

{It’s worth noting here that Mary Hume-Rothery was also a very active campaigner for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860’s. This legislation compelled women, thought to be prostitutes to submit to a humiliating examination, and if found to be infected to be incarcerated in a Lock Hospital or Ward – such as what existed at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Rochester – and to be forcibly treated. (See St Barts.) It’s therefore not surprising that Mary Hume-Rothery also challenged the Governments ‘right’ to compel parents to have their children vaccinated.}

In 1898 an Act was passed that allowed parents who genuinely believed that vaccinations were not safe/effective to obtain a certificate of exemption – but they were difficult to get hold of. A certificate had to be obtained within 4 month of a child’s birth. Some magistrates drew out the process of determining whether the applicant was a genuine conscientious objector so long that a certificate could not issued within time. {Yes – the term conscientious objector was in use before World War 1.}

Although the Government mandated the vaccination of children, adults still had some choice over whether to be vaccinated. I say ‘some choice’ as the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway Company ordered the whole of their staff at Faversham Station to be vaccinated as smallpox was prevailing in the area (Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser, 1 January 1866); one has to wonder whether they would have kept their job had they refused?

Abuse of the system?

There is evidence that the vaccination system was abused by those who could afford to pay for a private vaccination. Because of the cost (1s 6d per vaccination) the Medway Board became concerned that officers of the garrison and many persons of good position, had been revaccinated at the expense of the parish by attending one of the public vaccination stations. {Ive found reference to vaccination stations in Luton – possibly the Medway Union – and Old Brompton.} In 1883 the Medway Guardians discussed applying to relocate the vaccination station for Gillingham from Old Brompton to New Brompton which had the largest population in the parish. There was however concern about this as Old Brompton also had a need for a vaccination station. In the end it appears that they decided that an application would be made to relocate the vaccination station to New Brompton as this would avoid the need for people from Gillingham having to cross The Lines. (Rochester, Chatham & Gillingham Journal, 25 August 1883 and 13 October 1883). 

In order to discourage this they considered regarding these people as self-declared paupers, and as paupers they would lose their right to vote. It was however found that the Board did not have the right to refuse to vaccinate someone who presented themselves at a vaccination station (Maidstone Telegraph, 15 April 1871). {It is unsafe to infer much from this but it could suggest a significant number in Medway were not actually against being vaccinated, and were therefore convinced that the benefits outweighed the risks. This could well have been the case for better nourished and better accommodated households.}

Political Context

The 19th century was a time of phenomenal political change driven by the Radicals/Whigs, later known as the Liberals, who wanted greater political accountability nationally and locally. 1867 saw a rapid expansion in the number of people eligible to vote – and thus able to hold the Government to account.

Medway, particularly Rochester, was a ‘radical hotbed’ for political change and the vaccination laws provided a perfect ‘cause’ that local and national radicals could use to challenge the Government. {A look at the election results for Rochester during the 1880s shows it was a ‘swing’ constituency. Campaigning must therefore have been ‘rigorous’ – on any contentious issue.}

The Medway Perspective

Medway’s the Poor Law Guardians and magistrates (probably the small people) seemed to be generally convinced of the safety of the vaccine. 

When a child died shortly after being vaccinated, the cause was often put down to another. For instance, William Smallman of Strood was prosecuted by the vaccination officer for the North Aylesford Guardians, for not having his daughter Emma vaccinated. He was represented in Court by his wife who claimed to have lost a child following vaccination. Dr J H Hutchins who had seen the child when it was sick, advised the Court that the cause of death was neglect. He said he found the Smallman’s home to be “in a dirty state and the hygienic arrangements of the house were bad”. The magistrates accepted that the child died of erysipelas that was caused indirectly by the vaccination “but which might have also happened upon any punctured wound”. An inspector from the Medical Board in London had inquired into this death of this child and declared himself satisfied that the vaccination procedure was correctly followed. William Smallman was fined 5s with 9s costs (Rochester, Chatham & Gillingham Journal, 2 December 1876).

Charles Washington Nye and Samual Joseph West

Now to the accounts of the protests of Charles Washington Nye of Chatham, who became the most famed amongst the anti-vaccinators in Britain, and that of Samual Joseph West of Rochester. Although many more men were prosecuted in Medway for not having their child vaccinated, they were not repeat ‘offenders’ and there were generally mitigating circumstances that led to magistrates giving more time for the vaccination to be undertaken (14 days) or inflicting a lesser sentence.

Amongst the news reports of the court appearances of Charles Nye and Samuel West reference was made to them being leading members of anti-vaccination leagues that supported them in their ‘protest’. Without financial support one has to wonder whether they would have been able to make their principled stands and to hold-out for so long.

In 1878 the National Anti Compulsory Vaccination League appealed for donations to support its work and the stand being taken by Charles Nye. (e.g. Maryport Advertiser, 26 April 1878). In May 1878, following Charles Nye’s release from prison the Hume-Rotherys presented him with a purse containing £12 15s, and another to Mrs. Nye. (Rutland Echo and Leicestershire Advertiser, 24 May 1878). {Based on the Bank of England’s Inflation Calculator this would have been in excess of £1,500 at today’s values.}

The following is primarily based on newspaper reports of the time.

Charles Washington Nye was born in St. Margaret, Rochester, on 12 April 1829 and lived as an adult at 159 and 147 Brook, Chatham. He was a watchmaker and married to Cecelia who was born around 1838. He was also the secretary of the local branch of the Anti-Vaccination Society. (Edinburgh Evening News,18 April 1878.) Charles claimed to have lost two children to the vaccination and was therefore unprepared to have his other of children vaccinated.

It is correct that Charles Nye lost two children within a few days of each other in 1866 – but it was not to smallpox, they died of cholera. It was reported in the press that an inquest was held at the Golden Lion, Chatham*, on the body of three year old Thomas Edwin Nye. It was reported that the father of the deceased [Charles Nye] was in good work as a watchmaker and lived with four children in a room in a five roomed house on the Brook, Chatham. It was reported that no less than 22 persons lived in that house. The inquest heard a brother of the deceased had died a few days before with cholera. Mr Ely, surgeon, told the inquest that he attributed the outbreak to the impure water that the inmates of the house used. The jury determined that Thomas Nye had died of cholera. (Dover Express, 16 November 1866). {* I’ve been able to locate a Golden Lion PH in Rochester, not one in Chatham.}

Early in 1870 Charles Nye took a stance against the Vaccination Acts. 

Accused in courts of wanting to be a martyr, Charles wrote to the Chatham News to say he was not acting in defiance of the Guardians but the foul Act of Parliament. He said there were only three ways of meeting a prosecution – to pay the fine, go to gaol, or have his child vaccinated. As he was not prepared to pay fines, and believed that vaccination meant disease and death, the only course open to him was to go the gaol (Chatham News, 26 February 1870).

In May 1870 Charles Nye’s refusal to have his children vaccinated was brought before Medway Board of Guardians for a 3rd time. The Clerk reported that he believed that Charles would persist in his refusal, and therefore wanted to know how the Board wished to proceed. 

Mr Wyles, one of the Guardians of the Medway Union, was concerned that prosecuting Charles Nye again would only make a martyr of him and the Clerk should seek to summon another person. During discussion it was stated that there was no one else holding out against vaccination to the extent of Charles Nye. (Chatham News, 7 May 1870.)

In July 1870 Charles Nye was summoned for the 4th time for not having his 18 month old child vaccinated. The prosecutor highlighted the risks this posed to the overcrowded neighbourhood in which he lived. Charles was fined £1 (the maximum) with costs, but it was recognised that he may refuse to pay so in default he would be sentenced to one month’s hard-labour. (Kentish Independent, 23 July 1870.)

Hard-labour proved no deterrent to Charles Nye as under the headline “Anti-Vaccine Mania” it was reported in January 1872 that he was before the magistrates for a 6th time. Mr Buchanan presenting the case against Charles stressed the importance of the prosecution because of the high prevalence of smallpox in New Brompton. Charles was again fined £1 or in default, one month’s imprisonment. It was suspected that he would, as usual, choose prison and that his family would probably be supported by the Anti-Vaccination Society whilst he served the sentence. (Merthyr Telegraph, and General Advertiser for the Iron Districts of South Wales, 12 January 1872.) {Stanley Williamson in “The Vaccination Controversy”, states that the Nye family were admitted to the Medway Workhouse whilst Charles was in prison, but I’ve not come across any other reference to this, and a search on the online Medway Workhouse register did confirm this. I suspect therefore that this wasn’t necessary as the Anti-Vaccination League supported his family.}

By 1878 the cumulative sentencing of Charles Nye, for the same offence, was gaining national prominence as well as adding his local reputation as a determined ‘anti-vaccinator’. When released from prison in January 1878, from what was his 8th term of imprisonment, he was met at Strood Railway Station by a group of banner waving supporters. They then led him in a torchlight procession, headed by a band, through the streets of Strood and Rochester, to the Corn Exchange, Rochester, where he was received by a large number of ‘anti-vaccinators’ from all parts (Gloucester Citizen, 4 January 1878). The meeting concluded with the agreement to lobby for the reform of the Vaccination Acts.

In March 1878 the repeated sentencing of Charles Nye was raised in Parliament. As good as his case may have been in illustrating the unfairness of the sentencing practices, it was undermined by Charles having claimed he was protesting against the Act as he had lost two children because of the smallpox vaccination when it had been determined by an inquest that they died of cholera. (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 6 March 1878 + Hansard 08 March 1878. Volume 238.)

Despite Charles’s ‘falsehood’ the issue was now less about the dangers of vaccination and more about the unfairness of the repeated prosecutions of conscientious objectors. Although the House of Commons did vote to amend the law so as to limit the fines to which a conscientious objector could be subjected, it failed in the House of Lords by one vote. (Norwich Mercury, 11 May 1878).

With no change in the law Charles Nye was sentenced in April 1878 to another month’s imprisonment (Edinburgh Evening News, 18 April 1878). His release from prison in May was again used to publicise the mission of the anti-vaccinators. He was met on his release by Rev & Mrs Hume-Rothery, and paraded with his wife, through the streets of Chatham in a procession headed by two bands, in a carriage drawn by four greys (Edinburgh Evening News, 17 May 1878). {As will be seen later Samual West was also conveyed in a carriage drawn by four greys when he was released from prison in March 1878 – suggesting that he and Charles Nye shared common supporters.}

The last report I’ve found related to Charles Nye’s refusal to have his child vaccinated was in 1881 when he was summoned for the 12th time (Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 18 May 1881). {The 1881 Census though shows he still had children of an age that required vaccination. Ella Stewart-Peters in her PhD thesis says this is because Nye refused to register further births in order to avoid further prosecutions; something that he could do as the law at this time did not require a birth to be registered

Samual Joseph West was born in Rochester in 1849 possibly in Free School Lane. As an adult he lived at 105 or 115 Eastgate / St. Catherine’s Villa, New Road, Star Hill, with his first wife Katelena / Katellena nee Allison, born 1856. (They married in St. Nicholas Church on 16 Oct 1872.)

Samual West’s objection to the Vaccination Acts appears to have been subtly different to that of Charles Nye. He was against the use of vaccination to control smallpox because he regarded it as unnecessary and ineffective. Improved public sanitation had been shown to control the spread of other diseases and it was not yet known that germs – bacteria or virus – were the cause of diseases. Until this was known it was generally accepted that disease was caused by ‘miasma’ – unpleasant smells or vapour, both of which are ‘removed’ by better sanitation, and in turn a diminution of killer diseases in communities. (For more local information read Medway’s Epidemics.)

This ‘life-experience’ and the fact that Samual West’s father had been a herbalist, could have affirmed his belief that there was an effective alternative to the ‘less than safe’ and painful procedure of vaccination.

Although not related to Samuel West, as far as I know, Charles Picuot, a chemist from High Street, Strood, was brought before magistrates for not having his child vaccinated. Picuot stated he was a conscientious objector. In response to the magistrate asking why Picuot held views so different to the “most learned and clever surgeons of the country”, he replied that his 30 years experience as a chemist and druggist meant he had more experience of the affects of vaccination than many of those medical men (West Maidstone Telegraph, 1 April 1871).

It is clear from news-reports that Samual West and his first wife, Katelina, were political activists. In 1883 delegates attending a conference of the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League that was held in Lincoln, were entreated to follow the example of Samual West who had stirred up such opposition at Rochester that he secured the rejection of the “pseudo-Liberal” Sir Julian Goldsmid in the 1880 election. The delegates were told they had to do “what Mr West dutifully and bravely did, as anti-vaccinators all over the country could do, and must do, if they would have the diabolical Acts repealed.” Conference heard that the League’s intention was to send “to the House of Commons an army of men powerful enough for the destruction of the vaccination tyranny” (London Evening Standard, 26 September 1883). {Goldsmid had represented Rochester in Parliament from 1870. He lost the seat in the 1880 General Election that resulted in the Liberals securing one of their largest-ever majorities.}

Katelina was also politically active. She was a member of the Rochester School Board – one of the few public positions that could be held by women at that time (Click for reference) . In 1882 the Rochester Independent Working Men’s Committee presented her with a cross ornament for “the conquering in Kent of the prejudice against females serving in municipal offices” (Folkestone Express, 21 January 1882). Bearing in mind the times – the article reporting the honour referred to Katelena as “Mrs S J West”.

Tragically Katelena with her child, died in childbirth in 1887 (Gravesend Reporter, North Kent and South Essex Advertiser, 5 November 1887); one has to wonder how much more she might have achieved had she lived beyond her 31 years.

Samuel West later married Susannah with whom he had more children and continued his campaign against the Vaccination Acts – but in Portsmouth.

I venture to suggest that Samual West could have been fanatical. Verified through census information he gave some of his children names to evidence his support for the campaign against the Vaccination Acts. In addition to the children named in the following, he had a daughter born in 1875 who he had baptised as “Kattelina Antivaccinator West”. 

Samuel West, like Charles Nye, was prepared to go to gaol for his beliefs – something much appreciated by anti-vaccination groups. However it would appear that the repeated prosecutions of Charles Nye for the same offence, had caused some disquiet. 

In November 1876, under the headline “Anti-Vaccination Carried to the Extreme” it was reported that Samuel West had been summoned by Mr Jabes Whitehead, the vaccination officer of the Medway Union, to explain why he had neglected to have his child Sidney Joseph Antivaccinator West vaccinated within 3 month of its birth. Samuel West did not appear but was represented by a “friend”, Thomas Ward of Chatham. It would seem the hearing could have been quite fraught.

Thomas Ward claimed that vaccination was “altogether a doctors dogma”. Although Samuel was not in Court his wife Katelina was. When the magistrates inflicted a fine of £1 and 10s costs, she accused them of being so “bigoted” in inflicting such a heavy penalty when they own no goods. This was probably said in anticipation of a warrant being issued to take goods of the value of the fine. The magistrate – General Bingham – replied that failure to pay would lead to 3 months imprisonment; he was quickly corrected by the Clerk who stated that the maximum was 1 month (Rochester, Chatham & Gillingham Journal, November 1876).  

It would seem that the fine was not sufficient to make Samuel West comply with the law as his case was again brought up again before Medway Guardians later in the month. One assumes from this the fine had been paid or he would have up before the magistrates for having failed to pay the fine. After discussion the Board ultimately decided that Samuel West should not be prosecuted in respect of the the child for which he [had] already suffered (Rochester, Chatham & Gillingham Journal, 2 December 1876). A decision on this matter had been carried forward from the previous week as the Guardians were warned that if there was a smallpox outbreak they would be held responsible. They were also made aware of the Keighley guardians who had arrested and incarcerated in York Castle for not applying the Vaccination Act. (Rochester, Chatham & Gillingham Journal, 25 November 1876; The Vaccination Controversy, P208).

Clemency or tolerance though did not last long and Samuel West was eventually imprisoned.

On his release from Maidstone Gaol in March 1878 where he had been incarcerated for failing to have had his child vaccinated, he was met by a group of supporters. Triumphantly they conveyed him in an open carriage drawn by four greys horses, through the principal streets of Maidstone to Fairmeadow. Accompanying him in the carriage was a friend and two women {possibly his wife and Cecelia Nye – wife of Charles} each of whom carried a baby, and Charles Nye. On board the coach was a cornopean (cornet) player and as they travelled along they all sang “They all do it” – which, according to the journalist, may have been a lament for the errors of the majority of the population that complied with the law. At Fairmeadow there as a disappointing crowd who vociferously applauded the diatribes launched against vaccination. The view of the journalist was that the Maidstone demonstration was a miserable failure. At its conclusion the party proceeded to Chatham to conduct a “similar agitation”. (Thanet Advertiser, 30 March 1878).

Two years later in 1880 Samuel West was before magistrates again for not having a child vaccinated – the child was named “Clifton Anti-Vaccination West”. (Clifton being from Lord Clifton a high profile anti-vaccinator) (Kent & Sussex Courier, 5 May 1880). At the hearing Samuel West was described as prominent member of the Anti-Vaccination League and it was stated that he had frequently been convicted for infringement of the Vaccination Laws. In his defence Samuel West claimed that vaccination increased rather than diminished smallpox. The magistrates stated that no matter how many medical men he quoted they had to apply the law as it stands, and fined him 20s (£1) with costs of 9s. This led to him to complain that there was one law for the poor and another for the rich as Mr Heath, a wealthy local tradesman, had only been fined 10s for a similar offence. Samuel West stated that he did not intend to pay any tax to keep his child healthy and suggested the magistrates commit him to prison. He also said that the local MP, Mr Arthur Otway, had pledged to seek the repeal of the Vaccination laws. (East Kent Gazette, 24 April 1880). {Arthur Otway, a Liberal politician, also campaigned to bring an end to flogging in the military.} For more information see Flogging blog.

In 1882 Samuel West was before magistrates again for failing to have another child vaccinated. This child had been named William Hume Rothery West. ‘Hume Rothery’ being taken from the surname of William and Mary Catherine Hume-Rothery the prominent anti-vaccinators.

Government Loses the PR Campaign

The accumulating penalties passed on those fighting on a point of principle led to both sides of the vaccination debate to make ‘common-cause’.  It’s hard not to feel compassion for the anti-vaccinators when reading of their experiences and those who felt they had no choice but to comply with the legislation. {For a working class family a fine of £1 (£120 at 2019 values) that could be repeatedly levied, would have been overwhelming.}

It is difficult to verify the facts but letters appeared in the press that reflected badly on the Government. The following description is taken from a letter printed in 1897 but claimed knowledge of the past: 

thousands of men and women previously of good character [have] been imprisoned and forced to ‘consort with depraved criminals’, forced to wear prison garb, to undertake hard labour, [and to] sleep on an instrument of torture known as a plank bed – without sufficient blankets. 

To highlight what he referred to as ‘abuses’ the correspondent also drew on the evidence that Charles Nye gave to the Royal Commission looking into the vaccination legislation (Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser, 11 September 1897).

In his evidence Charles Nye described a release from Canterbury goal. He was 28 miles from home and didn’t have a farthing in his pocket. He reported that during 1870 he served three prison sentences – 14 days in March, and 31 days in July & December. During these periods he was employed in pushing wheelbarrows of rock. He said his hands were so badly damaged the handles of the barrow became stained with his blood. When he refused to push the barrow anymore he was given the task of oakum picking – the unpicking of tarred rope. He said that the warders punished him for refusing barrow work by first serving him a supper of gruel and then taking it away because they said he was lazy. (The Vaccination Controversy, Stanley William. 2007, p206.)

Reports of Charles Nye’s prison experiences would have been enough to compel many people,

albeit very reluctantly, comply with the law. Mothers particularly would have been aware of the distress caused to their babies by vaccination, as well as the potential risks, so the following, though dramatic, has a ring of truth about it:

women have been seen going slowly and reluctantly to the vaccination stations with tears in their eyes, their hearts filled with heaviness through the dread of the operation on their little ones.” (Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser, 11 September 1897).

A shift in attitude from compulsory vaccination

In the 1880s, perhaps because of several General Elections in which the Liberals won a majority in 1880 and 1885, and a far larger electorate that included more working class people, the Government accepted the need to review the vaccination legislation. Medway which seems to have had only two determined anti-vaccinators appears not to have been so hostile to the Acts as counties further north. The inhabitants of Rochester may well have been closely split over whether vaccination was good or bad. The “Great Conservative” meeting held at Rochester in 1889 heard that a Royal Commission had been set up to look at this legislation. It is perhaps significant that the prospective parliamentary candidate (name unrecorded but probably Horatio Davies) said he would happily support the “majority view” – perhaps suggesting he didn’t know what that might be? (Rochester, Chatham & Gillingham Journal, 20 April 1889). {As it happened he lost the seat to a Liberal in the 1889 General Election, so perhaps he was trying to attract support of Liberals by not nailing his colours to a particular position?}

When the Royal Commission reported it was unable to reach a unanimous view on the need or benefits of vaccination. However, both sides of the argument stated that it was “unwise to attempt to enforce vaccination on those who regard it as useless and dangerous …. And that it would be simpler and more logical to abolish compulsory vaccination altogether..” (Report of the Royal Commission into Vaccines. 1889-1897. Vol. 1.)

Although compulsory vaccination was not ended legislation was passed and subsequently improved, that enabled genuine conscientious objectors to opt-out. The Government looked to  allowing parents to require the use of calf-vaccine. Rather like we are experiencing today with the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine special arrangements needed to be put in place. As it was impractical to do calf-to-arm vaccinations, the Government had to set up special calf-vaccination stations (Morning Post, 11 December 1896).

With the main causes of resentment removed the anti-vaccination movements slowly diminished. {Vaccination rates declined significantly from 1907 when it became easier for a parent to register a conscientious objection to their child being vaccinated.}

And into the 20th Century

By the start of the 20th century it was recognised and widely accepted that vaccination against smallpox worked. I suspect that in addition to the vaccination procedure improving, doctors had advanced their thinking and improved their clinical practice, with the benefit of the discoveries of Louis Pasteur and James Lister.

Although vaccination was not entirely mandatory more ‘subtle’ approaches began to be taken to promote vaccination – like, if you want a job or perhaps keep your job, you better get vaccinated! 

Early in 1902 it was ordered that the whole of the Kent County Constabulary – a total of 5,000 men – were to be vaccinated against smallpox (Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser, 2 January 1902). Later in the year the Admiralty ordered that all men seeking work at the Chatham Dockyard would only be taken on if they agreed to being revaccinated or were able to prove they have been recently revaccinated. The Admiralty also ordered that everything was also to be done to induce men already in the Dockyard service to voluntary submit themselves for vaccination (Portsmouth Evening News, 5 July 1902).

A Salutary Reminder?

The last community case of smallpox in Britain occurred in 1973 – although a medical photographer at Birmingham Medical School died of the disease in 1978. She probably picked it up from a laboratory. Fortunately, those who had been in contact with her were quickly identified and isolated, and an epidemic averted.


All are cited with the text but I found the following two book particularly informative. What struck me was that it was Medway’s two determined anti-vaccinators who were referenced most for taking a stand for their principles. This seemed ‘strange’ as it seems the counties further north took the greatest exception to the vaccination laws. It was also interesting that I found most reference to their protests in northern papers. I hope they weren’t ‘used’ by more wealthy liberals as ‘foot-soldiers’?

The Vaccination Controversy. The rise, reign and fallow compulsory vaccination for smallpox. Stanley Williamson. 2007

Bodily Matters. The Anti-vaccination Movement in England, 1853 – 1907/Nadja Durbach. 2005