In 1867 parliament passed one of its more sensible pieces of legislation, the Vaccination Act (30 & 31 Vict. c.84). This built upon several previous smaller acts to insist that all newborn children were vaccinated (at the parish’s expense) within three months of birth. If they did not, or if they failed to bring in their children to be examined, they faced summary conviction and a fine of up to 20s (or prison if they could not pay).
It was this act that James Bovingdon fell foul of in late August 1868. The Merton based poulterer was summoned before the magistrate at Wandsworth Police court by Edwin Bailey, the registrar of births and deaths for Mitcham. He explained that Bovingdon was yet to vaccinate his daughter Emily, who had been born on 3 December 1867.
James Bovingdon told Mr Dayman that he had not vaccinated his child ‘on principle’. When issued with a notice to vaccinate on 8 January he had declared that he ‘would rather send it [Emily] to Australia than have it done’.
The magistrate asked him why he took this view. Bovingdon replied that he’d heard several opinions on the merits of vaccination and was under the impression that it was optional. There was misread mistrust of vaccination and immunisation in the 1800s, born in part of a more general mistrust of the medical profession by the working classes. Powerful anti-vaccination images (like the one of the right) were produced with dark warnings that doctors were more liable to kill your child with the vaccine than save it from smallpox (the killer disease of the nineteenth century).
Bovingdon said also that he’d no idea that a new law compelled him to vaccinate his child. He had, he added, taken the child to be vaccinated after he was summoned to court. That was good but he was still in breach of the law and Mr Dayman fined him 10s with a further 10s costs (20s in all, as the law prescribed). He added that if he didn’t pay the fine he would go to prison for 14 days.
In 1898 a new act was appeased that recognized that some magistrates were not applying the law (which had been tightened further in 1873 to make vaccination compulsory). The 1898 act allowed parents to avoid conviction and a penalty if they ‘made a statutory declaration that [they] confidently believed that vaccination would be prejudicial to the health of the child, and within seven days thereafter delivered, or sent by post, the declaration to the Vaccination Officer of the district’.
Today we have reached a situation where vaccination (for diseases such as measles) has become a serious issue once again. As a result of misinformation being circulated on the Internet some parents fear vaccination even when it is both safe and essential. This risks the return of killer diseases (like smallpox and TB) that were thought to have been eradicated by modern medicine. It is hard not to see the parents that risk their children’s lives (and the lives of many others) as ignorant at best and willfully stupid at worst. Surely it is time to take that decision away from them and reintroduce compulsory vaccination for all children, with appropriate punishment for parents that do not comply.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, August 31, 1868]