Compulsory Cow Pox Vaccination in 1853

In Whitehaven in 1853, the year before the setting of my novel “New Beginnings on Vancouver Island”, the Clerk to the Guardians, Christopher Hodgkin issued a proclamation to parents and their guardians that all children must be vaccinated BY ORDER against Cow Pox.

Medical practitioners were authorised to vaccinate all persons resident within the appointed area free of charge. Dr Robert Lumb, Whitehaven’s public vaccinator, held his surgery at 108 Scotch Street and days of attendance were everyday except Sunday from 9am.

From August 1st every child had to be vaccinated within four months of their birth and inspected on the eighth day thereafter. Should the child be ill this could be deferred by two months. The penalty for failing to present the child was a forfeit not exceeding twenty shillings. (This corresponded roughly to two week’s wage for a well paid ship builder’s carpenter and 6 weeks for the lowest ranking apprentice.)

While there do not appear to have been any official lock down rules in force it was “AN OFFENCE TO ENDANGER OTHER PERSONS BY CARRYING ABOUT OR EXPOSING ANY PERSON WHO MAY HAVE CAUGHT THE COW POX,” whether naturally or by inoculation. Such an offence was punishable with ONE MONTH’S IMPRISONMENT in the Common Gaol or House of Correction.

It was also the duty of all persons to not only avoid any offence but to provide information to the magistrates of any such offences carried out by anyone who neglected to have his or her children vaccinated.

It’s interesting to note that it is specifically stated that the inoculation costs were covered by the Poor Rates, but were not to be considered parochial relief, alms or charitable allowance for any recipient. This would have distanced the inoculations from charity dispensed via the workhouse and the perceived shame attached to that.

Ref: Sickness & Poverty in Nineteenth Century Whitehaven,The Friends of Whithaven Museum, 1986.

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