From the Darlington & Stockton Times 150 years ago

AT Darlington County Court, a score of fathers appeared charged with failing to get their children vaccinated against smallpox.

From 1853, every child had had to be vaccinated within three months of birth, and from 1867, the town authorities became responsible for ensuring the law was complied with. However, this created an anti-vaccination movement, which was particularly strong in Darlington.

Objections ranged from the safety and efficacy of the vaccine to the infringement of personal liberty.

Ironmonger John Snaith told the chairman of the bench: “Well sir, I wish to state that the vaccination did not protect me, for after being vaccinated I took the smallpox and was insensible for a week and blind for three weeks.”

Accountant William Cowper said “he did not believe the law should have the power to inflict a disease and undoubtedly vaccination was a disease”.

Grocer Isaac Johnson said that “he considered, from an opinion given by a medical gentleman in Newcastle, that he had lost a child through having it vaccinated. He was prepared to pay the penalty rather than suffer the loss of his children”.

All the accused were found guilty and fined £1 plus shillings costs. If they failed to pay, they would go to jail for one month.

Another accountant, Alexander Wheeler, was a Quaker who had “conscientious religious scruples against the law”. He “stated that cowpox was a disease and he could not acknowledge the right of the step to give it to a child. It was with great reluctance that he was placed in his present position”.

That position included refusing to pay his fine and so he would automatically be sent to jail. However, an anonymous woman had written to the court, without his knowledge, saying she would pay to keep him out of the prison.

Thomas Wood of Bondgate made a second appearance before the court. He had already paid his fine for non-vaccination but had still not inoculated his child. This time he was given a magistrate’s order which gave him a month to comply.