Vaccination and the Vote: a Victorian dilemma

With mass vaccinations underway across the nation, spare a thought for the Victorian pioneers of the UK’s first major vaccination programme, against smallpox. As well as battling against all sorts of safety fears and logistical problems, they unwittingly found themselves facing legal issues arising from the small-print of the 1832 Reform Act. In what has to be one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of our representative system, electors who got themselves or family members vaccinated risked losing their voting rights. For a short period, electors actually had to chose between being vaccinated or keeping the franchise.

The history of vaccination against smallpox in the UK – from the experiments of Dr Edward Jenner to the introduction of compulsory vaccination in 1853 – is well documented. The many objections to vaccination, which eventually spawned a Victorian anti-vaccination movement, have also received plenty of attention from historians. Alongside fears about the ‘moral’ and ‘unnatural’ effects of injecting animal matter (cowpox) into humans, including speculation that it triggered the growth of ‘cow hairs’, supporters of vaccination also had to contend with the ongoing popularity of a rival procedure: traditional ‘inoculation’ or ‘variolation’. Practised since ancient times in Asia, this involved scratching the skin open and inserting a small amount of the actual smallpox virus, in the hope of stimulating a limited response that would then protect against the full-scale disease. Unfortunately, the high infection and mortality rates associated with ‘variolation’, when compared with vaccination, made it clear that it needed to be stopped and replaced with vaccination. The question was how best to achieve this. 

Significantly, it was not the government but individual politicians who took the initiative, reflecting the continuing role of private MPs (and individual peers) in initiating legislation during the Victorian period, even on major issues. Two slightly different measures were introduced around the same time in 1840. A bill introduced into the Lords by the Tory peer Lord Ellenborough proposed to set up a free vaccination programme administered by the poor law unions or parish vestries responsible for overseeing local poor relief. It eventually received support from the Whig government. Another bill banning ‘variolation’ and giving medical officers more freedom to oversee vaccination was introduced into the Commons by the radical surgeon (and founder of The Lancet) Thomas Wakley MP. After considerable debate, Wakley’s ban on ‘variolation’ was incorporated into Ellenborough’s bill. The revised measure setting up vaccination by local poor law officials then passed into law as the Vaccination Extension Act, 23 July 1840 (3 & 4 Vict., c. 29).

It was the use of the poor law system to administer vaccinations that created the conundrum for voters. Under section 36 of the 1832 Reform Act, any borough elector who received poor relief or any ‘other alms’ became disqualified from voting for the next year. Since vaccinations were funded directly out of poor law finances, having a jab effectively amounted to receipt of poor relief. The press was quick to seize on this anomaly. ‘Strong doubts appear to exist, whether the parent of a child whose vaccination has been provided for from funds levied under the poor relief act does not thereby become pauperised and consequently disqualified from voting in elections’, warned the Limerick Reporter, 16 October 1840. ‘Because vaccination is performed gratuitously … it pauperizes the parties who resort to it’, observed another paper.

Union vaccination poster: Devon Record Office

At Stamford, the local board of guardians warned voters considering vaccination that it would ‘disqualify them from voting’. Worcester’s poor law officials were similarly convinced that ‘vaccination at the expense of poor law unions … disqualified its recipients from exercising the electoral franchise’ and wrote to the poor law commission for clarification. The commission’s response that it was contrary to the ‘spirit’ of the Act ‘to deprive recipients of vaccination … of their parliamentary franchise’ was considered far from satisfactory by local lawyers. A year later, in their Seventh Annual Report of 1841, the Poor Law Commissioners reported that up to fifty poor law unions had delayed giving vaccinations, believing it would ‘operate to disfranchise any party’ whose family members had been vaccinated.

A poor law union vaccinator at work

How many people actually ending up losing their voting rights because of vaccination is unclear. What is known is that at the highly contested registration revision of October 1840 an unusually large number of electors were ‘objected to’ and disfranchised in the registration courts for having received ‘parochial relief’. The surviving records of local registration agents suggest that the Tories were particularly active in using ‘relief’ (along with other ruses) to remove their political opponents from the electoral rolls, as part of a highly effective registration drive. It was on the basis of this crucial 1840 registration, of course, that the Conservatives went on to secure their sweeping victory at the general election in 1841, bringing Sir Robert Peel to power.

Significantly, one of the final acts of the outgoing Whig government in 1841 was to pass an ‘amending’ law trying to clear up the confusion surrounding the 1840 Vaccination Act, including the vexed question of whether vaccination could ‘deprive any person’ of ‘any right or privilege’ (4 & 5 Vict., c. 32). As with so much legislation of this period, however, the wording left just enough of a legal loophole for unscrupulous registration agents and election attorneys to continue their activities against some ‘beneficiaries’ of free vaccination, though on a far more limited scale. The ongoing link between vaccination and the vote was only completely severed with the introduction of compulsory vaccination (for all children) in 1853. But that, of course, created a whole new raft of political controversies, the legacies of which continue to reverberate today.

Further reading:

Debate on the 1840 vaccination bill: click here.

S. Williamson, The Vaccination Controversy: the rise, reign and fall of compulsory vaccination for smallpox (2007).

‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Thomas Jones Phillips (1790-1843): pioneering Tory election agent

‘Register, register, register!’: political activity in October

P. Salmon, Electoral reform at work: local politics and national parties, 1832-1841, (Royal Historical Society, 2011)

P. Salmon, ‘Electoral reform and the political modernization of England’, Parliaments, Estates, and Representation, xxiii (2003), 49-67 VIEW


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2 Responses to Vaccination and the Vote: a Victorian dilemma

  1. Pingback: Top of the Blogs 2021 – The History of Parliament

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