Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced this week that he was considering making vaccination against measles compulsory for schools. IAN LOCKWOOD looks back at earlier attitudes to vaccination and battles to force parents to immunise their children against smallpox

IN the Victorian era, responsibility for vaccination lay with the Skipton Guardians – the elected body of worthies who ran the Skipton Workhouse.

Under an Act of 1867, they could prosecute parents who did not vaccinate their children. However, the powers were widely ignored until 1875 when Yorkshire was hit by a severe outbreak of smallpox which resulted in five cases in Skipton, two of them fatal.

Dr Symes, the Skipton district medical officer of health, asked the guardians to prosecute William Hallam, a Skipton weaver with an unvaccinated young child living in the same yard as one of the victims. But several guardians argued that vaccination was dangerous, the most vociferous being the guardian representing Bradley called Throup, who blamed his daughter’s death from tuberculosis on the smallpox vaccination. The guardians decided against prosecution.

Dr Symes was astonished. Later that week he made his report to the Local Board of Health and described the guardians’ decision not to prosecute as extraordinary and weak minded. There were more than 100 children without vaccination in Skipton posing a serious threat to life, he claimed. The argument was a serious embarrassment to JB Dewhurst, who sat on both the Board of Guardians and the Board of Health. He suggested that the guardians be politely asked to reconsider.

The Skipton decision was even raised in Parliament by local MP Sir Matthew Wilson, who also attended the next monthly meeting of the guardians to speak. The pressure on the guardians to uphold the law was intense and a 14-8 vote to overturn their earlier decision was recorded. A week later Hallam appeared in court where his objection that he was morally opposed to vaccination was abruptly brushed aside and he was fined 20 shillings.

A second father, a coachbuilder called Lawson, was fined the same amount but he was more defiant. He asked the bench why only two parents of 100 unvaccinated children had been prosecuted – could he expect to see the other 98 in court next week? The answer was no.

Instead the workhouse guardians decided to hold their own inquiry into the dangers of vaccination. They found that seven deaths from smallpox had occurred in the Skipton Union (which covered surrounding villages) in three years and none of the victims had been vaccinated. Claims that people had fallen ill and even died from vaccinations were “rash, unfounded and exaggerated”.

The report had little effect. In 1892 the Board of Guardians received a report that 87 children born in Skipton in 1891 had not been vaccinated and voted to prosecute fathers.

Within a month a Skipton Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Society was founded to protest. It held meetings around the Skipton area claiming that immunisation was a tax on the working man and a danger to his children. The anti-vaccinators had supporters among the guardians and prosecutions were put on hold.

A new Vaccination Act in 1898 introduced a “conscience clause” allowing parents who did not believe vaccination was safe or effective to obtain a certificate of exemption by applying to the local magistrates. In Skipton so many parents applied that the local magistrates swore them in in batches, asked simply if they were conscientious objectors and issued the relevant certificates.

Throughout the country the number of vaccinations fluctuated wildly depending on the views of the magistrates. The total number of vaccination exemption certificates given in the Skipton court was put at 1,858 by the Craven Herald and while this figure includes Barnoldswick and Silsden, it is astonishing that the corresponding figure in Birmingham was just 42, in Manchester 19 and Liverpool a mere seven! Skipton’s figure was not far below London’s (2,336) although Oldham had the highest figure – 27,052 certificates.

Vaccination remained unpopular in Skipton. In 1921 a report noted that of 197 births in Skipton in the previous year, only 31 had been vaccinated, with 142 objections offered and the remaining 24 simply ignoring the procedures.

The arrival of the NHS seems to have altered these prejudices. When, in 1961, a three-year-old Skipton girl caught smallpox, queues formed outside the Skipton doctors’ surgeries for a vaccination and supplies were quickly exhausted.

* This article was adapted from The History of Skipton by Ian Lockwood, at nearly 600 pages the most comprehensive history of the town ever published.