By Andy Hirst, Special Correspondent

The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked anti-vaccination protests worldwide … but this certainly isn’t something new as they were doing that in the Colne Valley 137 years ago.

In the mid-1800s smallpox was the main killer but many people nowadays aren’t aware that way back then there was a major vaccination programme to try to beat this deadly disease.

Research by Brian Haigh, vice-chairman of Huddersfield Local History Society, reveals that in 1853 compulsory vaccination against smallpox was introduced for babies aged up to three months.

Despite the high mortality from smallpox – about 15% of those who were infected were killed by the virus – the Act met with opposition from some people who claimed it was unsafe or unnecessary. Others refused it on the grounds that they had the right to control their own bodies and those of their children.

This led to public protests and the formation of anti-vaccination societies. A national Anti-Vaccination League was eventually set up in 1893.

Brian found a story in the Huddersfield Chronicle on January 19, 1884, about parents summonsed to court and heavily fined for refusing to have their children vaccinated against smallpox. It’s surprising that the two defendants came from the Colne Valley where there was a history of vaccination promoted by the Countess of Dartmouth.

Canal lock at Slaithwaite – pic by Andy Hirst

The newspaper report states: “Fred Beaumont, draper of Marsden, appeared in answer to a summons, charged with neglecting to have his child, Ann Gertrude, vaccinated. Mr Broadhead (prosecutor) stated that the child had been born on the 25th November, 1882, and had not been vaccinated.

“The defendant said he had a conscientious objection to vaccination and pleaded for a mitigation of the fine but the Bench inflicted the full penalty, 20 shillings (equivalent to about £125 today), and costs which would have been just over 10 shillings (around £65).

“Joseph Wilkinson, weaver of Slaithwaite, was similarly charged. His child was born on the 22nd January, 1882, and on the 24th of last January he was fined 20s. and costs. The defendant, on leaving the box said: ‘You might as well save your time and my money, because it will not have to be done.’”

Vaccination eventually proved successful in eliminating smallpox as a cause of death in England and Wales and compulsory vaccination ended in 1948.

Brian reveals that in 1962 there was an outbreak of the potentially fatal disease in Bradford brought into the country by a nine-year-old girl who had arrived just a month earlier from her home country of Pakistan. In an effort to contain the disease and stop it spreading, all 900 known direct and indirect contacts of the girl, who sadly later died, were traced, observed and, if necessary, isolated in hospitals.

Around 250,000 people were vaccinated over four days in Bradford and the surrounding area. In Huddersfield queues formed along Peel Street and into Ramsden Street for vaccinations which were administered in Huddersfield Town Hall after it became a temporary vaccination centre. Brian Haigh was one of those who joined the queue.

READ MORE: Why Huddersfield was a ‘special’ place in the First World War

Following a programme of mass vaccination co-ordinated by the World Health Organisation, smallpox was finally eradicated from those parts of the world where it had been endemic by 1978 – the same year as the last recorded death from smallpox in the UK.

* Written by former Huddersfield Examiner Head of Content ANDY HIRST who now runs his own Huddersfield-based agency AH-PR specialising in press releases, blogging and copywriting for business in Yorkshire and across the UK.