Here, Robin Longbottom describes the anger that erupted locally following the introduction in Parliament of the Vaccination Bill

FOR thousands of years, smallpox was one of the great scourges of mankind.

It left millions dead and many of those that survived terribly disfigured and often blind.

In 1798 a Gloucestershire doctor, Edward Jenner, inoculated a related disease in cattle – known as cowpox – into the arm of James Phipps, the nine-year-old son of his gardener. Some weeks later he exposed him to the smallpox virus but he never developed the disease.

He called his process vaccination, from the Latin vacca for cow.

In 1853 Parliament passed the Vaccination Bill requiring every child to be vaccinated, with a penalty of £1 for parents who refused to do so.

But despite the high success rate of vaccination, and its unparalleled benefits, there was huge opposition to it and anti-vaccination societies were formed.

In July 1876 Thomas Harrison, a shoemaker of Glusburn, was brought before the Skipton magistrates court for failing to have his child vaccinated.

A fine and costs were imposed upon him but when he failed to pay, he was sent to Wakefield Prison for one month’s hard labour.

He was released on Saturday, September 4 and on his arrival at Kildwick and Cross Hills Railway Station he was met by a large crowd of supporters.

They celebrated by launching a paper balloon with the effigy of Sir Matthew Wilson, the magistrate who had convicted him, drawn on it and then setting fire to it.

The crowd then processed in triumph to the Friendly Societies Hall in Cross Hills where a substantial tea awaited them.

Support for Thomas Harrison had been widespread, particularly in Keighley where the Board of Guardians had refused to comply with the 1874 Vaccination Act that made them responsible for implementing the local vaccination programme.

In August 1876, whilst Harrison was in prison, a Writ of Mandamus was served upon the guardians for their arrest and incarceration at York Prison.

Two surrendered voluntarily and the others were rounded-up and taken into custody by the sheriff’s officers.

They were initially held at the Devonshire Arms on Church Street but when the transport arrived to take them to Keighley Railway Station, they found their passage down Low Street was blocked by a large mob and so they set off via North Street and Cavendish Street.

The mob took the shorter route and met them at the station where they unhitched the horses and pulled the guardians and their captors back to the Devonshire Arms.

Despite verbal abuse and threats to throw them into the North Beck, the sheriff’s officers were eventually released unharmed and the next day the guardians surrendered voluntarily.

They were taken peaceably by train to the prison at York Castle, the newspapers of the day excitably reporting that they were incarcerated in Clifford’s Tower.

Organised opposition to vaccination began to dissipate after the 1898 Vaccination Act came into force and introduced a conscience clause that gave parents who did not believe in vaccination the right to refuse.

However, outbreaks of the disease continued into the 20th century and vaccination programmes were stepped-up in 1953 in Keighley and 1954 in Skipton.

In 1959, the World Health Organisation began a global eradication programme.

When it was intensified in 1967 all travellers leaving the United Kingdom were required to carry a certificate of vaccination in their passports.

In 1978 Janet Parker, a medical photographer at the University of Birmingham, had the unfortunate distinction to be the last person in the world to die of smallpox.

In 1980, one-hundred-and-eighty-two years after Edward Jenner had developed vaccination, smallpox was officially declared to have been eradicated.

To date it remains only one of two diseases that have been successfully eradicated, the other, rather ironically, being rinderpest in cattle.