“What?” I hear you shout. It’s rather unlikely that the parent taking their child to the Public Vaccinator in the nineteenth century to be vaccinated for smallpox thought that they would be providing information which might help you breakdown a brick wall more than 100 years later. Sadly, the Vaccination Officer’s books do not always survive, but where they do, they may possibly give some clues about that elusive birth record or whereabouts of the family.
Vaccination records are a little used but nevertheless useful resource for family historians. In 1840, legislation was enacted covering England and Wales, requiring all children to be vaccinated against smallpox. Responsibility for enforcing the law was given to the Boards of Guardians of the Poor Law Unions and it is amongst their records that information about vaccination is likely to be found.
When the birth of a child was registered, the Registrar informed the Public Vaccinator (PV), who was employed by the Guardians. The Registrar recorded on the Vaccination Register the details of the child, including gender, date of birth, name of father and the date of birth registration, which was also the date the parent was issued with the notice to have their child vaccinated. Once the child had been vaccinated, a certificate was issued confirming that the vaccination procedure had been performed.
The PV had to report to the Board of Guardians the names of those parents or carers who refused to have their child vaccinated. The Guardians would authorise the prosecution of vaccination defaulters, and the PV would then commence legal proceedings. In 1880, the Government published a list of the names of people prosecuted for failing to have their children vaccinated.(*) This lists, by county, the names of those men and women who were prosecuted and the date of the court decision. It also confirms the penalties imposed, whether fines or even imprisonment for repeated offences. The standard penalty was 10 shillings or 50 pence in modern currency. Bearing in mind that many working men earned only about £1 a week, this was a not insignificant amount. A name on that list could lead you onto local newspaper reports of the case.
It is known that some parents failed to register the birth of their child, to avoid the attentions of the PV until the law regarding registration was changed, which could be another reason why you can’t find a birth record.
(*) Return of the Vaccination Act 1867, Ordered by The House of Commons, to be printed 18 March 1880.
Author: CiCoNO, FWL