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Soc Hist Med. 2000 Apr;13(1):45-62.

'They might as well brand us': working-class resistance to compulsory vaccination in Victorian England.

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Department of History, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA.


From its origins in resistance to the 1853 Compulsory Vaccination Act, the Victorian anti-vaccination movement successfully challenged the public health policies of an increasingly interventionist state. Anti-vaccinationists were not only middle-class reformers, but were also drawn from a politically active working class. These campaigners saw compulsory vaccination as an extreme example of class legislation, for its policy and administration implicitly targeted working-class infants and inflicted multiple penalties on a public who considered themselves 'conscientious objectors'. Anti-vaccinationism was quickly absorbed into English working-class culture. Indeed, it helped to reorganize working-class identities around the site of the vulnerable body thereby absorbing many people into a working class who interpreted the violation of their bodies as a form of political tyranny. Participation in this movement was, however, also an exclusive exercise for anti-vaccinators, as respectable working-class citizens distinguished themselves from members of the 'undeserving' classes. This paper explores the class nature of the Vaccination Acts, their relationship to the New Poor Law, and the political implications of their administration. It also imbeds anti-vaccinationism firmly within working-class culture, illustrating the campaign's relationship to popular protest and entertainment, and this legislation's impact upon working-class bodies.

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