An original ‘Anti-Vaxxer’

Warning: some readers may find aspects of this story distressing.

Fear of vaccinations and anti-vaccination protests are nothing new.  Over three hundred years ago, when Edward Jenner, a doctor from Gloucestershire, introduced his inoculation for smallpox he was initially derided as a quack, trying to make a quick fortune. 

Above, a bloodshot eye showing symptoms of haemorrhagic smallpox, below, an eruption of variola nigra on the abdomen of a patient[i]

Smallpox was a terrible virus, which was spread rapidly through coughs and sneezes, killing around 30% of those infected and leaving many survivors blinded or scarred for life.   Initial symptoms of the disease include fever and vomiting, followed by the formation of ulcers in the mouth and a skin rash over most of the body.   Soon the rash would turn into characteristic fluid-filled blisters, and the cause of death involved multiple organ failure.

Since the 1720s, variolation had been a used as a method of attempting to immunise people against smallpox by infecting them with substance from the pustules of patients with a mild form of the disease (variola minor) and – hopefully – inducing a benign type of the disease to stimulate resistance. This practice, long known by Turkish, Chinese and other cultures, was risky and unpleasant but, on the whole, it was generally successful.  It’s worth bearing in  mind that, in those days, people were still being bled to relieve the presence of evil humours in the body.

However, Dr Jenner had noticed that milkmaids in his local farming community were often immune to smallpox.  He realised that their work brought them into contact with cowpox, a mild disease of cattle that only caused a single raised sore on the hands of people who milked the cows.  Jenner decided to test his theory, in a somewhat unorthodox manner, by taking some matter from the hand of a milkmaid and injecting it into his gardener’s eight-year-old son.  The little boy developed a scab and experienced a little discomfort and fever for a day.  Then, six weeks later, Jenner deliberately exposed the boy to smallpox and the boy remained healthy.  Jenner then published his findings “On the Origin of the Vaccine Inoculation”, named from “vacca” being the Latin word for cow, and expressed his hope that “the annihilation of the smallpox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be the final result of this practice”.[ii]

In 1802 a cartoon was published by satirist James Gillray depicted people being given vaccines and sprouting cow heads, and made a mockery of Jenner’s ideas as his theory was generating great suspicion and hostility.  Some doctors opposed it because they were making a lot of money from inoculation and didn’t want to lose that income, the Church did not like the idea of using a disease from cows in human medicine, and some people were sceptical because they thought vaccination was unclean, or because they felt it infringed on their freedom of choice. 

The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!—vide. the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society[iii]

Nevertheless, as more and more patients became inoculated via this method, the popularity of the vaccine slowly became widespread and, in 1852, the British government passed a compulsory Act which required all babies to be vaccinated within three to four months of birth. However, especially in London, anti-vaccination sentiment and a mobile population meant that a large minority of babies were not inoculated. It would not be until 1872 that people began to be fined for not having their children vaccinated.

My 2nd great-grandfather Edward Wackrill, born on 18th September 1838, was the eldest son of Evan and Hannah Wackrill.  His father was landlord of the Old Fountain public house at Deptford Broadway in South East London where the building still stands today, but is now a Chinese restaurant. 

The Old Fountain date unknown & in 2021 comparison[iv]

Less than two years later, Edward’s sister Ann was born and, in 1841, the family moved to Hounslow in Middlesex, where Evan took over as landlord of the White Bear public house on London Road[v].  Another daughter, Hannah, was born in 1842 and their fourth child, a son named Thomas, was born on 1st May 1844 and baptised in the Chapelry of Hounslow Heath on 12th May 1844[vi], where his mother Hannah, aged just 40, was buried the following day having died following complications of childbirth[vii].

Unsurprisingly, Evan couldn’t cope with running a busy pub and caring for four very young children on his own, so the children were separated and sent to live with relatives across London.   In 1851 Edward and Ann are living with their aunt and uncle Elizabeth and John Weddon, a servant, at 37 College Street, Homerton, Tower Hamlets[viii].   Hannah, by now aged 9, is living with her uncle Uriah Wackrill, a gardener, and his wife Sage, at Bolingbroke Farm, in Battersea[ix],  but Thomas, the youngest of the children, had died in Hackney in 1847 aged just three.

Edward volunteered for the Royal Navy when he was sixteen. He was literate as he signed the papers confirming the terms of his service would be ten years from his eighteenth birthday on 18 Sep 1856. The Admiralty records show that he was 5ft 3in tall with brown hair and light blue eyes, and because of his youth, he was examined by two medical officers who declared that he was a well -grown stout lad, of perfectly sound and healthy constitution, free from all physical malformation, and intelligent, so he was considered fit in all respects for Her Majesty’s Service. [x]   

HMS Fisgard off the Royal Naval College, Greenwich[xi]

Just four months later, his father Evan died aged 48 and was buried at St Alphege’s Church in Greenwich, just a few hundred yards away from Edward’s training ship[xii], but it was not until 1860 that probate was granted and Edward inherited his father’s entire estate of less than £50.

Edward served his time in the Royal Navy and eventually left to find work as a Coachman.  He married his sweetheart Leah Ellen Mayo on 11th October 1869 at St Mary’s Church in Lambeth[xiii], and their first son Evan William Edward Wackrill, my great grandfather, was born on 17th September 1870.  Three more children would follow, Thomas in 1872, Annie in 1874, and Edward in 1876. 

The Great Smallpox Pandemic of 1870 to 1875 was the last major smallpox epidemic to reach pandemic level across Europe.  Edward would certainly have known about this, as the newspapers at the time were full of articles warning of the dangers of the disease in the non-vaccinated and encouraging people to be vaccinated, or re-vaccinated:

Extract from the Morning Advertiser 21 February 1871[xiv]

Edward may not have been fully aware of the actual figures, but the number of smallpox deaths in London alone rose to reach a peak of 7,192 deaths during 1872. Although the numbers subsequently declined, during the following years, they had started to creep up again in 1776.[xv]  Nevertheless, around that time, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in opposition to compulsory smallpox vaccinations. There were arrests, fines and people were even sent to jail. 

We can never know what led Edward to refuse to be vaccinated.  Some people believed that the vaccination was poisonous and could actually cause smallpox, syphilis, or other diseases, whilst others believed that putting matter from lower creatures, such as cows, into the human body was unchristian.  There’s no evidence to suggest that Edward was particularly religious as Evan, his eldest son wasn’t baptised until he was two when he and Thomas were baptised on the same day at St Phillip’s Church in Dalston[xvi].  Of course, there were some people who simply objected to being told what to do by the government. 

Edward was most probably a fit and generally a healthy young man in the prime of this life, having served twelve years as a sailor, then working with horses.  However, one day he began to feel unwell, and would initially have experienced symptoms not unlike a ‘flu or cold virus, with high fever, fatigue and severe back pain, and he may also have experienced nausea, abdominal pain and vomiting.  Two or three days later, the rash would have started on his face and hands before spreading cover his body with bumps full of a clear liquid, which later fill with pus.[xvii]   Within a few days, the lesions would have started to run into each other forming large suppurating areas over his entire body.  He was admitted to the Smallpox Hospital in Hampstead where he tragically died aged just 38 years old, leaving a young widow and four children.  The cause of his death was recorded as “Confluent Small Pox Unvaccinated”.[xviii]

Hampstead Smallpox Hospital where Edward died in 1877[xix]

Smallpox has existed for at least 3,000 years and was one of the world’s most feared diseases until it was eradicated by a collaborative global vaccination programme led by the World Health Organization. The last known natural case was in Somalia in 1977. Since then, the only known cases were caused by a laboratory accident in 1978 in Birmingham, England, which killed one person and caused a limited outbreak. Smallpox was officially declared eradicated in 1979.[xx]  Many people consider smallpox eradication to be the biggest achievement in international public health.

[i] Colour lithograph after J.A. Philip, ca. 1900 Reference:  576914i via the Wellcome Trust last accessed 26 Nov 2022 (image in the public domain)

[ii] last accessed 26 Nov 2022

[iii] Image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

[iv] Old image from New image 2021 (c) Google Maps

[v] 1841 England census Class: HO107; Piece: 658; Book: 1; Civil Parish: Heston; County: Middlesex; Enumeration District: 11; Folio: 12; Page: 15; Line: 4; GSU roll: 438775 via

[vi] London, England, Church of England Baptisms, Hounslow Heath 1836-1866 via

[vii] London, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, Hounslow Heath 1836-186 via

[viii] 1851 England census, Class: HO107; Piece: 1505; Folio: 397; Page: 32; GSU roll: 87839 via

[ix] 1851 England census, Class: HO107; Piece: 1577; Folio: 152; Page: 30; GSU roll: 174813 via

[x] I National Archives ADM 139/249/24859   

[xi] The training ship Fisgard off the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, 1877, by Claude Thomas Stanfield Moore – Royal Museums Greenwich, Public Domain,

[xii] London, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, St Alphege, Greenwich 1849-1905 via

[xiii] London, England, Church of England Marriages, St Mary, Lambeth 1868-1870 via

[xiv] Morning Advertiser 21 February 1871 © The British Library Board via

[xv] Two hundred and fifty years of smallpox in London by William A Guy via

[xvi] London, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, Hackney, St Phillip’s, Dalston, 1870-1920 via

[xvii] World Health Organisation Smallpox last accessed 26 Nov 2022

[xviii] Edward Wackrill’s death certificate

[xix] Hampstead Smallpox Hospital, London. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

[xx] World Health Organisation Smallpox last accessed 26 Nov 2022