From my reading of The Wyvern: a Topical, Critical & Humorous Journal published in Leicester around the turn of the century, I was shocked to learn that serious outbreaks of smallpox continued to be a problem in the city right up until 1902-4. During the second half of the 19th century, the corporation struggled with the cost of improving the borough’s inadequate system of sanitation and this obviously exacerbated the situation. But Leicester also became known for its opposition to the compulsory vaccination of infants against smallpox – the Leicester Anti-Vaccination League was formed in 1869. Opponents of vaccination instead advocated the ‘Leicester method’, in which every new victim of smallpox was removed to the isolation hospital and their family and contacts subjected to a period of quarantine. This determined opposition to vaccination has been linked to Leicester’s ‘spirit of “nonconformist” independence and of resistance to constituted authority that had at an earlier period earned for the town the name of “Radical Leicester”’1.
In 1871, an isolation hospital was built at Freak’s Ground. This was intended as a temporary measure only and was constructed of corrugated iron, but it actually had to remain in use until 1900. The debate about where to build its replacement and how to finance this simmered for years in the borough council. The Wyvern’s cartoon for 18 November 1892, is subtitled, ‘After taking a year to settle their Fever Hospital Scheme, our wise Councillors cannot make up their minds about building it’. The spectre of Death, his robe emblazoned ‘Smallpox’ hovers above the arguing councillors. ‘Now, when there seems to be urgent necessity for the immediate taking of steps to increase our Fever Hospital accommodation, the Council goes back on all its former resolutions … while infection is in our midst … surely this is a case where we must do something, cost what it may.’2
The Wyvern was very clear as to where it stood on the isolation vs. vaccination issue, arguing that many lives had been lost by the refusal to vaccinate and that all available measures should be used to combat the disease. The issue for 24 February 1893 contains a satirical anecdote headlined, ‘How I Vaccinated a Town Councillor’. The author is approached by a councillor ‘Jorkins’ – not his real name, ‘a great anti-vaccinator, who had suffered all the penalties the law could inflict for refusing to have his children in-oculated’. Panicked by the ever-strengthening epidemic, Jorkins now wishes to be vaccinated and pleads with the author to administer the vaccine himself, as he cannot go to a doctor for fear of being ridiculed and having to ‘retire from public life’. ‘I went out,’ the author writes, ‘and consulted an eminent cow doctor on the subject. He said he didn’t see any difficulty in vaccinating, but if I wanted to experiment first, he would lend me a dog which wanted poisoning. “All you’ve got to do is to scrape the skin with a penknife until it bleeds a little, and then apply the lymph which I’ll send you,” he added … the following day I received some lymph in a ginger beer bottle. I then went to an ironmonger and borrowed a file, as I reasoned that whilst a penknife might do to scrape infants, it would be a pity to take the edge off my new pocket-knife by trying to peel the tough hide of a Town Councillor.’ The vaccine is eventually administered, with predictable results – Jorkins’ leg swells up ‘as thick as a bolster’3.
For anyone interested in the social, political, cultural or sporting history of Leicester around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, The Wyvern could be a goldmine. If you would like to consult it, please visit http://www2.le.ac.uk/library/find/specialcollections/accesshoursandcontacts/accessandcontacts for information on access, hours and contacts.
1R.A. McKinley and C.T. Smith, ‘Social and Administrative History since 1835’ in: A History of the county of Leicester, Vol. IV, (London, 1958), p. 282, Local History H942 VIC
2The Wyvern, (Leicester, 18 November 1892), p. 54, PER942 W9400
3Ibid., (Leicester, 24 February 1893), p. 285