We can learn a lesson from Leicester

If you think resistance to the COVID-19 mandates is the first real push in government, think again. It’s not the first rodeo. In fact, people have been going backwards for 150 years.

The time is 19th century Victorian England, and smallpox has been ravaging the country since medieval times. The disease became the leading cause of death in Europe, with 400,000 deaths each year. If one person survived, one in three was blinded, and all were undoubtedly scarred for life by the “spotted monster”.

In Gloucestershire in 1798, a doctor named Edward Jenner successfully demonstrated that the administration of a very small dose of relatively mild cowpox infection protected humans from smallpox. (By the way, did you know Jenner tested it on kids before publishing her ideas?) The idea spread like wildfire, and Jenner didn’t even have Bill Gates to help! Within five years, vaccines were being used across Europe and within 10 years around the world. However, the first mass vaccination campaign in Italy in 1805 failed miserably.

Was there opposition? Certainly, and it wasn’t much different from today, actually. People opposed it scientifically, politically and religiously. Some felt that using cow diseases was not Christian. Some believed that smallpox was not transmitted from person to person.

Regardless of the reasons, enough people had had enough. They were especially upset when vaccines were made mandatory. Well, to be fair, first they were free, then they were forced, and then, if they failed, they could be fined and imprisoned. Sound familiar?

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in protest and people were indeed fined and arrested. However, the protests continued. People carried signs that read “Repeal the vaccination laws, the curse of our nation.” They chanted, “Better a criminal’s cell than a poisoned child.” They burned copies of the mandate laws in the streets, and even mocked hanging effigies of the country’s humble doctors whom people blamed for implementing the government’s mandate.

It should be noted that this took place during the Industrial Revolution, and people were already demanding their rights to job security and other working class rights. The people distrusted the upper classes and felt taken advantage of. Sound familiar?

Also note that Victorian medicine was not the heyday of science. Common causes of the disease included wet feet and night air. Cholera was thought to be caused by cold fruits such as cucumbers or passionate rage. (Does this mean that if you got angry while eating a cucumber salad, you were basically toast?) Ah, those evil cucumbers! Things like this have been well documented in medical books since 1848. The germ theory didn’t emerge until the 1880s. Life was hard, with life expectancy just over 40 years and 15 percent of children dying before their first birthday from a range of illnesses.

The city’s slums were breeding grounds for disease, but vaccines were new and people were skeptical. The doctors couldn’t explain how the shots worked, you know like today’s “trust the science, we are the science” mantra. Smallpox vaccinations were also given with live viruses and were not safe. Doctors were also not regulated until 1851. With this Molotov cocktail mixture, people became seriously ill and even died after the blows. The vaccines had no quality control. The cowpox material they produced varied in quality and content (such as Pfizer and Moderna). The procedures were often uncomfortable and people ended up with secondary infections like tuberculosis and syphilis. And scientists didn’t know what we know today: that vaccines don’t provide lifelong immunity.

So for many, it was the last straw when the government was invading personal health, forcing things that were private and had never been governed before.

The first anti-vaxxers

Vaccination had become increasingly intrusive in Victorian England. Vaccination legislation made jabs free in 1840, but by 1853 they were compulsory for all children under three months of age. In 1867, all children under the age of 14 were compulsory.

A group in the English midlands city of Leicester had had enough, but instead of rioting, they took a more civil approach to becoming the world’s first anti-vaccinators by creating the Anti-Vaccination League of Leicester. They reached an increasingly literate audience, with printed pamphlets stating the pros and cons of beatings. And people were talking. A lot.

The Leicester league pointed to continued outbreaks and the devastating side effects of vaccination, such as cross-infection. Meanwhile, vax advocates touted decreases in death rates and the emergence of milder smallpox. Is this eerily familiar or what?

In 1885, the government prosecuted 3,000 unvaccinated people. Despite pleas to relax these prosecutions, the government doubled down and 20,000 residents protested in a famous mass meeting that same year. The massive scale of the protest baffled city authorities.

And the people of Leicester continued to resist. Only 30 percent pricked their newborns. Instead, the league advocated public health measures rather than vaccination. The city magistrates were fed up with the protests and scared of the people, so the city powers that be gave in to the league’s recommended approach of tried and true methods. It soon became known as the Leicester method, a cheap and effective alternative.

First, the city massively improved sanitation. The city also required people to report cases of smallpox, then quarantined actual cases of the disease (not everyone) and used surveillance and contact tracing. They helped disinfect the homes of people who had smallpox and burned the clothes and bedding of infected people. The local medical establishment even supported the measures.

History, in fact, repeats itself

We can all learn a lesson from Leicester. Really, we’re not that different. Leicester, like most of us today, valued civil rights and fought against an imposing and restrictive government. We wrote about this exactly in 2019 regarding smallpox. Vaccination advocates thought it was okay to impose laws to exhaust individual rights for the good of the population, you know like this modern article from Berkeley: How to consider the common good during the coronavirus epidemic.

When another wave of smallpox hit Victorian England between 1892 and 1894. Leicester fared well, with only 370 cases (or 20.5 cases per 10,000 people) and only 21 deaths, much lower than in the cities nearby highly vaccinated Warrington and Sheffield. In 1898, new legislation allowed conscientious objectors to opt out of the jab on moral grounds. Smallpox returned to Britain in the early 1900s, but it was never the same threat as before.

Ironically, a journalist in 2021 reflecting on the Leicester story made this statement: “Things were so different then. People who opposed the vaccine were treated with contempt, they just wanted someone to listen to them. they spread a lot of half-truths and misinformation, but instead of addressing these issues, vaccine doubters were criminalized.” Sound familiar?

Things are not that different. History repeats itself. As America prepares to celebrate another Independence Day holiday, remember Leicester’s resilience. We can learn a lesson from a bunch of Victorian anti-vaxxers. A toast to Leicester! Huzzah!


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Fed Up Texas Chick is a contributing writer for The Tenpenny Report. She is a rocket scientist turned writer, having worked in the space program for many years. She is an experienced medical writer and researcher who fights for medical freedom for all of us through her work. Special thanks to the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society for selected photographs.

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