As you go through yet another family in your tree with children named John, Mary, George, Sarah, William and Ann, it can be all too easy to disregard the clues names may give. These can range from an unusual family name passed down through generations or the use of a mother’s maiden name, to the use of traditional naming patterns. They can hint at significant events personal to that family, from place of conception to wider historical events. They can also indicate social interests, political persuasion and even involvement in campaigning movements.
This piece is an extreme, and topical, example of the latter. A couple so vehemently opposed to compulsory vaccination, they felt compelled to signify their opposition not only in words and deeds, but through the names they gave their children.
But first, to set the scene.
Thanks to vaccination, smallpox has been eradicated worldwide. But, for our ancestors, it was a highly contagious, killer disease. It was arguably the most lethal disease in 18th-century Britain. Even after vaccination was introduced, at the peak of the last pandemic to strike England and Wales (in the early 1870s), 7,720 fatal cases were registered in the first quarter of 1872.1 It will therefore feature as a cause of death in most family trees – mine is no exception.
There was no cure, although newspapers contained adverts for purported remedies such as Holloway’s Pills,2 Dr Lockock’s Powders,3 Lamplough’s Pyretic Saline,4 and preventatives like the Sulphur Bath a la Turkey.5 The majority of those who did survive were left with permanent scarring (again big business was to be made supplying products to try disguise these blemishes); or deformities such as loss of lip, nose or ear tissue. Blindness was another legacy of the disease.
In 1717, whilst in Constantinople (Istanbul) Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writer, socialite, smallpox survivor and the wife of British Ambassador Edward Wortley Montagu, learned of a technique practiced in the Ottoman Empire whereby live smallpox virus was inserted into healthy individuals, in order to confer immunity to the disease. Before returning to England she had her young son inoculated.
By 1720 she was back home where, in the face of opposition from the medical establishment, she championed the practice of inoculation. The turning point in her campaign came in 1721. Whilst yet another smallpox epidemic raged, Lady Mary arranged for her young daughter to undergo the procedure – the first time it had been performed in Britain, thus pioneering the way for others (including royalty) to follow suit. An obelisk, erected in 1750, stands in Wentworth Castle Gardens, near Barnsley. It is dedicated to Lady Mary’s efforts.
But the variolation process, inserting live smallpox to inoculate people, was not without its risks. Some did contract the disease as a result, with its consequences of death, disfigurement, or danger of sparking a wider outbreak.
The game-changer came towards the end of the 18th century with Edward Jenner’s experiments using infectious, but far milder, cowpox materials to confer immunity. This technique was known as vaccination, and eliminated the risk of contracting smallpox from the procedure. Though not without opposition, this did provide the impetus for more widespread vaccination. Set against the backdrop of Victorian Britain’s emerging public health policy, it ultimately lead to a series of vaccination legislation in an attempt to reduce smallpox deaths and associated health consequences.
In 1840 the Vaccination Act provided free smallpox vaccination via the Poor Law Guardians in England and Wales. It also banned the risky variolation inoculation process. An 1841 amendment extended the principle of free vaccination to those not in receipt of Poor Law relief. But vaccination levels still proved unsatisfactory, and the government determined to increase the uptake against a disease described by Viscount Palmerston as ‘…undoubtedly one of the greatest scourges that afflicted the human race…’6
The resulting 1853 Act made it compulsory to vaccinate children in the first three months after their birth. Those parents who defaulted were liable to a fine or imprisonment. The 1867 Act extended the age of compulsory vaccination to 14, with cumulative penalties for those refusing to comply.
Opposition to vaccination was not new, as is shown by the early 19th- century etching above. It now coalesced, drawing in men and women from all classes, with objections coming from a variety of angles. The element of compulsion, which was seen as a major infringement on personal liberty, freedom of choice and the rights of parents, galvanised many. Others distrusted science, and claimed vaccination was unsafe, or unnecessary. Alternative medicine practitioners opposed it – perhaps I’m being cynical in wondering if the potential financial hit they would take from smallpox prevention helped sway them? Christians and vegetarians objected to the use of material from animals, with harvesting lymph material from calves, as opposed to humans, being one source of vaccine. Their arguments ranged from interfering with the Will of God and the corruption of the soul, to blood purity and animal treatment.
This opposition led to the founding of anti-vaccination organisations, such as the early Anti-Vaccination Leagues of the 1850s, leading onto Richard Butler Gibb’s Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League in 1866, which then evolved into the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League founded by husband and wife, Rev. William and Mary Hume-Rothery in the mid-1870s.
It was during this period of more organised opposition that 23-year-old Samuel Joseph West married Katelena7 Allison on 16 October 1872 at St Nicholas Church in Rochester, Kent.8 Samuel, described as a dealer, was from the town, the son of Joseph and Caroline West. His father was a herbalist, which may have shaped Samuel’s views on vaccination. Herbalists practiced alternative medicine, using plant materials and extracts to naturally treat ailments. Herbalists, with their views on non-poisonous, natural remedies, often clashed with orthodox medicine. One area of dispute was vaccination. Injecting disease into the body was anathema to a herbalist’s natural, therapeutic principles. In fact the 1860s Anti-compulsory Vaccination League included herbalists amongst its officers.
Katelena’s background was not quite as portrayed in the marriage register. This names her father as Charles Allison, a farmer. In actuality she was born in Bridlington in 1853, the daughter of Agnes Allison. By the 1861 census Agnes and Katelena were in Rochester, with Agnes now the wife of police constable John Thompson.9
The GRO Indexes of births reveal nine children born to Samuel and Katelena. And a reminder, do bear in mind the various GRO Index sources are exactly that – an index. They do not routinely include all given names on a certificate. Neither are all indexes consistent in details they do provide. I’ve not obtained the birth certificates to check out the full registered names of these children, but the indexes combined with other sources such as censuses, parish registers etc go some way towards filling in gaps.
Agnes Caroline West was born on 19 April 1874, and baptised at Rochester St Nicholas. The baptism pinpoints that Samuel Joseph worked as a marine store dealer. No unusual naming features apparent – she appears to have been named after both grandmothers.
The second child does signal the couple’s vaccination views. Kattelina Antivaccinater (this is the GRO Index spelling, other sources have Antivaccinator, or similar variations) West was born on 17 April 1875. It appears Samuel’s refusal to vaccinate his daughter landed him in prison. Despite the slight name discrepancy, the 20 September 1875 entry in the diary of Prison Governor James William Newham seems to refer to this child. It reads:
A man (general dealer) committed to Maidstone Gaol for 21 days in default of paying a fine of £1 and costs. He is a member of an anti-vaccination league and refused to have his child, whom he named Catalina Anti-Vaccinator, vaccinated. His name is Joseph West, a Wesleyan, and he had been several times imprisoned for the same cause.10
There was no need to pursue Mr West for long in regard to this child. Her burial is detailed in the Rochester St Nicholas Register on 14 May 1876.
The birth of Sidney Joseph Antivaccinator West (the GRO website only states Sidney Joseph Ante V West) was registered in Medway in the June quarter of 1876. His burial, age seven months, is recorded in the Rochester St Nicholas burial register on 28 January 1877. Years after his death his name made headlines. For example the Warminster and Westbury Journal of 11 February 1882 hoped:
…that in sheer revenge, if he grows up to be a man at all, he will be a prosecuting vaccinator, should he ever get the chance.
Ernest Samuel Joseph Antivaccinator West came next. Born on 21 September 1877, his parents still held firm in their opposition to vaccination. In late March 1878 his father, described as “an incorrigible anti-vaccinator”11 was a central figure in an anti-vaccination demonstration in Maidstone, which featured in several papers. The Thanet Advertiser of 30 March 1878 described the circumstances.
ROCHESTER. – ANTI-VACCINATOR. – On Saturday afternoon last, Samuel Joseph West, of 115, Eastgate, Rochester, was released from Maidstone gaol, where he has undergone a term of imprisonment in the cause of vaccination. He was triumphantly conveyed in an open carriage drawn by four grey horses through the principal streets. In the carriage was a friend of Mr. West’s, and also two females, each of whom carried a baby. A cornopean player on the box gave vent to the trains of “They all do it,” which may have been a lament for the errors of that majority of the population which believes in vaccination. The “martyr,” having been thus exhibited before the public….proceeded to the Fair-meadow, where several of the men…harangued a small mob, which of course vociferously applauded the diatribes launched against vaccination. The Maidstone demonstration, which, so far as it’s effect in exciting public sympathy is concerned, was a miserable failure….
It’s not stated if Sidney was one of the babe’s in arms in the carriage. But he was another West child who failed to thrive. His burial is recorded in the Rochester St Nicholas register on 1 June 1879.
Samuel Joseph and Katelena’s next child, Clifton Antivaccinator West was born on 24 August 1879. Named in honor of Lord Clifton, a strong opponent of the vaccination laws, once more Samuel appeared at Rochester police court in April 1880 having neglected to have his infant son vaccinated. Samuel was described as a prominent member of the National Anti-Vaccination League12 who had frequent convictions for infringing the vaccination laws. Samuel argued vaccination increased the risk of smallpox and refused to pay the fine. The upshot was another one month committal to prison, to which Samuel replied:
…that he could “do” it as easy as a fortnight, and then wished the magistrates “good morning”.13
The proceedings attracted wider attention, even featuring in The Sportsman on 19 April 1880. In discussing the case of this “curiously-bedubbed infant” they summed it up succinctly when writing:
If Mr West had only himself to consider in the matter he would have our keenest sympathies; but as his refusal to vaccinate his child affects the health and interests of the whole population, we can but regret that his prejudice overrun his judgment.
Even Lord Clifton weighed in. In his letter, published in the Kent and Sussex Courrier on 5 May 1880, he called it a “senseless and useless prosecution…”
One wonders what his father thought when attesting in the Army Service Corps in 1897 Clifton West stated he was willing to be vaccinated!14 Clifton served for 12 years, including in South Africa during the Second Boer War. Afterwards he was a Lieutenant in the Legion of Frontiersmen, a patriotic organisation formed at the turn of the 20th century to watch over and protect the boundaries of the Empire. He also patented inventions, as varied as a perambulator brake, a game, a firearm magazine and projectiles. During World War One he was involved in a dispute over one of his inventions, an aerial torpedo, which he claimed had been stolen. He also claimed he had been granted an exemption from military service because of his experiments in this area.15 At a City (of London) Military Service Tribunal in 1917 he claimed to hold 150 patents, including several adopted for military purposes.16
But back to his parents. It would be wrong to claim that the Wests’ opposition to compulsory vaccination was purely down to Samuel. Or that Katelena was a meek and mild Victorian wife. Katelena shared her husband’s anti-vaccination zeal. In January 1880, only months after Clifton’s birth, she was amongst the candidates standing for election to the Rochester School Board. This was one arena where women could take a role, and it provided an opportunity for strong feminist women to show they were capable of public administration. Elected by ratepayers, the Board examined provision of elementary education in the area, and if there was insufficient provision they had the power to build and run schools. Put forward as an opponent of vaccination in Board Schools, she was duly elected.17
In January 1882, as a mark of her work on the Rochester School Board, the Rochester Independent Working Men’s Committee presented her with a cross ornament for “the conquering in Kent of the prejudice against females serving in municipal offices.” Inscriptions included “Just, yet merciful always,” and, with possibly a nod towards vaccination legislation, “Persuasion better than compulsion.”18
By the time of the 1881 census the family were in Gravesend. The boundary of the port of London, for many it marked the start of a new life: emigrants departing to carve out new opportunities overseas; and immigrants lured by the prospects of a better life, and fleeing famine or persecution. Samuel appears to have a change in occupation too. The census records him working as a bottle merchant, whilst Katelena continued as a member of a School Board. The household also included a general servant.19 By the end of the following year Samuel was the proprietor of the town’s Port of London Temperance Hotel.
Within months of the 1881 census the Wests had a new addition to their family – born back in Rochester. And their anti-vaccination associations once more translated into the naming of this son William Hume Rothery West – I had to compare several sources to get to this one – the GRO Website had him as William Hurne Rothery West, whilst Findmypast had William Hume R West. The 1891 census has him down as William H. R. A. West.20 What’s the betting the A stands for something along the lines of Antivaccinator?
And it was the refusal to vaccinate this latest child which brought Samuel before the Rochester magistrates once again at the end of January 1882 – his 13th appearance in court. A false rumour circulated that Lord Clifton would appear for the defence. In his circuitous guilty plea Samuel referred to vaccination as a “beastly operation”, and that he had a “reasonable excuse” for non-compliance as in innumerable cases vaccination caused disease and death. Inevitably though he was found guilty.21
Katelena was clearly a feisty woman. A wife and mother, undertaking a prominent public role, she too was not afraid to challenge the authorities. And, within a year of her husband’s 13th encounter with the judiciary, a pregnant Katelena too made a series of appearances before the Gravesend police court in a bizarre, and widely covered, assault case. It all stemmed from her involvement in the arrest of a drunken man, Edward Lambourn, late at night on 2 December 1882. During the course of the arrest Katelena apparently dragged police constable Stanley off Lambourn. She appeared in the initial case as a witness in defence of Lambourn, accusing PC Stanley of being drunk. The case escalated. She issued a summons against PC Stanley for assault. This was rejected. Instead a police summons was granted against Katelena who was charged with assaulting a police officer and obstructing him in the course of his duty. In her final court appearance on 15 December she withdrew her allegations of police drunkenness. In turn Mr Sharland, representing the police, stated there were no allegations against her personal character. She was, however, convicted of the assault and obstruction charges and fined 20s and costs.22
When naming their next child, a girl, there could be only one name which could follow William Hume Rothery. This infant was registered Mary Hume Antivaccinator West, honouring the other National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League founder. Although born in Gravesend, her burial is recorded at Rochester St Nicholas on 12 September 1883, age five months.
Lillieon (Lillian) Allison Anti-vaccinator West was born in 1884, baptised at St Andrew’s Waterside Mission, Gravesend on 21 September 1884.23 Charles Dickens was one of the donors who contributed to the building of this church, which served the bustling Gravesend waterside community, teeming with sailors, fishermen and emigrants. The church saw the baptism of hundreds of emigrants heading for new lives to Australia, New Zealand and the Americas.
On 25 August 1886 the church was the location for the final baptism of a child of Samuel and Katelena West.24 GRO records name him Samuel Joseph A West. An educated guess can be made at what the letter ‘A’ stands for. In less than 14 years of marriage this was the Wests’ ninth child.
But it was not Katelena’s final pregnancy. The Gravesend and Dartford Reporter of 5 November 1887 carried the announcement of the death on 3 November of both Katelena West and a newborn boy. She was 34. Like four of her children her burial, on 8 November 1887, is recorded in the register of Rochester St Nicholas. Her headstone inscription reads:
IN LOVING MEMORY
OUR DEAR MOTHER
SAMUEL JOSEPH WEST
WHOM GOD CALLED HOME
ON THE 3rd NOVEMBER 1887
AT THE AGE OF 3425
A little over a year later Samuel married Susannah Emma Stephens.26 The couple were living in Portsmouth with Samuel’s five children by 1891, with Samuel now working as an insurance agent.27 This period, the 1890s, saw another change in smallpox vaccination legislation.
In 1889 a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the issue, looking at the grievances of anti-vaccinators, as well as the evidence for the need for vaccination. It reported in 1896, concluding vaccination did protect against smallpox. It also recommended the abolition of cumulative penalties and the use of perceived safer calf lymph harvested vaccine. Interestingly, and of relevance in today’s COVID-19 world, the rush for a vaccine and discussions around length of immunity, there was a recognition that the protection conferred by the smallpox vaccine:
….though lasting for some time, is gradually lost, so that there comes a period when the protection is very slight indeed. Re-vaccination is naturally the first remedy….28
These recommendations were incorporated into the 1898 Act, which also included a conscience clause. This meant parents could obtain a certificate of exemption if they satisfied two magistrates of their conscientious objections to vaccination on grounds of its efficacy or safety. This exemption certificate had to be obtained before the infant was four months old.
In practice, though, it proved difficult to obtain an exemption in the prescribed timeframe, with many magistrates refusing to be satisfied. As a result a further Act in 1907 simplified the process. This meant a parent could make a Statutory Declaration within four months of the birth of their child stating their belief that vaccination would adversely affect its health, and Magistrates had to sign such Declarations.
It was against the backdrop of these changes that Samuel’s final three children were born. And again it’s a case of checking a number of sources for their names. The birth of Charlotte Kate West was registered in the Portsea Island registration district in 1892; Susannah Kate Anti Vaccinator West (only one birth index out of three versions checked includes the name Anti Vaccinator) was registered in 1894 at Romsey: and Daisy Matilda West was registered in Poole district in 1896.
Skip forward to the 1911 census though, when the family were living in East Grinstead, Sussex. On this record all three girls have Anti Vaccinist as part of their suite of Christian names.29 The fact that Samuel West (or Joe as he signed himself) even signalled his opposition to vaccination on this post 1907 Act census shows how strongly he continued to feel about the issue. And a further name confirmation comes in the National Probate Calendar, when Charlotte Kate Antivaccinist West is one of those granted probate when mother Susannah died on 3 March 1921.
By the time the West family resided at East Grinstead in 1911, Samuel’s occupation had changed yet again. A land agent living in Ludgershall, Wiltshire in 1901, he had now morphed to become a small freehold developer with the East Grinstead Estate Company. This was the principal landholder in Felbridge, Surrey. The 1913 Kelly’s Directory for Surrey shows he was their land salesman, and now had moved to Felbridge, living at Invicta Lodge. This was on the London Road, known today as Ebor Lodge. Both he and wife Susannah were very much into property dealing, and this was the case at the time of Susannah’s death in 1921 when the National Probate Calendar entry records Samuel Joseph’s occupation as ‘Estate Agent’. Samuel’s death, as recorded in the National Probate Calendar, took place on 27 August 1927. And in another name twist here Charlotte’s name is given as Charlotte Katelena West – indicating the possibility that his firstborn daughter from his second marriage was named in an affectionate remembrance of his first wife.
I am extremely grateful to Noland West, the great grandson of Samuel Joseph West, who contacted me after reading this blog post. He gave me permission to use the West family photograph (below). It depicts Samuel Joseph West with two of his sons, including Clifton Antivaccinator West – who had an incredibly varied life himself. It is always wonderful to see photographs rather than relying on a narrative. It really does add another dimension to their family history, a human face to it all. An ordinary English family whose lives spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, and who had their own unique place in the history of Britain.
I’ll end with some points to take away from this tale:
- Do not ignore clues offered by names;
- If you find an unusual name, it’s always worth following it up. There may be a reason for the choice which will provide enriching family history insights;
- Do not assume that all GRO Indexes contain the same information and, if possible, don’t rely on just one version of the indexes. Beyond that, it pays to check several record sources;
- Do not assume the GRO Indexes detail all the names on the registration – and that can apply to someone with only a couple of given names as much as to someone with 26 given names; and
- Anti-vaxxers are not a new phenomena. The reasons for their opposition in the 19th century are pretty much the same reasons trotted out by current crop of anti-vaxxers. And, as in the past, their decisions affect not only themselves and their children, they endanger the health and lives of the wider population.
1. Rolleston, J.D., The Smallpox Pandemic of 1870-1874, 24 November 1933, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003591573302700245
2. The Leeds Intelligencer, 14 January 1860
3. Broadwater’s Buckinghamshire Advertiser and Uxbridge Journal, 16 May 1865
4. The Leeds Times, 22 November 1873
5. The Manchester Evening News, 26 April 1871
6. 1853 Vaccination Extension Bill debate, Hansard HC Deb 20 July 1853 vol 129 cc470-5
7. The spelling of Katelena does vary in records, but this is the most commonly used and the one on her headstone inscription at Rochester St Nicholas
8. Rochester St Nicholas marriage register, transcript accessed via Findmypast, Medway Archives Reference P306/1/22
9. 1861 Census, accessed via Ancestry, TNA Reference RG9/476/109/6
10. Newham, J. W., & Coltman, P. (1984). The diary of a prison governor: James William Newham: 1825-1890. Maidstone: Kent County Library, Kent County Council
11. Kent and Sussex Courier, 27 March 1878
12. Folkestone Express, 24 April 1880
13. East Kent Gazette, 24 April 1880
14. Royal Hospital Chelsea: Soldiers Service Documents, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference WO 97
15. Mills, S. (2019). DAWN OF THE DRONE: From the back room boys of the Royal Flying Corps
16. Pall Mall Gazette, 20 April 1917
17. Leamington Spa Courier, 3 January 1880 and The London Daily News, 7 January 1880
18. Folkestone Express, 21 January 1882
19. 1881 Census, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG11/887/21/9
20. 1891 Census, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG12/876/13/20
21. The Thanet Advertiser, 4 February 1882
22. Gravesend Reporter, 9 and 16 December 1882
23. St Andrew’s Waterside Mission 1865-1970 baptisms, accessed via Findmypast, transcription by Rob Cottrell, Trueflare Limited
25. Rochester, St Nicholas Cemetery. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://kentarchaeology.org.uk/research/monumental-inscriptions/rochester-st-nicholas-cemetery
26. GRO Marriage Indexes, accessed via Findmypast, Reference March Quarter 1889, Gravesend, Volume 2a, Page 617
27. 1891 Census, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG12/876/13/20
28. The Report of the Royal Commission on Vaccination. Nature 55, 15–17 (1896). https://doi.org/10.1038/055015a0
29. 1911 Census, accessed via Findmypast, TNA Reference RG14/4980
30. With thanks to Noland West for permission to use this West family photo. This photograph is not to be reproduced without permission.
•Brown, P.S, The Vicissitudes of Herbalism in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Britain, Downloaded from https://www.cambridge.org/core
•Felbridge & District History Group. Accessed October 3, 2020. https://www.felbridge.org.uk/
•GRO Indexes, via the GRO Website, and the datasets on Findmypast and FreeBMD
•National Probate Calendar, England and Wales
•Riedel, Stefan. Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination, January 2005. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1200696/
•Rochester St Nicholas parish register transcripts, accessed via Findmypast. Kent Archives References P306/1/11 (baptisms) and P306/1/32 (burials)
•Valentine, S. (2020, June 23). The Victorian vegetarians who led the revolt against the smallpox vaccine. Retrieved from https://reaction.life/the-victorian-vegetarians-who-led-the-revolt-against-the-smallpox-vaccine/
•Walter, M. P. (2015). The Rhetoric of Nineteenth Century British Anti- Vaccinators: An Interdisciplinary Movement of Medicine, Religion, Class, and Popular Culture [Scholarly project]
•Wellcome Library Images (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://wellcomelibrary.org/
•Wolfe, R.M., Sharpe, L.K. Anti-vaccinationists past and present. BMJ. 2002d;325:430-432