Anti-vaccination and the Politics of Grief for Children in Late-Victorian England

Lydia Murdoch gives us a sneak peak of Chapter 13 in Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives.

By Lydia Murdoch

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, anti-vaccinationist protesters integrated familiar communal mourning rituals into their political demonstrations in order to oppose what they interpreted as unjust class-based laws and to affirm their rights as English citizens, and their children’s rights as putative citizens. Political demonstrations in the form of funeral processions, black bannered handbills, and even post-mortem photographs of children directly brought modes of mourning into the public political realm, allowing working-class women, men, and children a voice in shaping national debates. By openly – and controversially – referencing their grief over children in public protests, the anti-vaccinationists illustrated Susan Matt’s and Peter Stearns’ point that ‘[c]hoosing to express or repress a feeling … can be an explicitly political act’.

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One particular procession in August 1884 brought women’s grief for children through the streets of London and into the House of Commons (albeit restricted to the ‘outer hall’). The protesters sought to gain recognition and blame the State for harming children. The strategic use of a funeral procession – including mourning dress and Händel’s ‘Dead March’ – brought attention to the deaths of children that anti-vaccinationists claimed went unrecognized by the government. The use of widely shared visual and musical mourning customs may have raised sympathy for grieving parents. But protesters also hoped the appeal to emotion would highlight what they claimed the government overlooked: the supposedly deadly effects of the Vaccination Acts on individual working-class children.

 The Globe, one of London’s oldest evening papers and a strong critic of the anti-vaccinationists, declared the procession to be an ‘outrage’, a ‘hideous spectacle’ of ‘revolting character’. The newspaper decried the inauthenticity of emotion in what it understood to be a moment of theatricality, rather than what the Sheffield Daily Telegraph had termed ‘street realism’. The Globe’s insistence that mourning for children should remain private and that such public, explicitly political referencing of grief must necessarily be inauthentic, highlighted the newness of the anti-vaccinationists’ tactics. It was particularly the public display of emotion used for political purposes – the bringing of working-class protests and female mourners into the thoroughfares of London’s West End – that riled the newspaper to appeal to the law as a power that might prevent such demonstrations in the future in order to ‘uphold public decency’. Otherwise, The Globe, claimed, ‘West-end streets will soon be utterly unfit for persons of any refinement or feeling to walk or drive through’.

Emotions related to child life and child death served as essential aspects of the late-Victorian anti-vaccination movement, as well as of the broader working-class and women’s rights campaigns associated with it. Anti-vaccinationists drew upon common mourning rituals to gain a political voice for themselves and a political status for children. By publicly and repeatedly integrating funeral processions, mourning dress, and music into their political demonstrations, protestors –including the many women and men who were still denied suffrage – expressed their sense that the Vaccination Acts harmed individual children and that the State should not overlook these lives. That these tactics sparked such intense backlash from the press suggests they marked a notable disruption of the ‘emotional regime’, not only by bringing grief for children into public view for political purposes, but also by politicizing the child in a radical new way. Yet, ultimately, the successful undoing of compulsory vaccination rested not upon scientific arguments, but on the conscientious objection of parents who testified to the sincerity of their beliefs and the sanctity of their children. By the early twentieth century, both the new ideal of happy, unblemished childhood, full of sovereign potential, and public expressions of grieving following child death would become lasting components of political culture.

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