Vaccination in the 18th century

After two months, millions of the most vulnerable of the population have been and continue to be vaccinated against Covid-19.  In addition to hospitals and GP surgeries round the county, other venues such as the Harlow Leisurezone, the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend, Chelmsford City Racecourse and Colchester Community Stadium are being used.

The first vaccine dates from 1796 when Dr Edward Jenner from Gloucestershire vaccinated his gardener’s son James Phipps with cowpox, a milder form of the smallpox virus.  Vaccination in turn derived from the practice of inoculation, which used the live smallpox virus and was widely used in Asia and Africa.  Inoculation came to England after Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul, saw its use there.  She had her son inoculated in Turkey and after her return her daughter was inoculated in London in 1721.  The practice soon spread as a means of combating the frequent outbreaks of the disease in the 18th century.

Among the leading inoculators of the 18th century was Daniel Sutton, originally from Suffolk, who set up his practice in Ingatestone in 1763.  Inoculation was controversial, as it was often blamed for outbreaks of the disease.  Frequent complaints and even prosecution against Sutton, encouraged the Revd. Robert Houlton, described as the officiating clergyman at Mr Sutton’s, to preach on 12 October 1766 at Ingatestone The Practice of Inoculation Justified (LIB/SER/8/26 and 26/10).  Daniel Sutton inoculated thousands of people and made enough money to acquire property in Ingatestone and Eastwood (National Archives PROB 11/1614).

The devastation that smallpox caused led many parish vestries to pay for their parishioners to be inoculated and later vaccinated against smallpox.  Rainham overseers’ accounts include a payment for inoculation in 1770 (D/P 202/12/1/36), the Theydon Garnon parish register (D/P 152/1/5) records the inoculation of paupers in 1781, 1787 and 1797.  In 1810 and 1818 the parish of Kirby-le-Soken paid for parishioners to be vaccinated and the parish of Saffron Walden between 1820 and 1831 paid 1s. 6d. per head to various doctors to vaccinate hundreds of parishioners (D/B 2/PAR9/27).

Since the 18th century, many vaccinations have been developed against many diseases and smallpox itself has been eradicated from the world.  Vaccination brings hope today as it did in the 18th century.  The Bocking parish register recorded the burials for 1796 (above) and then noted Some Hundreds were Inoculated this year & many had the Small Pox in the Natural Way Not one Died.

Katharine Schofield, Archivist, ERO

To find out more about the history of vaccination and inoculation you might like Essex Record Office publication 95, The Speckled Monster by John Smith. This is available from the Searchroom for £14.95. For further details please email:

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