Legal Tyranny: Conscientious Objection in the Three Towns 1853-1914

Illustrated Police News 2 October 1886 courtesy (c) British Library Board

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    Devonport Guildhall, Ker Street, Plymouth, PL1 4EL

  • Associated talk: Mayor's Parlour, Devonport Guildhall

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As part of the 2018 Plymouth History Festival, come and visit this free interactive exhibition curated by staff and students from the University’s School of Law, Criminology and Government and listen to a public talk on the theme of social policy initiatives, state intervention and personal choice. 

Displays will explore aspects of the festival themes particularly enlightenment, scientific thought and public health. 

This historical case study will focus on local reactions in the Three Towns to laws compelling parents to have their infants vaccinated against smallpox before the age of six months. If you were poor the health implications of vaccination could be dangerous and even fatal. 

Participants and audiences will be invited to consider the personal moral choices they would make when presented with real life historic dilemmas about their family's health and wellbeing and the effect their decisions would have on both themselves and their communities. 

Questions to consider include: 

  • What would it take to make you resist the law? 
  • Would you be a conscientious objector? If so, why? 
  • Would you be willing to be imprisoned for your principles? 

Those who objected to having their children vaccinated created a group of people known as 'conscientious objectors'. 

The presentation will explain how the concept of 'conscientious objection' later came to be associated with the Great War and the Military Act 1916. It will also highlight some of the powerful modern echoes with the contemporary resistance from some parents to the MMR vaccine. 

The exhibition is open from Monday - Saturday, 9:00–15:00.
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Today's events

Talk held in association with RIO: Thursday 10 May

Objecting In Conscience - from Victorian Vaccination to Military Service, a historical exploration of Plymouth's part in the state's failure to persuade

Speaker: Dr Judith Rowbotham, FRSA FRHistS, University of Plymouth

The term 'conscientious objector' is now most usually associated with individuals who claim a right, on the basis of the promptings of conscience, not to take up arms in conflict. But the idea of the Conscientious Objector came about very differently - it was Victorian parents who objected to having their infants vaccinated against smallpox because of the dangers (infection in particular) they associated with it. Over half a century, parents stood up in court, including those in the Three Towns, to say that they 'objected in conscience' to being forced by law to have their children vaccinated. These parents felt so strongly that they were prepared to go to prison to make their point - and with widespread popular support, this established the principle of objecting to something required of you by law on the grounds of conscience. The British government finally yielded and repealed the legislation - but the principle remained. So, when the Military Service Act 1916 came into force, the same phrase was used. In Plymouth as elsewhere, the association between Conscientious Objection and military service began in the Great War, and continues to this day. 

  • Date/time: Thursday 10 May, 18:00–19:00
  • Venue: Mayor's Parlour, Devonport Guildhall
  • Tickets: £3.50 (including tea or coffee) can be purchased on the night
  • Contact: Devonport Guildhall (guildhall@realideas.org/+44 (0)1752 395028)

Full details on the Devonport Guildhall webpage

International Conscientious Objectors Day

15 May is International Conscientious Objectors Day which aims to raise awareness of those who, for moral or religious reasons, refuse to participate in armed conflict. The day was first established by the International Conscientious Objectors’ Meeting (ICOM) in 1985.


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