Review Number 26 – July 2002

Walsham’s Opposition to Vaccination

Compulsory smallpox inoculation was introduced into England in 1853. There was great opposition to the plan and in 1874 the National Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League was founded which led to widespread civil disobedience. Many resented the attack on their individual rights, others had religious objections, and many others were deeply mistrustful of the medical profession.

The idea of having their children vaccinated was quite alien to many people living in Walsham le Willows a century ago. Some went before the Ixworth bench of magistrates to ask for an exemption certificate. The chairman of the bench asked Mr. John Finch of Four Ashes Cottage what his objection was. “ I do not believe in it. I had two children one of which was vaccinated and died of diphtheria the other child didn’t have it and is still alive.” The chairman said he was a very foolish man but granted the certificate.

Others were refused exemption and their children were inoculated when the vaccination officer next called at their houses. Some refused and subsequently appeared at the Ixworth Petty Sessions.

In November 1902 Walter King of Walsham was charged with refusing to have his son Claude vaccinated. Conscientious objections had been accepted when two other children were given exemption but he was told that under the Vaccination Act a child must be treated within 4 months of its birth and as smallpox was prevalent in Bury St. Edmunds the order must be carried out. He refused and in December 1902 he was back in court to be fined one shilling with costs of £2 7s 6d.

In January 1903 Mr. William Oxborrow was charged with refusing to have his daughter Ethel inoculated by Mr. Herbert Andrews the village vaccinator. He was fined one shilling with £1 4s 3d costs. On leaving the box the defendant said, “ I shall not pay a farthing, I have the whole British public behind me.”

A similar charge was made against Mr. Peter Nunn who also received a fine. The clerk of the court said, “are you going to pay.” “ No sir”, came the reply.

A few weeks later the police arrived at the houses of the ‘Walsham Three’ to seize their assets. Furniture was taken from Mr. King and Mr. Nunn but no assets could be found at Mr. Oxborrows.

A report in the Bury Free Press 4th April 1903 tells the story:

“Walsham le Willows is earning a notoriety for itself by reason of the strong feeling which exists against the practice of vaccination. Men from the village, Mr. P Nunn, machine proprietor, Mr. W King, insurance agent, and Mr. W Oxborrow, painter, all declined to pay fines imposed in court and thus furniture was seized to be sold at auction. However the local auctioneer refused and thus it was sent to the Cornhill in Bury St. Edmunds. In somewhat lively proceedings the public refused to bid for the items. Eventually Mr. Grainger, a Walsham representative on the Stow Board of Guardians, and himself a strong anti-vaccinator, bought them in on behalf of Mr. King. The sum realised however did not reach a sufficient amount to pay the fine and so a second lot of furniture was seized from Mr. King to be sold along with other assets of Mr. P Nunn. As for Mr. Oxborrow a large proportion of his assets had mysteriously disappeared, thus none could be seized.

The second sale of furniture created considerable excitement. A large crowd of sympathisers gathered on a meadow at Four Ashes belonging to Mr. Sharp. The authorities evidently anticipated a rough time of it for Supt. Simkin of Ixworth along with eight policemen were requisitioned to keep the large crowd in order. As the village auctioneer had refused to take the job a Mr. Chas. Nunn from Bury conducted proceedings.

Climbing on a couch that belonged to him Mr. King gave a speech saying that he did not want to make a disturbance but wanted free speech and fair play in England which they had the right to have. There was great applause. Mr. Oxborrow read a message of support from the Ipswich Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League. He continued, ‘ This incident today taking place in a little meadow in Walsham would ring throughout England. Who would be disgraced – not Mr. King or Mr. Nunn – it would be the Bench of Magistrates. (Hear, Hear, roared the crowd). Was it a lie when they said they had good conscientious objections (cries of no! no!) Shame on the magistrates and the man from Bury who has come to sell the goods’ At this point Supt. Simkin stepped up remarking ‘ Here, that will do, you are going a little too far’.

Mr. Nunn also tried to speak among considerable confusion. He said that three doctors had backed his case for exemption. He had suffered for 10 years with one child through vaccination so what other course could be taken? (a P.C. here interpolated ‘He had suffered ever since he had been born, scarcity had been his suffering’).

Ultimately the auctioneer arrived and amidst considerable hooting and jeering proceeded to dispose of the goods under some difficulty as he perambulated the ground from one article to another. The elbowings and jostlings of the crowd, the frequent interruptions, mingled with good humoured jokes and banter, created a scene which has seldom, if ever, been witnessed in Walsham.

The first articles for sale were those of Mr. King. Some coconut matting was sold to Mr. Grainger for 2s 6d. When an official in private clothes made a bid, the indignation of the crowd scarcely knew any bounds. Several uncomplimentary remarks were made mingled with more hooting and jeering. Mr. Grainger also bought a couch and a bicycle against the only other bidder an official said to come from Honington. An amusing scene took place at the conclusion of the sale when Mr. Grainger asked for his bill which came to £9 14s 6d. He then commenced to count it out in farthings amidst much hilarity. The auctioneer refused to take it saying that one shilling was the legal maximum in coppers. Mr. Grainger then demanded that each item he had purchased be itemised on the bill.

A bystander said to the auctioneer, ‘ If you had been a man you wouldn’t have come here.’ Mr. Chas. Nunn replied ‘If you anti-vaccinators had any brains you would not be in this position’. He then left the field closely guarded by several policemen. For a considerable time a number of villagers lingered on the ‘field of operation’ discussing with the police the injustice of the proceedings.

Things gradually calmed but the affair was a topic of discussion in the village for some time.”

Parliament rescinded compulsory vaccination in 1909.

William Oxborrow was a coach painter who lived in Church Street with his wife Sarah. His son William aged 4 years and daughter Nellie aged six had both died in 1901, cause not stated.

Herbert Andrews lived at ‘The Firs’, Four Ashes (The Elms or The Rosary?) with his wife Agnes and children Minnie, Kate, Jack, Marion, Victoria and Leonard. He was the Relieving Officer and Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

Peter Nunn (son of Robert and Sarah of Wattisfield Road) lived at Cranmer Green with his wife Susannah and children Dorothy, Alice, Susie, Wesley, Martha and Eva. He is described in the census as a threshing machine owner.

The local auctioneer would have been Isaac Clarke.

Fred Sharp was landlord of the Four Ashes Inn and the meadow in question was probably behind the cottages opposite where a new house was built c. 1970.


  1. Roy Porter The Greater Benefit to Mankind (Collins 1997)
James Turner

A New Cemetery for Walsham

Saint Mary’s church was built in the 15th century on the site of earlier Norman and Saxon churches; in turn they may have been built on a place of pagan ritual. For a thousand years or more the people of Walsham-le-Willows have used this plot of land at the crossroads as a place of worship, a place to meet and perform baptisms, weddings, and burials. If 20 deaths took place annually in the village over 1000 years it is sobering to think that perhaps 20,000 past residents are interred here. Of course there is little sign of this now as over the centuries grave markers, often made of wood, have long since disappeared. We live in an area without any suitable natural stone and to import a gravestone would have been beyond the financial reach of the majority of families who laid their loved ones to rest here.

There are now about 250 visible graves, the oldest being dated 1684. The last burials took place in the churchyard in 1890 (other than those in family plots) as it became impossible to dig without disturbing an earlier resident. This had become a problem in churchyards throughout England. During the 19th century the building of elaborate tombs permanently took up any available space.

The Bury Free Press of 19th October1889 reported a meeting that took place in the parish reading room and institute:

“A new burial ground has long been needed in Walsham as for several years now it has been necessary to bury the dead in old graves.’ The reporter asked one of those present about the situation. ‘ You see this new bit of o’ground for burying us decent like ha’bin wanted for a great while and a short time back Bishop Wilkinson who live up at the Hall offered a piece o’land not at all suitable and about a couple of miles off. We should ha’had to ha’gone round by the allotments as he would’nt let us go over his land.” [These allotments were along the Finningham Road at the parish owned Town Farm]. “There was to ha’bin three quarters of an acre for church folk and three quarters of an acre for dissenters so as to keep the two distinct. O’course Mr. Martineau cried shame on that and has offered three quarters acre of land the most suitable to be had, dry and in the most convenient place. We want a few more like him but I’m sorry to say we han’t got ‘em.”

At the meeting Mr. John Martineau said that the burial land he was offering would be suitable for 100 years and if accepted he would like to plant a few trees and shrubs to make a better appearance. Mr. Symonds then proposed and Dr. MacNaught seconded that the offer of three-quarters of an acre situated in the Kiln Meadow be accepted. The meeting closed with a hearty and unanimous vote of thanks to Mr. Martineau for his public spirited kindness.”

The decision to have the new cemetery at Kiln Meadow seems to have created a rift within the church. The Bury Free Press 2nd August 1890 reported:

“The new burial ground of about three-quarters of an acre entered by a lych gate about 150 yards from the old churchyard was formerly opened on Sunday last. [27th July 1890] At the conclusion of evensong in the church the vicar [probably Charles Gordon] entered the ground and conducted a short appropriate service, consisting of 4 or 5 church collects, two hymns, and a brief service. A serious difficulty had occurred owing to the refusal of the Bishop of the diocese to perform his duty of consecrating it and under the circumstances it was felt that such a service as described was the best substitute for the legal ceremony. The new burial ground is given to be, as far as possible, an extension of the old churchyard and will be subject to the same rules, regulations, and fees. However legal possession of the ground cannot now, for the reason above mentioned, be given to the ecclesiastical commissioners in trust for the parish, as was desired and intended.”

James Turner

Mr. Margery: a Clarification

Thanks to the dedicated research of Jean and Ray Lock we now know a great deal about Raphe Margery (1592-1653), a Walsham resident who served with Cromwell’s Ironsides (see Quarterly Review No.11, Autumn 1999, and for fuller details: Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History Vol. 36 pp207-218). Some writers have identified Margery as Cromwell’s ‘russet-coated captain’.

The facts are as follows: Cromwell, in 1643 a colonel desperately mustering troops in East Anglia, wrote to the Suffolk Committee of the Eastern Association. In this letter comes the often quoted passage:

‘I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what hee fights for, and loves what hee knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else. I honour a gentleman that is soe indeed.’

The next sentence has Cromwell’s first mention of Raphe: ‘I understand Mr Margery hath honest men will follow him’ and the letter concludes with a postscript urging the Committee to help Mr Margery in raising a troop of horse. A few weeks later Cromwell writes to the Committee supporting ‘Captain Margery’ in commandeering horses from gentry with Royalist sympathies.

The ‘russet’ that Cromwell mentions was characteristic of the Eastern Association infantry. Coats for Parliamentary foot soldiers were bought in bulk and dyed ‘a good Venice red’. Venetian Red, still an artist’s term, is rust colour. Initially this rust, or russet, colour was a cheap earth pigment similar to the so-called ‘ox-blood’ used in Suffolk house-colours. It concealed most stains, though contrary to popular belief, blood showed considerably. The Parliamentary outfit gradually became the ‘redcoat’ typical of the later British infantry. Raphe Margery, however, was from the first a leader of cavalry, and would have worn the stout buff leather coat worn by horsemen, Cromwell included.

During the recent revived interest in Cromwell, two biographies have been re-issued. Antonia Fraser’s “Cromwell Our Chief of Men”, 1973, is well known and quotes the ‘russet-coated captain’ in a chapter heading (p91). She does not however proceed further with the letter and makes no reference to Margery. A slightly earlier biography, “God’s Englishman”, 1970, by Christopher Hill, quotes the ‘russet-coated captain’ passage dealing at length with Margery and his social status (pp64,66). The book does not mention Walsham.

Incidentally, the two titles: “Cromwell Our Chief of Men” and “God’s Englishman” are derived from writings of the Parliamentary poet John Milton who visited Stowmarket, perhaps passing through Walsham, who knows?

Other works specifically consulted
  1. Stuart Asquith, Chris Warner: New Model Army (1981) pp11-13
  2. David Dymond, Peter Northeast: A History of Suffolk (1995) p76
  3. Eleanor Smith: Writers and Places in Suffolk (1983) p55
  4. D.R.Watson: The Life and Times of Charles 1 (1972) p146
Brian Turner

The following is an excerpt from a Jail Book of Bury St. Edmunds Ref: Suffolk Record Office (Bury) found by History Group member Jeff Murkett.

“26th August 1870. John Baker labourer of Walsham le Willows. Aged 42 years, height 5 feet 11 inches, sallow complexion, brown hair, grey eyes, oval face. Good health, ruptured, no infectious diseases, clothes in rags, appearance and clothes dirty. Married with five children aged 10-19 years. Cannot read or write. Crime – breaking a teacup. Sentence – 7 days imprisonment”.

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