Vaccination records reveal English ancestors

Devon Family History Society's Tree House
Devon Family History Society’s Tree House


When it proves impossible to find your ancestors in all the usual records online what do you then do?

Declare that you have a brick wall and give up… or think laterally and turn to other records?

I had a problem with researching an ancestor and the answer came from turning to look for collateral lines (brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles) and using one of the lesser known record sets. In this particular case I had to go offline as the record set had not been digitized by any of the main subscription sites.

It is worth remembering that not everything is online, as some of the smaller data sets don’t get used sufficiently by family history researchers to warrant a commercial company buying the rights to put them on the internet.

In this case it was the Dartmouth, Devon Vaccinations Register 1875-1876 that is in the South West Heritage Trust Devon Archive Catalogue that helped me back on track. The register provided me with valuable information that an ancestor’s sister was born on the 1st January 1876 at Smith Street in Dartmouth, gave me her name, Elsie Lilian and her father’s name and occupation together with the date that she had been vaccinated.

I could have gone in person to the South West Heritage centre in Exeter to find this lead but in fact I reached it by making use of a Family History Society’s look up service. Devon FHS have a database of names that appear in the transcriptions that they have for sale and so it was this that alerted me to the entry.

If you are looking for your own ancestors in these registers you can normally find them at the County Record Office for where your ancestor lived (such as the South West Heritage centre in Exeter for Devon in my case) or some copies are at The National Archives in among the Poor Law Commissioners Poor Law Board and Board of Guardians correspondence.


Devon County Record Office
South West Heritage Centre in Exeter, Devon (County Record Office)

The Vaccination Act of 1840 made it law that free vaccination against smallpox was to be available to the public and paid for by the poor rates. It was not until the Vaccination Act of 1853, however, that vaccination was made compulsory for children and it then became the responsibility of the poor law guardians to ensure that all infants in their area were vaccinated within four months of birth. While the law stipulated this should happen it failed to give the guardians any powers of enforcement and so they had no means of ensuring that all children were vaccinated. By 1867, however, this was changed and the Guardians were given the right to prosecute parents for non-compliance where parents could be fined and even sent to prison if the fines were not paid.

Guardians were obliged to keep registers of vaccinations and in 1871, they were also required to appoint vaccination officers for their poor law union. The task of ensuring compliance was made easier in 1874 when birth registration was made compulsory and the onus of birth registration being put on parents where as before it was on the registrar.


The point to take away here is that when an ancestor can not be found in the records, don’t lose heart. There is always the possibility that their footprints through life will emerge in some other smaller set that you have yet to use.

Keep your eyes open and keep searching, even if you have to come back to them much later on. And take time to learn what other record sets may be available for your ancestors’ county.


Good luck in your research this week!


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One Reply to “Vaccination records reveal English ancestors”

  1. Well, here’s a thing… I’ve been reading Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine (Issue 130 September 2017) and their ’17 Ways to search like an expert’ where Jonathan Scott asked 17 genealogical experts for their brick-wall busting tips. Gill Blanchard, a professional genealogist, house historian, AGRA member and author chooses to recommend looking for vaccination records as well.

    So there you are, an expert agrees with me!

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