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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Fantastic Society of Genealogist Course!

Society of GenealogistsI’ve been to London this weekend and, on Saturday, I attended a great course at the Society of Genealogists on My Ancestor Came From Devon given by the society’s Genealogist Else Churchill.

Over the afternoon we were introduced to what we would be able to find in the library at the SoG in Charterhouse Buildings and where to look on the internet for Devon sources.

The talk encompassed sources for beginners to beyond and if you can’t make it down to Devon itself and find getting to London easier, then what is available at the SoG really is a good alternative for anyone who, like me, have Devonian ancestors.

I shall be returning to this lecture in a future post, but today I’d just like to mention some of the resources that were highlighted by Else Churchill.

The Society of Genealogists has registers for about 10,000 parishes. It houses published indexes and finding aids including the Devon FHS publications and also has many transcripts and indexes in microfilm and CDs.  There are various trade directories spanning from 1783 to the 1930s in the library and poll books particularly from Exeter and Plymouth.

Many of us subscribe to one or other of the subscription sites, but very few of us can afford to belong to more than one or two. Well that is where a visit to the SoG  can be useful as they have free access to a number of the pay per view websites so allowing us to do searches on the sites that we don’t subscribe to ourselves. This is an important resource for the family historian, as often the way the database has been transcribed can have a bearing on what you are able to find on one over another. So if you have hit a brick wall and can’t find a forbear on one site then it is worth looking on another. Also one may be stronger for the counties that you are interested in. Findmypast turns out to be particularly good for Devon.

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Interesting Approach from Devon Family History Society

I commend people, who are researching their family trees, to go and join the Family History Societies for the areas where their ancestors came from. Not the least for the help you can get from these knowledgeable folk.

One of my own areas of interest is Devon and so it was, with much pleasure, that I bumped into the party manning the Devon Family History Society’s stall at the recent Who do You Think You Are? LIVE show.

When I say, bumped into them, it was more like they bumped into me; or at least their visitors did and I do mean this quite literally!

You see, I was volunteering for a few hours each day on the Society of Genealogists book stand at the show. Our area backed on to the Devon FHS stall and as a busy group of people, armed with their computers loaded with data to search for show goers, they had many visitors wanting to sit down with them. This meant that the chairs sometimes strayed into Society of Genealogist’s territory and hence the bumps to the back of mine, and others on the SoG bookstall’s legs and rears!

Now, to show that I certainly took it with good grace, I decided to interview the Chairman of Devon Family History Society, Maureen Selley about a certain interesting aspect to our FHS (yes, I declare an interest, I am a member!) and that is the Acorn Club.

Apart from the fantastic data that the society has, some of which it is now licensed to a rare facility is its pages for young family historians.

Watch the Chairman, Maureen Selley, explain here…

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