THE BRITISH LIBRARY

The Newsroom blog

News about yesterday's news, and where news may be going

Introduction

Whether you are studying history, politics, society, international relations, economics, media history, sports history or family history, our collections will have something for you Read more

02 April 2019

Vaccination and the media - a 19th century debate

Conspiracy theories capture the public’s interest and imagination. It’s evident in the documentaries about flat-earthers on Netflix, BBC podcasts about the anti-vaccination movement, and the panic surrounding the ‘Momo challenge’. The anti-vaccination movement, in particular, has been getting a lot of coverage lately, because of high-profile sympathisers and the potential damage to society’s health. There’s a lot of public and media interest in understanding this very modern-seeming phenomenon. But conspiracy theories are not new and neither are anti-vaccination movements.

Vaccine

Vaccination stories from 19th century British newspapers

The 19th century had an anti-vaccination movement which organised meetings, wrote letters and even paid the fines of those convicted of refusing to have their children vaccinated. They wrote letters denouncing enforced vaccination, arguing that it was an encroachment by the government on civil liberties, and that the vaccination was as or more dangerous than the disease it sought to prevent. They produced pamphlets and political cartoons. The movement spoke to fears about overreaching state power and technology encroaching on personal freedom and an imagined pastoral idyll. On the pro-vaccination side, the debate used science and statistics to prove that vaccines were necessary, and argued that they were compulsory because they ensured the safety of all, especially the weak.

It was long known that infecting patients with a mild dose of smallpox led to them developing resistance to the deadlier strains (apparently some places had a tradition of blowing powdered smallpox scabs up the noses of patients to inoculate them - another reason to be grateful for the advances of science). In 1796 Edward Jenner ‘discovered’ that those infected with cowpox (a very mild disease) also developed resistance to smallpox. He developed the world’s first vaccination: the word comes directly from the cowpox method used – vacca is the Latin word for cow. Jenner’s vaccine spread in popularity and was made compulsory in several European countries, including England in 1856. Children were to be vaccinated within six or seven months of birth, and a fine of up to £2 would be given in the event of failure. Failure to pay the fine could mean, eventually, a prison sentence. In 1867, another bill was introduced requiring re-vaccination after puberty. It was at this point that the anti-vaccination movement took hold.

The debate played out in the newspapers: there were articles and letters to the editor arguing both sides. The controversy even affected newspaper advertisements: entrepreneurs advertised ointments which supposedly eased the skin complaints of those recently vaccinated:

Holloway's ointments

Nairnshire Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Northern Counties, 28th September 1859, via British Newspaper Archive

But the same advertisement is found in papers all over the country:

Ventilate_your_views

Coventry Evening Telegraph, 23 May 1892, via British Newspaper Archive

It’s hard to imagine a movement of this type existing without easy access to mass communication. Letters to the editor, for example, proved an easy way for those with fringe views to put their opinions on an even footing with more commonly-held opinions. This access to a platform allowed the movement to assume an authority it would not otherwise have had: access to the same media as mainstream material can mean that both sides of an argument are equally valid, even when then isn’t the case.

But how big was the conversation about vaccines, exactly? Looking at a large sample of newspapers published over the period can give us some clues. This data is from a set of around 62,000 19th century newspaper issues held by The British Library and digitised with JISC funding. It’s a simple approach: counting the relative frequency of a word over time can give an idea of how important the topic was at any time, although it doesn’t tell us anything about why it was being discussed or in what way. It also misses out alternative spellings or mis-spellings. But it can help us to identify general trends.

Unsurprisingly, we see some spikes. There are some small spikes in mentions of vaccination at the time the compulsory bill was introduced in 1856, and again for the re-vaccination bill in 1867. The interest in vaccination itself doesn’t really come until about 10 years later: an interesting indication, perhaps, of the lag between the conversation about the disease taking off, and policy (in the form of a compulsory vaccination bill) being formed. The first real spike of interest is in the early 1870s, and here I think we can detect the anti-vaccination movement. The mentions of vaccinations in this second spike are more related to the debate – on both sides. There are times, around 1888 and again in about 1896, when mentions of the disease are not really followed by mentions of vaccination. These may be times when enthusiasm for anti-vaccination groups falls on account of fears for the disease itself.

Smallpox_vaccination

The debates themselves played out on the pages of the regional and national newspapers. They were bitter, and echoed those of today. A reprinted letter from The Lancet sums up some of the frustration on the side of the pro-vaccination:

The members of this league have some “talents for mischief,” not from the facts which the adduce, which are too insignificant to be noticed, nor from the arguments which they employ, which if they were only addressed to reasoning minds, would assuredly be recognised as puerile and contemptible, but these gentlemen wield more powerful arguments in support of the cause which they advocate. These are the hackneyed appeals to the ‘liberty of the subject: the resistance to a tyrannous enactment, and the publication of “striking” and dreadful cases of disease, and even death, as the results of vaccination.

Then, as now, the scientific and medical communities were frustrated by arguments invoking more abstract ideas: those that appealed to emotion over reason.

The insensibility of many persons to the danger of smallpox, and to the value of vaccination as a preventive, appears to arise from two causes; of which one is total ignorance of the horrors of the past, and the other is scepticism as to the representations of those who are well informed.

The author of an article in the Edinburgh Medical Journal, Dr. John Gairdner, used historical arguments to appeal to reason. He searched the archives to produce a list of royal family members who had died from smallpox. The influence of the monarchy on ordinary people was also used in other ways to promote vaccination: In February 1871 the Manchester Evening News reported that “The Queen has been revaccinated and wishes it to be generally known”. Perhaps these more narrative-focused, non data-driven arguments were seen to have more influence than statistics.

The anti-vaccination side had three main tactics. First was picking statistics which supported their argument. Second was appealing to arguments about personal freedom. In 1882, one letter to the editor of the Derby Chronicle tried to reason that vaccination should not be compulsory because the disease didn’t affect those already vaccinated:

When Mr. Cotteman has proved that doctors have a moral right to scratch us with a pin from which evil effects may follow, he may be able to prove that they have a right to insist upon vaccination. Yet this would be superfluous, since vaccination is a protection in his estimation. The protected being safe, why compel objectors?

This argument, of course, overlooked those who were unable to get vaccinated for health reasons, or the small percentage on which the vaccination had no effect.

The third tactic was supplying anecdotal evidence of individual cases where the vaccine had disastrous consequences. A writer to the Leicester Chronicle wrote in to describe a child that had been recently vaccinated, saying that it had been ‘fine, fair and healthy looking’ but after vaccination was covered all over with sores, “so much so that it is repulsive to see the poor thing”.

These groups were often hyper-local. Groups like the ‘Darlington Anti-Vaccine League’ had regular meetings and advertised them in local papers. The debate played out in the pages of the regional papers, rather than through national, official channels.

We can use news data to get some insight into the changing perceptions of the word ‘vaccination’. These word clouds illustrate the words that most commonly appear in sentences with the term:

1856_words

In 1856, the words are mostly related to the financial and administrative aspects of vaccination. Thirty years later, the mostly commonly associated words have become a mix of administrative-type words, and some terms which clearly relate to suspicion and controversy surrounding compulsory vaccination. The conversation in the newspapers about vaccinations clearly changed in the intervening years. Now vaccination is mentioned with ‘child’ and ‘children’. It doesn’t prove that the conversation was negative, but it does show that newspapers were commenting on the more human element of vaccination. It’s a personal as well as a public conversation.

1886_words

Compared to the fear of cholera, the attention given to smallpox by the newspapers was small, and despite spikes at the end of the century (when a ‘conscientious objector clause’ was inserted into a new vaccination bill), generally interest in the controversy surrounding vaccinations waned. What a good conspiracy really needs is air: studies have shown that more we are exposed to an idea, the more likely it is we’ll believe it is true, regardless of the evidence we’re given. It’s possible that the anti-vaccination movement lost steam because it wasn’t being talked about in the newspapers any more.

Cholera_smallpox

The debate surrounding smallpox vaccination tells us something about the ways in which information and communication can be used to spark debates that previously would have stayed hidden. Cultural movements, however small, are often facilitated by the expansion of access to new technology (such as newspapers in the latter half of the 19th century, or the internet at the beginning of the 21st). When these technologies reach a critical mass, they expand the ‘public sphere’ to take in the viewpoints of the minority - even when those views cause us discomfort. Opposition to anti-vaxxers proved difficult: work like Gairdner’s book might have helped to counter the movement in a way that statistics themselves didn’t seem to. Time was the best opposition: in the long run, it seems that the movement against smallpox vaccination simply petered out. Smallpox vaccinations continued, and a worldwide programme led to the virtual eradication of the disease by 1980.

Disease_month

It may be surprising to see such strong opposition to vaccination in a world with such a terrible problem with disease. Today these diseases can seem far removed from our lives, but in the 19th century the evidence was so incredibly clear: smallpox infection rates plummeted in areas with vaccinations. People lived with the fear and threat of infectious diseases, and most families would have been affected, at some point, by diseases like smallpox. Despite this, there was still resistance to compulsory vaccination. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, when the alternative was a very real chance of disfigurement or death, illogical viewpoints can take hold.

Without an outlet like a regional newspaper or Reddit forum, these fringe viewpoints can often stay buried. It’s only when a place is found for them to be debated that the ideas can really spread. Regional newspapers allowed the debate to reach all parts of the United Kingdom and helped the creation of hyper-local interest groups. Today, the internet allows for the spread of ideas to any part of the world, in a very short space of time. Fringe movements can reach a critical mass even though their number in any one area may be tiny. Do new technologies breed conspiracy theories? Is the debate related to the ease with which people can communicate over long distances, to a large group of people? Does the democratization of media bring together communities of like-minded individuals, and what consequences does this have for society? These are crucial questions of both the 19th century and our own.

"The race of mankind would perish”, wrote a correspondent to the Isle of Wight Observer in 1856,

did they cease to aid each other. From the time that the mother binds the child’s head, till the moment that some kind assistant wipes the death-damp from the brow of the dying, we cannot exist without mutual help. All, therefore, that need aid, have a right to ask it of their fellow-mortals; no one who holds the power of granting can refuse it without guilt.

Those in favour of vaccination would argue that herd immunity ensures the safety of all: claiming a right personally to refuse vaccination means increasing the danger to those who are unable to get protection through no fault of their own. The debate about personal freedom and public good still continues.

Links:

Yann Ryan

Curator, Newspaper Data

 

12 March 2019

News counts

How do I love thee? Let me %>% group_by (ways) %>% count()

Counting is very simple. We’ve been doing it for 50,000 years. One of the first things we learn as a child is how to count: before or at the same time we learn the alphabet, we learn to count to ten. First we learn to count on our fingers, perhaps next we count on an abacus. Eventually we graduate to counting on a calculator or a computer. Computers are very good at it, too, which is useful. Give a computer some text, and it can really quickly count lots of things for you: things like the total number of words, the total number of characters or the number of unique words. Counting helps us do lots of useful things. Counting can help us to break codes or compress data. Samuel Morse counted the average frequency of letters in the English language and assigned the most frequent ones to shorter dot-dash combinations. Your computer is doing the same thing when it zips or unzips a file.

Words

Corpus analysis is the study of lots and lots of words of a particular type. Google N-Gram browser finds words or short phrases in millions of digitised books. EEBO N-Gram browser does the same for millions of transcribed texts from the 17th and 18th century. At this scale, simple counting becomes really powerful. Using these tools, researchers can count the frequency of words, which can be the starting point for understanding how words were used and how ideas gained or lost momentum over time. These tools count the relative frequency of words: how unusual is it to have this word here? Are there many more instances of a word appearing than one would expect from the usual frequency? Simply counting can tell us the importance of terms, ideas, concepts in particular texts, or at particular times.

We can divide things up and then count them: How many times did a particular phrase appear in a particular location? At a particular time? In a particular title?

We can count counts: How many titles were printed in a particular year, and how many words did each of those titles contain?

What else can we count? How about whole documents: how many newspapers were printed in the 19th century? How many titles? How many times was the word ‘Gladstone’ mentioned, vs ‘Disraeli’? Did mentions of ‘steam’ overtake mentions of ‘horse’? Counting can be a blunt tool, but it’s a starting point.

Gladstone_disraeli

Horse_steam

A couple of crude word searches using millions of pages of text from selected 19th century British newspapers

To take a concrete example: let’s do some counting on a single issue of one of the newspapers we’re digitising as part of our Heritage Made Digital project. We’ve taken the text of this issue and uploaded it to a web app called Voyant Tools. Voyant Tools takes text files and gives statistics and visualisations of the words within. What are the counts in this issue? This single issue has 29,734 words. It has 7,793 unique words, which could tell us something about the type of audience, or the ‘footprint’ of the author or title. What are the most common words?

Wordfrequency1

Let’s quickly think about some of these words and their implications.

Mr tells us that news is, unsurprisingly bias towards reporting about one gender.

Street, house and place are intriguing, if not surprising. News is so much about space and place. Without a sense of time, news ceases, really, to be news. Perhaps the same can be said about news and space? 

Which leads into the next word: Jan (the abbreviated version of January). This is a newspaper from 6 January 1821. This, alongside Dec (December shortened) tell us something about the age of news. Would you expect more or less mentions of December once news is transmitted via telegraph? There’s also day and time. It’s unlikely these words would be so common in, say, a novel, or a scientific paper. Can counting tell us something about genre?

We can count the counts: Can the words be divided into categories and counted?

Word_type

What does this tell us? Well, it probably tells us more about the makeup of each individual page than anything else. We could probably guess the front page by looking its unique words. The front page was often mostly advertisements, and contact details would include words like street and Mr. It also confirms our belief that news is about information in space and time: clearly there’s a focus on place, time and people, in a way that would presumably not be so apparent in, say, a novel. If we counted the change in common words over time, we could get a picture of the changing makeup of the front page, as it moved from advertisements to headline news.

Counting is a most natural human urge and one that can have very interesting outcomes. It’s a start for all sorts of interesting research: a way to make all sorts of (often wrong) assumptions. Because counting is dangerous. It attempts to put numbers on things that may not be enumerable. We may find our attempts at counting frustrated by the stubborn fuzziness of the world, stymied by our need to put order on disorder. Over the coming months we hope to show some of the interesting things that can be done with the millions of pages being digitised by Heritage Made Digital, and lots of this research will involve, at its core, counting.  

In digital scholarship, it sometimes feels like there is a move away from counting to produce results. Machine learning seems at a great distance from a chart of the most-commonly used words in a bunch of text. But machine learning still often takes a simple count as its raw material. The ‘features’ (the attributes of things we feed machine learning algorithms to make predictions about those things) are often elements like the total count of words in a particular document, or the count of unique words. No matter how sophisticated these methods get, they still, in the end, rely on counting.

Yann Ryan,

Curator, Newspaper Data

14 February 2019

The Black Wonder

Here is a remarkable image. It looks, at first sight, like a collection of prosperous mid-Victorian gentlemen: perhaps a gathering of local politicians, or merchants of some kind, preening themselves with civic pride. But then we see the caption that accompanies the image: ‘The Great Pugilists of England’. They are boxers, presented in their Sunday finest. But look again to the right, and there is something we might not expect: one of them is black, presented without qualification as an Englishman among Englishmen, someone to be admired.

Great_pugilists

'The Great Pugilists of England', Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 14 February 1863

The image comes from Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 14 February 1863, one of the newspapers we are digitising as part of our Heritage Made Digital programme. The man is Bob Travers, a lightweight, one of a number of black boxers who fought at this time when the sport was bare-knuckle, the brutal contests could last for hours, and rounds could exceed a hundred (a round ended when a fighter fell and had to come up to a line, or scratch, for the next to begin - if one failed to 'come up to scratch', the contest was over). The police were never too far away, ready to break up what were viewed as riotous assemblies. Most, if not all the black boxers who fought in Britain in the 19th century were, in fact, American, born slaves or the free-born sons of slaves who managed to cross the Atlantic to try their chances in a land where pugilism had an avid following.

The first such fighter may have been the man billed as the ‘Black Dynamite’, mentioned in a report in The Times on 27 April 1786. He was followed by the celebrated Bill Richmond, who came to Britain in 1777, became a servant to a peer, bought a pub near Leicester Square with his winnings as a fighter, and established himself as a trainer. His greatest protégé was another former American slave, Tom Molineaux, whose two fights with Tom Cribb in 1811 (both won by Cribb) was considered the very peak of the regency era of prize fighting. Other black fighters that followed in Britain through the 19th century, of whom we sometimes know little more than a name or a nickname, included John Augustus Edward Plantagenet Green, Frank Craig, ‘Massa’ Kendrick, Bob Smith, Sambo Sutton and James Wharton.

Bobtravers

Bob Travers, from Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 15 August 1863 (left) and 14 February 1863

Bob Travers was American too. Some confused contemporary sources tried to suggest that he was British born, but he was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1832, though he came to Britain as a child, when his father moved to Truro in Cornwall and ran a shop selling crockery. He was, apparently, Charlie Jones then, but a talent for fighting, nurtured by English middleweight Nat Langham, saw him enjoy some success over a 10-year career as a pugilist under the name Bob Travers. His earliest known bout was in 1854, his last in 1863. He is best known to boxing historians for his 1860 bout against the great Jem Mace, when Travers displayed some dubious tactics (falling without a blow having been landed) and was eventually disqualified. Referred to rather disparagingly in some sources as ‘Langham’s Black’, he was more impressively billed elsewhere as the ‘Black Wonder’.

There was only a very small black population in Britain in the 19th century. Few black figures came to the forefront of British consciousness: among them were political radical William Davidson, hanged for his part in the Cato Street conspiracy of 1820; the Chartist William Cuffay; Crimean War businesswoman Mary Seacole; circus entertainer Pablo Fanque (of 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite' fame); and the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Prominent black American visitors included abolitionist speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, and the Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. 

What seems notable about Travers, and some other black sportsmen of the mid-19th century that were reported on in the pages of the Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, Bell’s Life and other sports-focussed papers that sprung up at this time (Sporting Life, Sporting Telegraph, Sporting Gazette), is how they were taken entirely at their own merits. Of course in real life they were subjected probably to daily racial abuse. Someone such as Bill Richmond, with his social connections (he even served as one of a group of pugilists ushers at the coronation of George IV in 1821), was unusual. For those such as Travers who toured the country, appearing before rough audiences, there would have been much to endure. Even friendly accounts in boxing memoirs of the period use language to describe him that we would now find offensive.

But in the pages of the Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review things are different. Travers is one of us. More than that, he is an admired figure, a notable exponent of pugilistic science, an exponent of sporting virtue, despite what censorious authorities might say about the rough world of bare-knuckle fighting. Certainly his colour is referred to - he is variously labelled as 'The Black' or 'The Ebony Gentleman' in the characteristically florid style adopted for fight descriptions - but for most of the time he is simply Travers, or Bob.

The Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review was founded in March 1862 to capitalize on the growing public enthusiasm for sport. Established by the London printer Edward Harrison, producer of numerous penny serials and weekly periodicals, the sports and games it covered included athletics, hunting, yachting, cricket, rackets, bowls, billiards, wrestling, the ring, pedestrianism, aquatics, golf, billiards, chess, cribbage, and coursing. True to its title, the newspaper also included coverage of various kinds of theatrical performance, increasingly so in its later years until the title closed in 1870.

Travers_and_travers

Bob Travers in fighting attitude and private costume, Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 19 July 1862

It specialised in wood engravings of sportsmen, many of them derived from photographs, which were sometimes sold separately and lined the walls of many a home and public house. They were literally the pin-ups of their time. Such was the importance of the illustrations that a separate version of the journal with images only, Gallery of Engravings (not held by the British Library) was also published, while the journal maintained an index of its illustrations for easy reference. Travers was illustrated on several occasions, both in fighting mode and in elegant private dress.

Travers was not a great fighter, but he was a dogged opponent, and a smart one. He was not averse to taking a fall when the fight was no longer going his way. He certainly seems to have had a sound sense of self-preservation, particularly in his latter years as a fighter, when retirement beckoned. One indication of the dangerous world in which he operated is his fight with Jem Dillon in 1863, when the newspapers reported the shocking news that Travers had died of his injuries following fifty-three brutal rounds. Two weeks later, Travers enjoyed a Mark Twain-like opportunity to tell the press by a letter that reports of his death had been exaggerated – throwing in an advertisement for his pub for good measure (like Bill Richmond, he had opened a pub, the Sun and Thirteen Cantons, off Leicester Square).

Westerngazette

Bob Travers's comments on reports of his death, Western Gazette, 5 September 1863, via British Newspaper Archive

Travers retired from the ring at some point in the mid-1860s. Meanwhile boxing began to move away from its lawless roots. The Marquess of Queensbury’s rules, first set down around 1867, brought in some semblance of order and replaced bare knuckles with gloves. Travers was still around when the first world heavyweight championship fight, held in America between John L. Sullivan and James Corbett (the victor) in 1892, was fought with gloves. 16 years later Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion.

Maybe Bob Travers lived long enough to hear the news. We do not know where or when he died; he is last heard of in 1904. But we see him now in his prime, held up as an exemplar in the pages of the Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, taking his place among the great of England in his field. In the backwaters of the British sporting newspapers of the mid-19th century we can find some inklings of a society based not on race or class, but personal merit.

Notes

There is more information on Bob Travers on the Cyber Boxing Zone website, and in Kevin Smith, Black Genesis: The History of the Black Prizefighter 1760-1870 (iUniverse, 2003). On sporting newspapers of the period, see Mike Huggins, The Victorians and Sport (2004). On black Britons of the 19th century, see David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (2017). On boxing generally, see Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History (2008).