Chichester faces an epidemic as recorded in WG5/1a/1 Minutes of the Court of the Poor Law by Philip Robinson

In 1759 there was some concern in Chichester about a potential epidemic. The new Board of Guardians for the poor had been established. It had first met on Monday 2nd July 1753 to agree its structure and allocate responsibilities. This followed an Act of Parliament that had incorporated the nine parishes of the city into a single Corporation to administer the relief to the poor. At that initial meeting of the Court of Assembly, 33 gentlemen attended, and Sir John Miller was unanimously elected its President for the coming year. Sir John’s father, grandfather and great grandfather had served as Members of Parliament for the City, and his grandfather and great grandfather had served the City as Mayor.

Within a year any initial enthusiasm seems to have declined; no doubt Sir John had more important matters to attend to and was frequently absent from meetings of the Court. Despite that, and though he appeared not to be present (his name is not included with the attendees) he was again unanimously elected in 1754 to serve another year as President, though the minutes record he rarely attended. In the following year Henry Peckham was elected President with twelve votes in his favour and eight against.

By early 1759 attendance at meetings has dropped to about a dozen, indeed in the 5th February only five members turned up and “business could not be transacted”. At the annual appointment of Officers of the Corporation in April Richard Buckner, a former Mayor of the city, was unanimously elected as President and at his first meeting, Friday 27th April, with 16 members present, notice was given that the 71 children in the workhouse should be inoculated against smallpox and that those surgeons and apothecaries willing to help the Guardians should deliver their proposals to a meeting of the Court on Monday.

At that meeting 25 members arrived and the question was put as to whether the children in the workhouse should be inoculated or not. A ballot was held with a red ball indicating support and a white ball opposition to the proposal. Eight voted in favour and seventeen against inoculation.

The minutes do not record the debate, nor the reasons why members took the decision they did. We can speculate whether the rejection was based on a fear of inoculation, or simply the cost to the Guardians of providing for 71 children. The following charts illustrate what happened next, and of course, then, as now, no one knew how events would unfold.

The chart on the left shows the annual mortality against the average for the 18th Century, the annual average number of deaths in Chichester was 89 but in 1759 reached 373. The chart also shows that it was a local epidemic, the deaths in England (figures taken from Wrigley and Schofield “The Population History of England” pp 499/500) remain close to the annual average of one hundred and seventy thousand. The chart on the right depicts the tsunamic wave that was to hit the city in the summer of 1759. Edward Jenner, who did so much to advance our understanding of smallpox and the efficacy of vaccination, was only 10 years old. The minutes of the Guardians for the rest of 1759 remain silent on the impact of the epidemic on the City. Today we have far greater understanding, but even today people want to ignore the signs and treat the epidemic as false news. No one is immune from the tsunami but acting responsibly we will recover and return to a different, and possibly, more compassionate world.