IT was shortly before 10am that the Rev.Robert Cavan stepped into Southampton County Magistrates Court, not as you might expect as a character witness but in the unlikely guise as that of a defendant.

He was charged with an offence no longer on the statute books and in the late 19th century was causing growing public rancour- neglecting to comply with an order for his young son to be vaccinated.

The Minister of the East Street Baptist Church was a conscientious objector.

Though he broadly accepted the information laid against him, he claimed two clauses in the Vaccination Act should make him exempt from the penalty of a fine.

"The first is unfitness. I am happy to say I cannot plead this in the ordinary sense of the word. My son, Robert, is perfectly healthy, he has not had a day's illness since his birth and I trust with God's blessing he keeps in that state of health. Neither can I say he is unsusceptible because I have not put him to that test."

Though apologetic for breaking the concept of law, the vicar contended that by following it in this issue he was violating his conscience and could not yield to its obedience.

He suggested a compromise.

Quoting a passage that the "Guardians" could be restrained from prosecuting on those grounds, the magistrates should accordingly not penalise him.

"I have just come from the home of a parent who had his child vaccinated some months ago. Upon his arm there is a running sore three inches long and two inches broad. The child has been suffering in this way for four months and what is worse is that there is still a sore to his ear and the magistrates have ordered him to be vaccinated again."

The doctor had admitted he had unsuccessfully inoculated the child but wanted to do so again when he was better.

To rapturous applause from the public gallery as he condemned the treatment as brutal," Cavan pleaded: "I can only trust God, who is more merciful than him, should pardon those who inflict compulsory vaccination upon the mothers and fathers of this country."

But the chairman, W C Humphrys, reminded him they were not there to pass the law but to enforce it.

"We would like to make it clear we are simply here as its administrators. It is not for us say whether vaccination is a good or bad thing. You have determined that your child should not be vaccinated. It is for us to say you have disobeyed the law and to impose the fine which the law provides. Therefore we fine you the full penalty of £1."

Cavan however contended that by fining him the maximum they were to some extent reflecting their approval of the Act.

"As I have said before, I have done what I have done as a conscientious objection and I cannot suffer any Act of Parliament to override it."

The Bench were unmoved, and having paid the fine as well as costs, the vicar left the court.