Members of the community have been
called upon to act to apprehend offenders since at least Roman
times but it was not until the Statute of Winchester that the
office of constable was established, two for each Hundred
(therefore the earliest form of Hertfordshire Constabulary started
with 18 constables).
Office of Constable
In 1285 in the reign of King Edward I, robberies were commonplace
throughout Britain and often unpunished; the Statute of Winchester
placed requirements on communities to keep the peace, to impose
curfews in towns, and maintain arms and horses to pursue offenders
- or pay recompense to victims of robberies in their area.
Constables were appointed to ensure compliance and to bring before
the Justices any defaulters in these obligations.
By the beginning of the 17th century increasing stability reduced
these duties to that each Constable was responsible for the
preservation of the peace in his area and for the execution of the
orders and warrants of the Justices of the Peace.
The constable’s oath and close relationship with the Justices of
the Peace characterised him as a ministerial officer of the Crown,
like a sheriff or the JPs themselves, rather than as a local
administrative officer. In short, constables have never been civil
servants. Constables’ powers are exercised by virtue of their
office and, unless they are executing a warrant, the powers can be
exercised only on their own responsibility.
Although a constable is an officer of the Crown and a public
servant, his or her relationship with the Crown is not that of
master and servant, nor that of principal and agent. A constable
cannot be ordered to exercise their powers; theirs is a ministerial
right to exercise discretion. That is of great importance to the
nature of policing in Britain, answering to the Law and independent
of political interference.
In 1673 provisions were made to allow that any citizen might be
sworn in by the Justices as a temporary peace-officer for a
specific occasion, in particular when there was a threat of great
disturbances. Any citizen could therefore be summoned before the
magistrates and sworn in as a Special Constable, and could be
heavily fined and even jailed if he refused. There was no pay.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had resulted in periods of
famine and chronic unemployment, and led to a rise in political
activism. In 1819 some sixty thousand demonstrators attended a
political meeting in Manchester and in the early evening a riot
broke out. Over 400 Special Constables had been sworn in but were
unable to deal with such a crowd; the military were brought in, the
Riot Act was read and the cavalry charged the crowd. By the time
order was restored several days later, eleven people were dead and
over four hundred people injured in what became known as the
Peterloo Massacre. It became clear that even Parish and Special
Constables together could not deal with such large scale crime and
disorder but that the consequences of deploying military resources
could be catastrophic on a political level.
In 1829 the Metropolitan Act established the first permanent Police
Force and was rapidly followed across the country; in 1835 the
Municipal Corporations Act required 178 Royal Boroughs to set up
paid police forces; in 1839 the Rural Constabulary Act allowed
county areas to establish police forces if they so wished.
Wiltshire was the first county to do this and eight were formed in
1839, twelve in 1840, four in 1841 and a further four by 1851 when
there were around 13,000 police in England and Wales.
In 1847 the Town Police Clauses Act largely copied the Metropolitan
Police Act of 1839 to provide a national legal framework of
offences, common to all parts of the country, to be enforced by the
new Police Forces and Constabularies and this provides the model of
The Government moved to put the Special Constabulary on a new
footing in 1831 with the passing of "An Act for amending the Laws
relative to the Appointment of Special Constables "; the provisions
of this Act still form the basis of the constitution of today's
Special Constabulary. Specials were granted all "powers,
authorities, advantages and immunities" as any serving full-time
A man could not refuse to serve as a Special Constable - in fact,
the Act allowed for a fine of five pounds if he did. The Act did
however empower the authorities to provide reasonable expenses to
Specials, such costs to be met out of the local authority funds.
Before 1831, Specials were forced to give up their time with no
recompense other than the thrill of providing national service!
At the beginning of the Great War in 1914 the Special Constabulary
was ordered into a body similar to the present day one: a
voluntary, part-time organisation paid only their expenses. During
World War One their primary function was to prevent German
infiltrators from interfering with the nation's water supply.
During the general strike of 1926, the Government sharply increased
recruitment of Specials to counter insurgence and unrest, and by
1930 the number of Specials had reached an incredible peak of
136,000 - although a much smaller number actually turned out for
The Second World War saw around 130,000 Special Constables acting
as the wartime police reserve, supplemented by retired police
officers recalled to duty to assist. While many became full time
'regular' police officers, others contributed duty hours whenever
they could, while carrying on with their full-time
responsibilities. After the end of the War, the number of Specials
In 1949 women were allowed to join
the Special Constabulary although their duties were still
completely separate to men (in the regular service as well) until
the early 1970s.
Today there are over 17,000 Specials in England and Wales, over 30%
of them female and over 10% from minority ethnic backgrounds – both
figures being higher than in the Regular Service. Nearly 24% of
Regular officers have previously served with the Special
More than ever before, Specials are
being recognised for what they can contribute to the Regular
Service; greater integration with their Regular colleagues is
occurring across the country, but particularly in Hertfordshire.
Our Specials not only have all "powers, authorities, advantages and
immunities” of their Regular colleagues, they are truly part of the
put in any situation that could put you or your horse at the risk
of injury or harm.