Special Constabulary

Special Constabulary - History

Specials History

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.

Volunteer Constables

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.

Police Forces

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 modern policing.

Special Constables

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 constable.

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!

War 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 regular duties.

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 declined sharply.


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 Constabulary.


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 team.

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