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History of the Special Constabulary

The Special Constabulary in the British Isles has its origins hundreds of years before regular, paid police forces were established.

In Anglo-Saxon times members of the public were invested with 'special powers' that required them to provide unpaid assistance in enforcing the law and keeping the peace.

According to Special Impact magazine:

Up until the 9th century policing as a whole was very much locally based, but the concept of 'constables' was already in place, the most senior being the Constable of a Castle. Beneath him were high constables and petty constables, responsible for overseeing peace and order in local areas. This was still a fairly informal arrangement, however, and nothing like the properly ordered system of police we have now.

Over the subsequent centuries there were royal rulings, government acts and statutes that developed the role of the Special Constabulary.

In 1285 Edward I established the Statute of Winchester which brought into being Parish Constables. According to the Old Police Cells Museum website:

Importantly, the statute required every man to serve the King in case of invasion by foreign forces, or internal revolt, and made it obligatory for any citizen to assist in tracking down fugitives from the law when required.

Under the Act of 1673 King Charles III ruled that any citizen could be sworn in as a temporary peace officer, especially when there was the threat of great disturbances. The 1673 Act was in force for more than two hundred years, enabling the country to look to Special Constables for help in dealing with crime and disorder across the United Kingdom.

The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries caused substantial changes to the way people lived and worked, leading to mass meetings taking place across the country demanding parliamentary reform.

At such a meeting in Manchester in 1819 rioting took place - the 'Peterloo Massacre' - leading to the deaths of 11 people, including a Special Constable, and injuries to more than 400 people. In 1820 a new Act of Parliament was passed, allowing magistrates to swear in Special Constables in times of public disorder.

In 1831 an Amendment Act was passed, granting Special Constables the power of arrest and allowing them to be used not just for issues of disorder but in general policing as well.

The Special Constables Act gave justices responsible for an area, where "Tumult, Felony or Riot" had occurred or was likely to occur, the power to appoint Special Constables to deal with "riots and tumultuous behaviour".

The 1835 Act introduced the principle of voluntary Special Constables and widened their jurisdiction, allowing them to operate outside of their parishes and townships.

A further Special Constables Act was enacted by parliament in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War, changing the conditions under which Special Constables could be appointed. Under the Act, Special Constables could be appointed to support the police at any time. During the war many Special Constables were recruited in Warwickshire, giving valuable assistance to the depleted regular force.

Special Constables were recognised by King George V with a Long Service Medal for dedicated service during the war and afterwards. This medal is still issued today, honouring officers that volunteer nine years' service.

In order to respond to and counter disruption and unrest during the 1926 General Strike of 1926, the government recruited additional Special Constables, and by 1930 they numbered 136,000 volunteers.

The Special Constabulary in the United Kingdom reached its peak during the 1939-45 war. It then became a fully uniformed, equipped and trained body of police officers and gave invaluable assistance to the regular force.

According to Special Impact magazine, during WW2 Special Constables covered:

new duties such as rationing and patrolling the blackout in addition to ordinary duties of maintaining law and order.

The volunteer officers were also used as first aiders, providing medical treatment at bomb sites, as well as co-ordinating rescues and carrying out crowd control measures.

After the war, numbers in the Special Constabulary declined, and in 1949 women were able to become Special Constables for the first time.

The Police Act of 1964 established the Special Constabulary in its present form, and gave Chief Constables the power to appoint and manage Special Constables.

In 2006 the last major change took place to the Special Constabulary when their powers were altered to being able to arrest persons anywhere in England and Wales. Previously they only had this power in the county (or counties) of their police force and the neighbouring forces.

For information about the history of Warwickshire Police (Constabulary) visit the Warwickshire Constabulary History Society website.