History of the Special Constabulary

Did you know that the Special Constabulary was formed as long ago as 1673?

The following extract is from an article published in the POLICE magazine in September 1998:

In 1673, Charles II passed an Act, which laid down that any citizen may be sworn in as a police officer on a temporary basis to deal with threats of great disorder. These special constables continued earlier notions that every individual had a responsibility to see that law and order was maintained. If a citizen was summonsed before the magistrates to be sworn in as a special constable and refused to take the oath or perform duty he was liable to the heavy fine of £5.

The special constables of those days had no uniforms but performed their duties in their smartest everyday clothes and wore an armband.

In 1828 the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, set up a committee to look at ways to tackle the large-scale lawlessness in the country. With the Police Act of 1829 London had its first police force which eventually spread through the rest of the country. The problem was that the paid constables were few in numbers and could not cope with any large-scale disturbances.

This was refined by the Special Constables Act of 1831 where "for the better preservation of the peace" two justices of the peace could appoint as many special constables as they liked to combat any "tumult, riot and felony" which seemed unlikely. The special constables as today were unpaid save for payment of their expenses.

Fearing a repetition of the notorious Gordon riots, in the greatest example of over policing in history 170,000 special constables were sworn in and reported for duty to deal with a possible half a million rioters on Kensington Common, who were due to march on to Westminster. In fact, only 50,000 demonstrators turned up but the mobilisation of so many ordinary citizens determined to uphold the law was a lesson the government was never to forget.

The Special Constabulary came into its own during the two world wars as large numbers of police were needed to enforce the new restrictions imposed on the civilian population, everything from rationing to the blackout in addition to their ordinary duties of maintaining law and order.

To cover this, the police service in the Second World War was expanded by about 50 percent. At the outbreak of the Second World War there were no fewer than 130,000 men enrolled in the Special Constabulary, 7,000 of these were full time and were paid, the rest being unpaid part timers.

More often than not a special constable became a friend and protector to all and was never more respected than in those dark days. As one commentator, talking of air raids, put it "the

calm and authoritative way of the good-natured Bobby did more to dispel panic than any amount of official propaganda".

The emergency over, the special constabulary was thanked for its work and was largely sent home. From 118,000 strong in 1938 it went to half that number by 1946 and by 1975 there were a mere 23,000 special constables in the whole of the country, a reduction of 80%.

The special constabulary today remains an important resource, assisting the regular police in the performance of their duties in times of normality and providing a substantial body of men and women to be called upon when normal manpower is unable to cope.

(Our thanks to POLICE magazine for allowing reproduction of this extract)