Special constables have a long association with policing in the UK. In Anglo-Saxon times, the people policed themselves, meaning the function carried out by the Special Constabulary pre-dates the full-time, regular police force by hundreds of years.
The concept of a ‘peace officer’, a volunteer who helps keep his own community safe, can be traced back as far as the time of Alfred The Great. If someone committed a crime, their family were responsible for bringing him or her to justice. If they didn’t, the local man responsible for police and order could call on the community to help find them. It was the law to assist a peace officer where necessary.
It was in 1066, when the Normans arrived, that they introduced the concept of ‘constables.’ The most senior constable was the constable of a castle, and beneath him were high constables and petty constables who were responsible for overseeing peace and order in local areas.
In 1285, the Statute of Winchester introduced parish constables, responsible for keeping the peace in their parish or town. Guards were organised into ‘watches,’ who patrolled towns at night and handed over any wrong-doers to the parish constable the next day. Importantly, the statute required every man to serve the King in case of invasion by foreign forces or internal revolt. It also made it obligatory for every citizen to assist in tracking down fugitives when required. The Statute of Winchester was the first piece of legislation that highlighted the importance of a part-time constable.
In 1673, Charles II ruled that citizens may be temporarily sworn in as ‘special constables’ during times of public disorder. At the time, there was serious unrest around religious conformity, and any citizen refusing to be a special would have been subject to fines and jail sentences. The 1673 Act was enforced for centuries after, and mainly used to call up constables in the north of England.
During the early 19th century, economic conditions improved significantly for the masses to be able to consider other problems, with parliamentary reform top of their list. In Manchester, one meeting to discuss this saw 60,000 people attend, and the event became a full scale riot. It saw the death of one ‘special constable’, and by the time the riots had been quelled in the north west, 10 further people were killed and over 400 injured.
As an indirect result of these riots, the Government passed a new Act in 1820. This clarified the powers of magistrates to force men to become special constables during times of public disorder. Local authorities were reluctant to put this act into force however, perhaps due to the death of a specials in riots a year previously.
In 1831, the Government passed “An Act for amending the laws relative to the appointment of special constables, and for the better preservation of the Police.” The provisions of this Act still form the basis of the constitution of today’s Special Constabulary. The Act allowed local authorities to appoint specials to preserve the peace when there were not enough regular officers to do so already.
The 1831 Act also granted special constables “powers, authorities, advantages and immunities” as any serving police officer. It gave the power to issue specials with any weapons necessary to complete their duties.
With the passing of this new Act, a man could not refuse to serve as a special constable. In fact, the Act gave a five pound fine if he did! However, it empowered the authorities to provide reasonable expenses to specials. Before 1831, they were forced to give up their time for the thrill of providing national service!
The next few years saw huge changes in society, with movements for the abolition of slavery straining the reformed police service. It was at this time the government realised that no matter how efficient the new constabularies may be, there would be times where they wouldn’t have the numbers to cope.
Increased attention was therefore focused on the Special Constabulary, and in 1835 another Act was passed. There were only two principals in this act, but they were both key. Firstly, it introduced the principal of voluntary Special Constables. Secondly, it widened the jurisdiction of Specials, meaning they could operate outside of their parishes and townships. Today, Specials have their police powers on and off duty, across the country.
It was following this Act that the first special constables were sworn in in Birmingham. During rioting in 1839, 100 officers from the Metropolitan Police were made special constables to help quell the disturbances. As a result of the violent scenes, another Act of Parliament was enabled to allow the city to set up its own police force.
Specials were used a lot throughout times of crisis between the mid-19th and mid-20th century. In the Victorian era, they were used to combat threats from Chartists. They were people who wanted to gain political rights and influence for the working class. Similarly, the Edwardians used them to quell industrial unrest.
During World War I, the Special Constabulary was made into a body similar to the present day one. It was a voluntary, part-time organisation, and were only paid expenses. During the Great War, their main function was to prevent Germans interfering with Britain’s water supply.
In 1926, the Government significantly increased the recruitment of specials. This was to counter unrest from the General Strike. 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.
During World War II, around 130,000 special constables acted as the wartime police reserve, with retired police officers assisting them. Many actually became full-time police officers, while some contributed hours alongside their full-time responsibilities.
After the War, the number of specials declined sharply. This led to a momentous decision in 1949. After many years of inequality, women were allowed to join the Special Constabulary.
Eighteen specials have been killed on duty across the West Midlands. Only three were killed outside of wartime, and there has only been one since the inception of West Midlands Police, who is Neil Coleman in 1990. Today, there are 286 special constables working in the force.