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History of the Specials

Many people claim never to have heard of the Special Constabulary and so often assume that it is a relatively new institution. In fact, the origins of the Specials date back several hundred years to Anglo Saxon times, when the people policed themselves - in other words, 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 to keep his own community safe, can be traced back as far as the time of Alfred the Great in the ninth century - if someone committed a crime, it was the responsibility of his family to bring him to justice; if they did not, then the local man who was responsible for peace and order locally could call on other members of the community to help him find the fugitive. Every citizen was under an obligation to assist when asked.

After the arrival of the Normans in 1066, the protection of law and order stayed very much locally based, but they also introduced the concept of 'constables', with the most senior being the Constable of a Castle (Dover Castle in Kent, for example, still has this post, although it is only a ceremonial role these days). 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.

In 1285 the Statute of Winchester introduced Parish Constables, responsible for keeping the peace in their parish or town. The statute required strangers to be questioned (!) set out requirements for the guarding of important places and towns, and provided for curfews where necessary. Guards were organised into 'watches', who patrolled town walls or gates 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, and made it obligatory for any citizen to assist in tracking down fugitives from the law when required.

The Statute of Winchester was the first piece of legislation that highlighted the importance of the part-time constable, someone from the local community who assists in keeping law and order.

In 1673 King Charles II, alarmed by the threat of public disorder arising out of attempts to enforce religious conformity, extended this duty by ruling that any citizen might be sworn in 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!

The Act of 1673 was in force for hundreds of years and was used to call up specials on several occasions - although always in the North of England, never the South.

The years of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries caused much unrest and painful transition as automated machinery brought fundamental changes to the way people lived and worked. In the North of England, which had the highest concentration of people affected by these changes, many hundreds of thousands of workers found their standard of living sinking to starvation levels.

By 1819 economic conditions had improved sufficiently for the revolting masses to consider other problems, in particular the demand for parliamentary reform. The leaders of the movement for Parliamentary reform held mass meetings in towns and cities across the country.

Some sixty thousand demonstrators attended one such meeting in Manchester and in the early evening a riot broke out. The military were brought in and the Riot Act read but rioting spread to Stockport and Macclesfield, and a Special Constable was killed in New Cross. By the time order was restored several days later, eleven people were dead and over four hundred people injured.

As an indirect result of these riots, and the Government's concerns about possible future unrest, an Act was passed in 1820 which clarified the powers of magistrates to compel men to become Special Constables for use in time of public disorder. However, local authorities still demonstrated reluctance to appoint Special Constables despite these new powers - perhaps because of the death and destruction wrought in the riots of 1819 where Specials had been used.

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, 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 included may provisions, including a new power allowing local authorities to appoint Special Constables for the purpose of preserving the Peace should they consider existing police numbers inadequate for doing so.

Specials were granted all "powers, authorities, advantages and immunities" as any serving full-time constable. They were also given the power in extraordinary circumstances to act in adjoining counties.

The Act also stated that Specials were to be issued with any articles or weapons that the authorities considered they might need in the execution of their duty.

Notice though that at this time, a man (no women police officers in 1831!) 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!

The next few years saw huge changes in society, with movements for the repeal of the Corn Laws and the abolition of slavery among the causes straining the now reformed police service. It was clear that however efficient the new constabularies may be, there would always be occasions when they simply would not be numerically strong enough to cope.

Increased attention was therefore focused on the Special Constabulary and in 1835 yet another Act was passed. This Act had only two principal parts but both were key - firstly it introduced the principal of voluntary Special Constables. Secondly it widened the jurisdiction of Specials, allowing them to operate outside of their parishes and townships.  Specials today have their police powers on and off duty, across the country.

The Special Constabulary continued to be used by various governments in times of crisis over the next 300 years: in the early 1840's the early Victorians used specials to combat the threats from the Chartists; the Edwardians likewise used them during the industrial unrest in the early 1900's.

Finally at the beginning of the Great War 1914-1918 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 between 1939-1945 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, in a major move after hundreds of years of inequality, women were allowed to join the Special Constabulary.

In Memoriam: Glenn Goodman

The increasingly front-line role performed by the modern Special Constabulary was brought home in 1992 by the murder of Glenn Goodman, a Special Constable with North Yorkshire Police. Glenn had hoped to join the regular police and had served as a special for only a few months. Glenn was a happy, likeable, enthusiastic 37 year-old. On the evening of 6th June 1992, he went out on one of his first patrols with a regular officer.

He put in extra hours that night and it was almost 4 o'clock in the morning of 7th June when the two officers made a routine check on a car on the A64 near Tadcaster. The car turned out to contain two IRA terrorists. They shot at the officers and both men were badly wounded. Glenn died later on that Sunday evening. The regular officer, PC Sandy Kelly, spent many weeks in hospital and has since retired from the force.

Now in the 21st Century, the level of Specials has settled at around 15,000 officers. Many changes are afoot - a redefined role for the Specials in neighbourhood policing, increased recruitment to help police the London Olympics in 2012, some forces only recruiting their regular officers from ranks of the Specials, and ever closer integration with their regular colleagues. We live in interesting times!


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