The History of The Special Constabulary

Sussex police
Sussex Police
Sussex Police
Early armbands were literally a piece of printed cloth
PMCC Magazine Tony Clayton's collection.
Other than a cap, they were not yet issued with uniform, as can be seen from the 1921 photograph of a Special on duty in St Mary's Road, supervising local scouts as they prepared to leave for their annual camp
The Statute of Winchester was not a revolutionary or even a new system of law enforcement.
Charles II | king of Great Britain and Ireland
Sir Robert Peel
During the Second World War John Arthur Pile served as a Special Police Constable at Billingborough, Lincolnshire.
Special Police Constables equipped with a Royal Enfield sidecar
Women Special Constables also played a part in the early years pictured here is WSC Phyllis Bayne taken in the late 1940s early 1950s
1930s image showing Specials at the far right of the uniformed regulars .
Lapel Badge Special Constabulary
British Police online Museum
Lapel Badge Special Constabulary
British Police online Museum
Brighton Borough Police Special constable .Lapel badge with horseshoe fitting made by Fattorini, Birmingham Chrome and Enamel
British Police online Museum
White Metal Special Constable Arm Band Borough of Hove Police on leather buckled strap
British Police online Museum
Lapel Badge Special Constabulary
Lapel Badge Special Constabulary

The ‘Specials’

The special constabulary is a force of trained volunteers who work with and support their local police. ‘Specials’, as special constables are known, come from all walks of life – they are teachers, taxi drivers, accountants and secretaries, or any number of other careers – and they all volunteer a minimum of four hours a week to their local police force, forming a vital link between the regular (full-time) police and the local community.

Special Constable History, Bedfordshire police


The Special Constabulary can be traced back to at least the 9th century, where members of the public were invested with “special powers” to give unpaid assistance in enforcing the law and keeping the peace.

The concept of a ‘peace officer’, a volunteer who helps to keep their 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 their family’s responsibility to bring him/her 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.

1285 the Statute of Winchester

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.

Special Constable History, Bedfordshire police

The Act of 1673

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.

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.

The Act of 1673 was in force for hundreds of years and was used to call up Specials on several occasions

Industrial unrest

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 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.

In August 1819 dozens of peaceful protestors were killed and hundreds injured at a gathering in Manchester.

‘Despite the seriousness of the cause, there was a party atmosphere as groups of men, women and children, dressed in their best Sunday clothes, marched towards Manchester. The procession was accompanied by bands playing music and people dancing alongside. In many towns, the march was practised on local moors in the weeks before the meeting to ensure that everybody could arrive in an organised manner.

According to local magistrates, however, the crowd was not peaceful but had violent, revolutionary intentions. To them, the organised marching, banners and music were more like those of a military regiment, and the practices on local moors like those of an army drilling its recruits. They therefore planned to arrest Henry Hunt and the other speakers at the meeting, and decided to send in armed forces – the only way they felt they could safely get through the large crowd.’

‘People who were already cramped, tired and hot panicked as the soldiers rode in, and several were crushed as they tried to escape. Soldiers deliberately slashed at both men and women, especially those who had banners. It was later found that their sabres had been sharpened just before the meeting, suggesting that the massacre had been premeditated.’       Ruth Mather   British library


According to local magistrates, the crowd was not peaceful but had violent, revolutionary intentions and in the early evening the authorities claimed that the crowd had started to riot.

The military were brought in and the Riot Act read. There were further protests in the surrounding areas 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.

Sir Robert Peel

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 1831 Act

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.  Special Constable History, Bedfordshire police


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 jurisdiction in their force area and all adjoining police areas).

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

The 20th century

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.

At the beginning of the Great War, 1914 to 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 between1939-1945 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.

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 Police Act of 1964

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


In 1949, in a major move after hundreds of years of inequality, women were allowed to join the Special Constabulary.

Present Times

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.

The Special Constabulary is a closely integrated part of all the police forces around the United Kingdom. In 2002 there were around 12,500 Special Constables providing hundreds of thousands of hours of additional policing resources each year around the U.K., and building a vital link to the communities they help to keep safe.

Sussex Police

In Sussex, over 400 people currently spend a minimum of four hours a week as volunteer police officers serving the local community. Special constables have the same powers and much of the same training as full-time officers. Playing a vital role in neighbourhood policing teams, these officers can also train to undertake specialist roles, responding to 999 calls and working in the Road Policing Unit.

Special constables are part of a wider volunteering family within Sussex Police which include volunteers who help run public contact points, cadets who provide support at public events and partner organisations such as Neighbourhood Watch, Speed Watch, search teams and street pastors. The contributions of all these volunteers are being highlighted throughout this week in a series of videos posted on social media.

Volunteering as a Special Constable is hard work but is ultimately very rewarding.

You already have a career – now you want a different challenge in your spare time. If you can commit to at least 16 hours a month, bring integrity and common sense to everything you do and stay calm under pressure, we want to hear from you.

As volunteer Police Officers, Special Constables have full police powers, uniform and equipment and work alongside full-time Police Officers and PCSOs to help protect and serve the people of Sussex.

Volunteers for the Special Constabulary come from all walks of life. You may be at home, bringing up a family, or employed in any one of a wide variety of jobs. The diversity and varied experiences of the Special Constabulary helps the police service to represent the communities they serve.

What will be expected of you?

You will be trained to use the same powers as full-time police constables – there will be a lot for you to learn. Once successful in your application you will complete a part time pre-join course run over 10 alternate weeks, then an initial course run over six weekends. After this you will continue your probation with the Professional Development Unit where you will be expected to commit at least 16 hours a month for the rest of your service.

During your service you will deal with a varied range of incidents. There will be times when you will experience confrontation; you will arrest suspects and attend often distressing events, but it won’t be all blue lights and car chases. You will be there for people in times of need, there will be occasions when you don’t finish your shift on time and when it feels like all you do is complete paperwork. But if you have the drive to make a difference in your community you will get a great deal out of working alongside full-time officers to make Sussex safer.

“The Statute of Winchester was not a revolutionary or even a new system of law enforcement but it gave a new importance to traditional methods that were to remain largely unchanged for centuries and were eventually to provide the basis upon which the modern forces of Britain and the United States are built. Many of these traditional methods were so old that no one knew their origins and some of them had fallen into disuse, but they were now all brought to life again and the people were obliged to make them work … By emphasising the English tradition that every man was a policeman, Edward I was doing no more than confirming the customs of his predecessors but he gave the system more force and effect than it had ever previously known.”




Sussex Police

POLICE magazine

Bedfordshire police


Comments about this page

  • Absolutely right Jessica. We will amend the post and draw attention to your comments. We also have material from YouTube which we draw students attention to.

    Thanks OPCM

    By Paul Beaken (28/02/2018)
  • The comments about the mass meeting in 1819 that led to the Peterloo Massacre give a wholly misleading slant. This was not a ‘riot’. The Manchester Yeomanry cavalry, ordered by panicking magistrates to disperese the crowd, attacked the crowd, including women and children, cutting with the points of their sabres, not hitting with the sides, as would be expected. They were boxed in and had nowhere to flee. In fact, they killed a special constable. A baby was killed by their charge. Impartial statements made by churchmen and journalists such as the reporter from ‘The Times’ confirm this. Records show that at least 14 were killed and over 500 injued – and those were only the official figures, as many were too intimidated to seek medical help. The riots at New Cross were the result of public anger at these murderous attacks. The Six Acts were rushed through parliament to prevent effective dissent, not public disorder – free speech in newspapers and public meetings, was effectively muzzled. They were duly repealed a decade later.

    By Jessica Holsgrove (27/02/2018)

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