Background History of United Kingdom Specials

Sarah Hands

Historical Overview

The Special Constabulary can be traced back to the Peace Officers of the time of Alfred the Great in the 9th Century, when members of the public, all of whom were under an obligation to offer unpaid assistance when asked, could be invested with special powers of enforcing the law and keeping the peace.

In 1285 the introduction of the Statute of Winchester meant that Parish Constables and Night Watchmen could be appointed from the local community to assist with keeping law and order and these were the paid forerunners of the Regular Police Force.  Special Constables existed then as now alongside regular police officers and men were appointed to this role at times when there was a perceived need to increase the level of law enforcement. Local men were compulsorily appointed as Special Constables by Justices of the Peace and could be fined for refusing the position.

Night watchman – precursor of the police officer.
(Gloucestershire Police Archives URN 1585)


In the early 19th Century, the excessive use of capital punishment as a deterrent, together with the system of Parish Constables and Night Watchmen, supplemented periodically by Special Constables and the military, was considered by central government to be an ineffective and an inappropriate way of dealing with crime. In particular, the increasing use of troops to deal with disorder was becoming redolent of martial law. Thus, to avoid further public condemnation, Sir Robert Peel as Home Secretary introduced a paid police force, selling it to a distrustful population by saying that the force was being set up to control crime and not people. At the same time, Peel abolished capital punishment for all offences with the exception of treason and murder. Peel’s Police Force came into being, firstly in London with the Police Act of 1829, then in the provinces with the 1839 County Police Act.


In 1839, a paid regular Police Force was established in Gloucestershire and the system of appointing Special Constables at times of additional need persisted. During the 19th Century, Specials were used as a transient deterrent force for keeping the peace most notably during the bread riots and the Chartist riots. Occasionally the mere act of appointing a body of Special Constables was sufficient to avert trouble. Specials were initially selected from amongst “the most respected inhabitants” of a district but after 1820 Specials could also be appointed from among the poorer classes. Originally, there were financial inducements to undertake the work such as a reward for the apprehension of rioters or a fixed daily payment, but later Specials became a volunteer force, largely unpaid except for out of pocket expenses.


Specials had an important role to play during the industrial unrest of the early 20th Century, both before and after the war. Throughout WW1 they were given war-related duties and helped out with some of the tasks of the Regular Police Force when the Regulars were called up for active war service. The General Strike of 1926 saw a rapid increase in the number of Specials appointed and the Special Constabulary continued to expand into the 1930s. A large number of Special Constables were appointed before and during WW2 and around that time, the Special Constabulary underwent a major restructuring. During WW2 women were employed in the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps but it was not until 1949 that they were allowed to join the Special Constabulary. In 1964, the Special Constabulary underwent its final significant alteration, evolving into its present form.


Relevant Legislation:

Acts of parliament governing the role of Specials include the following:

  • The Charles II Act of 1673 stated that any citizen could be sworn in as a police officer, on a temporary basis, to deal with threats of great disorder. This act was in force for hundreds of years and was used to call up Specials on many occasions.
  • The Special Constables Act of 1820 was introduced following the Manchester Riots of 1819 during which a Special Constable was killed. It allowed Magistrates to recruit men as Special Constables with greater ease, broadened the criteria for their appointment and clarified the occasions on which they could be appointed.
  • The Special Constables Act of 1831, allowed two justices of the peace to appoint as many unpaid special constables as they wished, if they anticipated riotous disorder. This act which forms the basis of the constitution of the present-day Special Constabulary, also allowed for the appointment of special constables outside times of unrest, if the regular police force was deemed to be insufficient in number in a particular area. The act granted the Specials full powers of arrest and the necessary weapons and equipment to carry out their duties and although able to claim expenses, Special Constables were still unpaid and could be fined if they refused to be appointed.
  • The Special Constables Act of 1835 redefined the 1831 Act and allowed Special Constables to operate outside their parishes.
  • Municipal Corporations Act 1882 Section on appointment of Special Constables: This Act reaffirmed the 1831 Act allowing two or more borough justices to appoint extra local men as Special Constables in October of each year in the event of an anticipated shortfall in police numbers. It also stated that Special Constables in the course of their duties could “apprehend any idle and disorderly person whom he finds disturbing the public peace, or whom he has just cause to suspect of intention to commit a felony, and deliver him into the custody of the borough constable in attendance at the nearest watch-house.”
  • The Special Constables Act of 1914 enabled the monarch to make regulations as necessary in respect of the work of the Specials during war time. It also granted gratuities to the dependents of Specials if they were injured during the line of duty.
  • The Special Constables Act of 1923 made the 1914 act permanent.
  • The Police Act of 1964 established the Special Constabulary in its present form giving Chief Constables the power to appoint and manage Specials.




This page was added on 12/08/2020.

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