Gloucestershire Special Constables in the 19th Century 1

Sarah Hands

Special Constables in Gloucestershire, as elsewhere in the country, had served their communities in a very similar way for several hundreds of years. They continued to do so into the 19th Century even after a Regular Paid Force was established across the county in 1839.

In certain circumstances, in the early part of the Century, Specials were likely to have been paid for undertaking specific duties, such as acting as a court bailiff, but for the most part they were expected to take on responsibilities without pay. Special Constables were chosen from amongst their local communities and sworn in by local magistrates in times of trouble, serving temporarily, to help keep the peace. Between 1803 and 1815, Britain was at war with France and there were great concerns at the time that the country would face a French invasion. Plans for the policing of communities across the country therefore had to be made with this in mind and inevitably they included the appointment of large numbers of Specials. The 19th Century was also a time of considerable social unrest, with the poor seeking to find a voice in an undemocratic country. The majority of the population had no vote for the whole of the century and people saw rioting as the only way of making a point to their “betters”. As a result, there were many occasions throughout the century, when the services of Special Constables were called upon.


In 1803, on the outbreak of the Napoleonic War, the Lieutenant of the County of Gloucester, Lord Berkeley, disseminated a home office circular to county magistrates, requiring them to make a list of men within their parishes who would be prepared to come forward and serve as Special Constables. The circular stated that “in the event of the French making an attempt to invade this Kingdom, it will be of great importance to provide for the internal good order and the tranquillity of the country.” The volunteers had to be local householders who were trustworthy and who were not enrolled in the Volunteer Corps or eligible for military service.  Once sworn in, the Specials were to be divided into divisions, each with their own head Special, acting as a superintendent. Local newspapers did not appear to carry any subsequent reports of whether or how these Specials were utilised, but in June of 1814, the good people of Cheltenham wished to hold celebrations to mark the end of the British involvement in the war. At a meeting in the town hall they requested that the High Bailiff select a number of Special Constables to supervise the festivities. The Specials were tasked with the preservation of order through the prevention of firing of guns and pistols; throwing fireballs, crackers and other dangerous fireworks; burning of pitch barrels and breaking of windows. Any perpetrators were to be arrested by the Specials and would then face prosecution.


Unofficial unions of workers existed from the early years of the 19th C but they were outlawed. Protesting through riots was dealt with harshly by the authorities and the ring leaders even faced execution. In the second decade of the 19th Century a secret society of individuals known as Luddites, who saw the Industrial Revolution as a threat to their livelihoods, led protests in the North of England by smashing machinery. At that time, the troubles did not reach as far South as Gloucestershire, although fears that it would, meant that Specials were taken on in readiness. Trade Unions were eventually legalised in 1824, and many of them flourished, but they had limited powers so that protest, often including strikes and violent actions, continued to be the main way for workers to get their grievances heard. In Gloucestershire on 24th November 1825, rioting took place at Wotton-under-Edge which was initiated by the Union Society of Weavers, who alleged that the weavers were being required to work for wages less than those fixed by them. Between the 26th and 28th November a number of special constables were sworn in to deal with the protesters and make arrests. The ringleaders were prosecuted at Gloucester Assizes the following year.


On the 15th September 1827 at the Westgate Bridge river crossing in Gloucester, a riot resulted when a crowd of over two thousand people gathered at the bridge in protest at paying the tolls. The rioters used stones and other weapons to demolish the toll bar and the toll house and although a number of Special Constables were sworn in by the magistrates, they were insufficient to keep down the rioters and had to flee for their own safety. The magistrates then sent for military assistance and it was only with the arrival of the troops that the riot was suppressed. Four of the ring leaders were arrested and imprisoned.


The Swing Riots were a widespread uprising of agricultural workers in 1830 which began in South East England as a protest against agricultural mechanisation and harsh working conditions. It commenced with the destruction of threshing machines in Kent in the summertime, but by late Autumn the troubles had spread across the country and into Gloucestershire. Landowners in fear for their property and their lives, exhorted magistrates to swear in large numbers of Special Constables throughout the county. For example, an article from the Cheltenham Chronicle of 16th December 1830 describes the swearing in of 450 Special Constables by Tewkesbury magistrates. They were divided into five parish groups each headed up by a “respectable inhabitant” from the parish. The heads were made responsible for establishing night watches for the preservation of property and public peace and were directed to co-operate with Cheltenham magistrates – a pattern which was repeated across the county and in some instances augmented by mounted Specials. Magistrates were directed to order sufficient constable’s staves and handcuffs to be distributed. They also had to supervise raising of a fund “for the purpose of defraying expenses incurred in the prosecution of lawful acts for the detection and punishment of any persons committing a breach of the peace.”


During this time magistrates attempted to swear in local people to act as Special Constables to deal with the rioting, but the locals were having none of it. In November and December of 1830, various terrified members of the landed gentry wrote to the Home Office to request intervention by the troops to supplement the Special Constables and help restore order. Extracts from their letters indicate the degree of their anxiety, the extent of the local disturbances and the level of involvement of the Specials. On the 26th November John Huntingford, a magistrate from Fairford, wrote that in his part of the county a neighbour John Barker, also a magistrate, was surrounded by a furious mob with no means of resistance. Huntingford asked for 50 or 60 Cavalry to be sent to Fairford as a matter of urgency. John Barker, the magistrate in the thick of it, wrote to the Home Office himself, two days later, repeating the same request for Cavalry and stating that he had been unable to persuade any of the local inhabitants to be sworn in as Special Constables. Barker had apparently approached the rioting crowd to ask them to stop and was aggrieved when he was ignored. Instead he had to satisfy himself by taking the names of 30 rioters whilst looking on helplessly as the rioters broke into machine makers’ houses and destroyed everything inside them.  Barker reported that the local mob was made up of “the disaffected middle and lower classes” who providing themselves with scythes and arms, openly vowed to destroy more property, resist capture and “fight to the last”.


Stow-on-the-Wold, was similarly the scene of a notable disaffection of the labourers towards their employers with few men volunteering as Special Constables, but Tetbury, Dursley and Cirencester had more success in engaging Specials and Cirencester even appointed pensioners.  At Tetbury the rioters destroyed threshing machines and other farming implements and later some of the perpetrators withdrew to a nearby public house. Magistrates, Special Constables and a number of dragoons, caught up with them there and arrests were made. The prisoners were taken to Horsley Bridewell to be tried at the next quarter sessions. Joseph Cripps from Cirencester, another magistrate, also reported that many arrests had been made and that rioters had been committed to Gloucester prison. Meanwhile, Berkeley magistrates swore in no fewer than 600 Special Constables but at the same time informed the government of the “severe distress of the agricultural labourers”. Gradually the rioting subsided and by the end of December even Huntingford of Fairford was reporting that things were quietening down. Disturbances in his neighbourhood had apparently been put down by Mounted Special Constables from Lechlade and he requested permission from the Home Office for these constables to form a Horse Association armed with swords, to act as necessary on future occasions. Whether this ever came about is not known.


Despite the fact that the majority of working men did not have a vote, election time was still a time when temperatures were likely to run high and the services of the Special Constables required. In August 1834, the newspapers reported that over a hundred Special Constables were sworn in for both day and night duties, in Cheltenham alone. However, the worst the Specials had to deal with were a few broken windows. The following year in 1835 the papers reported that under The Municipal Corporation Reform Act, Special Constables were entitled three shillings and sixpence a day when called out on duty. The sum was to be paid out of the Borough Fund and Special Constables were to be appointed on a regular basis after October of that year. The Act was introduced by the Whigs and it established a uniform system of municipal boroughs, to be governed by town councils elected and paid for by ratepayers. The boroughs had to appoint a salaried town clerk and a treasurer and publish accounts which were liable to audit.  Also, in 1835 the Gloucestershire Chronicle published the accounts for the Gloucestershire Bridewells (prisons for petty offenders) located at Northleach, Horseley, Littledean and Lawford’s Gate, and one of the recorded expenses was for a sum of ten pounds, seven shillings and eightpence paid to Special Constables for quelling prison riots in 1831.


On the occasion of Queen Victoria’s visit to the city of Gloucester in November 1837, the year before her coronation, 1,000 special constables were sworn in for duty and were placed a few paces apart on either side of the streets. The Specials apparently “discharged their arduous duties with exemplary forbearance.” The following year, in 1838, the Chartist movement was set up by the people to fight for the right of working men to vote and calling for corresponding changes in parliament. Although it was widely feared that the mass gatherings of the Chartists would get out of hand, and as such necessitated the swearing in of large numbers of Special Constables, locally at least the meetings appeared to pass off peaceably.  On May 21st 1939 a major Chartist meeting was held on Selsey Hill outside Stroud with workers’ representatives from all over the county. The crowd numbered 3,000 in all, but the quantity of troops and Special Constables, including Mounted Specials, that had been brought in to help keep the peace, was out of all proportion and the event passed off without incident. Similarly, in September of that same year, a Chartist mass meeting was held in Cheltenham and large numbers of Special Constables were sworn in but again nothing came of it. The Chartist movement was ultimately disbanded soon after a third petition to the government in 1848 was unsuccessful.


At around the same time as the mass Chartist meetings, Parliament was becoming increasingly concerned regarding shortfalls in the existing system of law and order in the provinces. In January of 1839 Lord John Russell, then Home Secretary, wrote to the County boroughs urging them to avoid calling in the troops and asking them to appoint Special Constables instead in times of public unrest. It was felt that frequently calling in the troops would be seen to be a provocative act suggestive of state control by military force. At the same time however, he was very concerned by significant deficiencies within the Special Constabulary. He commented that Magistrates were swearing in Special Constables but then calling in the troops at the slightest hint of trouble because the Specials were so ineffective. The Specials were said to have no method or discipline and were either unwilling to undertake duties or were too timid to perform them. Later that same year a paid police force was established countrywide and Gloucestershire had its first Regular Police Force.




This page was added on 30/09/2020.