Gloucestershire Special Constables in the 19th Century 2

Sarah Hands


During the latter part of the 19th Century, following the failure of the Chartist movement, the majority of working men still did not have the vote and many of their demands remained unmet. However, it was a relatively quiet period with respect to public disorder, so that the occasions on which Special Constables were required were infrequent.

Election time was an exception as it was generally a time when tensions ran high so the parishes ensured that there were sufficient Specials sworn in to deal with any possible unrest. In the 1860s there was also considerable anxiety amongst the British public regarding the troubles in Ireland resulting from the demand for home rule.  Fears that uncontrolled civil unrest would spread on mainland Britain, led to large numbers of Special constables being sworn in on frequent occasions and at the slightest hint of trouble. The latter part of the 19thC also saw a clearer delineation of the powers of Special Constables and a revision of the organisation of the Special Constabulary.


In July 1852, a closely fought general election was held, and around the county of Gloucestershire large numbers of Specials were sworn in to help preserve the peace. In Cheltenham fifty Special Constables were enlisted to assist fifty Regulars but there was little by way of trouble. However, the same could not be said for Bridge Yate in the South of the County. Members of the Regular Police Force were stationed at the Bridge Yate voting booths and after a quiet start a band of working men arrived, many from nearby Bitton colliery, and began pelting voters with dirt and stones. It transpired that these men were normally paid as Special Constables during election days and had arrived only to find that they were not needed. Violence quickly escalated and voters and police were pelted with more stones and bludgeoned with sticks. They were forced to retreat to a nearby committee room, where the local magistrate swore in 47 Special Constables, who were to be paid half a crown for their services.  Nevertheless, the situation did not improve as the Special Constables, which included some of the rioters, were either unwilling or unable to control the crowd. The magistrate read the Riot Act three times to no effect in three different parts of the field amidst a continual hail of stones and the mob swelled to more than a thousand people. The violence continued until the troops were called in.  Twenty-one arrests were made both at the time and during the days following the riot. The prisoners were all aged between 18 and 30 and were subsequently committed for trial. The sentences that they received varied from six months imprisonment to ten years transportation.


The Fenian brotherhood was established in Ireland in 1858 and throughout the 1860s led organised protests against British Rule with demands for the formation of an Irish Republic. The culmination of these protests was a mass riot in Dublin in March of 1867. This engendered considerable paranoia amongst the population of mainland Britain and led to so-called “Fenian fever.” According to a report in the Gloucestershire Chronicle, in January 1868, as a result of fears of Irish infiltration in the locality, a large number of Specials were sworn in by county magistrates to work alongside what by now was a well-established Regular Police Force. Although the fears were unfounded, such was the paranoia that over 400 Specials including former aldermen, merchants and tradesmen, were sworn in, on one day in Gloucester. The men were assigned to cover all of the hamlets and parishes and were engaged for a period of three months. The oath that they took included the words “I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady the Queen in the office of Special Constable for the City of Gloucester without favour or affection, malice or ill will and I will to the best of my power cause the peace to be kept and preserved and prevent all offences against the persons and property of her Majesty’s subjects, and that while I continue to hold the said office, I will to the best of my skill and knowledge discharge the duties thereof, faithfully according to law, so help me God.” After taking the oath, the newly appointed Specials marched on to the Shire Hall accompanied by the town band playing “Rule Britannia”.


In January 1868, the Cirencester Times published an article on the demarcation of the authority of Special Constables that had been outlined by the Law Journal. It stated that a Special Constable, as conservator of the peace, was empowered to apprehend felons without warrant for treason-felony, breach of the peace and some lesser misdemeanours if committed in front of him. He could also act to prevent a breach of the peace and all persons who assisted him in that would be protected. Specials would however only be able to act without a warrant during an actual affray and not after the affray was over. A Special Constable had powers to remove someone from a church congregation for disruptive behaviour, but not to detain them, and could arrest a disorderly person for assaulting a landlord. In all circumstances where a Special made an arrest without a warrant, he was required to state that he was doing so in the Queen’s name. Special Constables had no authority to arrest “persons for driving furiously, blowing horns, ringing doorbells, making slides or for any other of the seventeen other offences named in the 54th section of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839.” At that time the penalty for assaulting a Regular Police Officer was £5 whereas it was up to £20 for assaulting a Special Constable.


In January of 1868 the Gloucester Journal also published the newly revised instructions for the organisation of Special Constables. The primary remit of Specials was to assist the Regular Police in the event of sudden emergencies and were not to be called upon on a routine basis bar exceptional circumstance. In every parish, a police station under the command of a Special Deputy Superintendent, was to be selected as the headquarters of the force of Special Constables of that parish and all parish police stations were to be considered rallying points for the Specials. A Superintendent of Special Constables was to be selected and attached to the headquarters along with one Deputy Superintendent. The whole force of Special Constables within a parish was to be called a division and the portion of the division under the command of each Deputy Superintendent a sub-division. Below the Deputy Superintendents were the Assistant Superintendents who were in charge of Sections and below them were the Summoning Constables, in charge of 10 to 15 men whom they would summon in the event of an emergency. Each Deputy Superintendent and each Assistant Superintendent were to be provided with lists of names and addresses of the men who would be under his command and the lists would also be held at individual police stations. In the event of an emergency such as a fire or an explosion, the Regular Police could summon the Superintendent of Specials and his Deputies to assist, and they in turn would summon the men below them to muster at their nearest rallying point. As a general rule, Specials could either be requisitioned by the Regular Police or appointed by local magistrates. The training of Specials, who had ordinary day jobs, consisted of drilling and marching and the use of the staff (a truncheon equivalent) which was attached to the wrist by a loop. All Special Constables had to provide themselves with a police lantern, to be attached around the waist with a strap.




This page was added on 30/09/2020.

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