History of Gloucestershire Specials 2

The beginning of the 20th Century and during World War 1

Sarah Hands

In the early part of 20th century Special Constables in Gloucestershire continued to be sworn in by the courts mainly to assist with preserving the peace at times of trouble.

In the post World War 1 period trouble took the form of multiple strikes related to unemployment and the Depression. Gloucestershire Specials were part of a mostly unpaid second reserve that supplemented a paid first reserve of mainly retired police officers. The appointment of Specials was normally overseen by the Chief Constable during emergencies and the number taken on was according to anticipated need. In addition, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1882 allowed borough councils to take on Special Constables at the end of one year if they anticipated a shortfall in police numbers over the next. According to the local papers, it appeared that only the town of Tewkesbury made use of this provision and every year swore in a dozen Tewkesbury men as Special Constables “according to ancient custom”. The question of uniforms for Specials seems to have been discussed on a number of occasions by the Gloucestershire Standing Joint Committee (the local government committee overseeing policing) but in the main the equipment merely consisted of an armband and a staff or truncheon.


The first decade of the 20th Century was a relatively quiet time for Specials in Gloucestershire with only a couple of reported instances of public disorder that required the swearing in of Special Constables.  In 1906 Brentry Inebriate Reformatory in Gloucester, one of many such reformatories established under the Inebriates Act of 1898, was the site of a much-documented mutiny when the inmates attacked and injured several prison officers. The Chief Constable, at the request of the Reformatory managers, appointed two Special Constables for regular duty at the Reformatory, under the Special Constables Act and “in the apprehension of riot at Brentry”. The joint committee was not best pleased as these Specials had to be paid for from the County Police Fund. Whether this resolved the problems within the reformatory was not reported but unsurprisingly, a high relapse rate among former inmates and a shortage of public funding after World War 1 meant that the Reformatory ran into debt and had to be sold. In another incident, three years later in 1909, a crowd of young people took to the streets of Cheltenham apparently to “make trouble” although their cause was not specified by the newspapers. Special Constables were sworn in at the time, to help keep the peace and 24 individuals were arrested, charged and fined.


The second decade of the 20th Century was a different story with Special Constables being in great demand throughout World War 1 as well as being needed before and after the war to assist the Regulars during the strikes. The National Railway Strike of 17th August 1911 was the first ever mass railway strike.  Amidst widespread fear that rioting might escalate troops were held in a state of readiness and large numbers of volunteers were sworn in as Special Constables in Gloucestershire and throughout the country. The newspapers of the time commented that in places where there were insufficient volunteers, individuals were compelled to serve by two Justices of the Peace and should they still refuse, they could face a fine or a month’s imprisonment. The railway strike was quickly and peacefully resolved and by August 26th the local newspapers were reporting that the Home Office had suspended the enrolment of any more Special Constables.


Although the immediate danger of a further railway strike was over, the situation of disorder had caused widespread fear among the population and in September 1911, the Home Office urged all Chief Constables to keep an ongoing register of men who would be prepared to serve as Special Constables at a moment’s notice. These men would be required to act as a second reserve, in the case of a strike thus avoiding any future need to call in the military. The Home Office also suggested that men could be recruited from amongst the strikers, since the troublemakers were usually from outside. The Home Office also suggested that a uniform and some sort of pay or allowance should be offered to Special Constables along with compensation in the case of death or injury. There was little evidence from the papers that the Gloucestershire Constabulary took up the Home Office suggestions and February 1912 saw the start of a further countrywide strike for improved pay and conditions, the National Coal strike. In the county of Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean miners met in Cinderford, but there was no report of trouble. The troops were once again put on standby and although it is likely that extra men were also sworn in as Special Constables throughout Gloucestershire, only the Tewkesbury papers reported on this. The strike lasted for 37 days, ending with the government establishing a minimum wage and in 1913 the miners’, railwaymen’s and transport workers’ unions formed the Triple Alliance, promising to support each other if there was a strike.


The need to strengthen local police forces was one of the key topics discussed in parliament immediately following the outbreak of war on the 28th of July 1914. The Home Secretary wrote to all Chief Constables advising them to increase the numbers of Regular Police and to create an additional force of Special Constables. Specials were to be unpaid and receive only occasional out of pocket expenses, but would be eligible for certain allowances if injured in the course of their duties. In September 1914, a circular was issued by the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, Colonel Chester-Master, which was read out in the police courts and which called for local men over the age of 17, with the exception of those under the age of 35 who were fit for military service, to be placed on a register so that they  could be sworn in as Special Constables when and if required. By the end of October 1914 between four and five hundred Gloucestershire men had put their names forward, with many of them prepared to serve in any part of the county and using their own transport.  The men came from a variety of occupations ranging from plumbers to lawyers and were provided with just a wooden staff with which to carry out their duty – in November 1917 the Acting Chief Constable floated the idea of adding a cap and an amulet.

Winchcombe and District Special Constables – also shows unnamed Regular Superintendent , Police Sergeant and Police Constable March 1919.
This is suspected of being the earliest photo of Specials in Gloucestershire.
It shows the Winchcombe Section in March 1919, sat front centre is
Deputy Chief Constable Hopkins, sat far left is Police Sergeant O’Rourke,
and sat far right is Police Constable Ford. During WWI the men were
only issued with a lapel badge, duty armlet, a whistle and staff
(Gloucestershire Police Archives URN 94)


Colonel Chester-Master was called up for active war service and Maynard Colchester-Wemyss JP, a former military man himself, became Acting Chief Constable. Colchester-Wemyss worked hard to maintain police numbers by calling for volunteers to serve as Special Constables on many occasions throughout the war.  With more and more men enlisting in the Armed Services, it became increasingly difficult to find volunteers from the usual sources, so other avenues had to be sought.  In January 1915 the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire approached the Home Office to request that women should be appointed as Specials. A request which at the time was denied. It took another 44 years and a second world war before the ruling was changed to allow women to join the Special Constabulary. Another source of volunteers was Gloucester Volunteer Training Corps who were encouraged to serve simultaneously as Specials. The Volunteer Training Corps consisted of men over the age of 17 not on active military service. Their principal volunteer duty was guarding vulnerable points of communication (a role which for the first two years of World War 2 was undertaken by the Specials before being passed on to the Home Guard). In May of 1915, out of four hundred men volunteering for Special Constable duty 138 were from Gloucester Volunteer Training Corps. Another supplier of “volunteers” in the later part of the war was the Military Tribunal. From here the names of men who had been exempted from War Service, were passed on to the Chief Constable. Disability was also no bar to service as a Special Constable, as according to the Gloucester Echo in October 1916, of ten men sworn in at Gloucester City Police Court as Specials, three of them had only one arm. (During World War 2 the police did not experience such manpower shortages as lessons had been learnt and a major initiative for the recruitment and training of Special Constables took place in 1938 when war seemed imminent).


During most of World War 1, Specials helped to fill gaps left by Regulars who had signed up for military service. This meant that they also carried out some of the regular police duties, facing the same risks as their paid counterparts. Duties included dealing with the drunk and disorderly, attending police courts and undertaking police station duties. From the beginning of World War 1 night patrol work was the main monotonous yet demanding duty allocated to Special Constables, often undertaken after they had finished a busy day job. In the city of Gloucester, the Specials worked in pairs, initially in three-hour shifts. Special Constables also had duties in relation to air raids including lookout duty for enemy aircraft. Zeppelins were used by the Germans to drop bombs on England during 1915 and 1916. Although it was only ever the South East that was targeted, Gloucestershire was considered to be within Zeppelin range, so lighting restrictions were officially imposed in Gloucestershire on February 10th 1916.  This meant that daily at 10.00pm, all public gas and electric lamps had to be extinguished, headlamps on vehicles had to be shaded and occupants of private dwellings were required to dim their lights and lower their blinds. If an air raid was forecast, Special Constables had to enforce these regulations, regardless of time of night.  In the event of an air raid Specials would have had to present themselves to the local police station, then along with the Regular Police would notify the local population of the imminent danger of a raid by walking or cycling around the neighbourhood ringing handbells. In the cities of Gloucester and Cheltenham, the warning of an air raid was also signalled by blasts from hooters belonging to the electric company factories. By June 1917, Zeppelins were no longer used and the replacement Gotha Bombers did not have the range to reach the South West so Gloucestershire was never actually bombed during World War 1.


Police controlling Cheltenham food queues 19 January 1918 this was as a result of rationing during the First World War.
(Gloucestershire Police Archives URN 2613)


In May 1917 Gloucester city police urgently needed to supplement their manpower with 300 additional Special Constables, but in spite of increasing the age of those recruited to over seventy, were unable to take on more than 160 men.  In the Winter of that same year, the papers reported that Gloucestershire residents, particularly those living in the cities, were having to queue for various necessities including coal, potatoes and meat. Other items such as butter and tea were in short supply and were being rationed and by December, there were also margarine and bread queues, all of which had to be policed by the Special Constables. In 1918, with heavy losses at the battlefront continuing, still more members of the Regular Police Force were being called up and the length of the shifts which the Specials were being asked to work was substantially increased. At the same time, the pool of men from which Special Constables could be drawn, was further depleted when all men exempt from Army Service were required to do some form of National Service. The police manpower shortage continued to be problematic so in July 1918 HC Burder Esq. Justice of the Peace was appointed as Chief Special Constable to organise and co-ordinate a force of Special Constables throughout the county. With the Armistice just four months away, 630 Specials were sworn in and a further 170 were sworn in after the war had officially ended.  These new Special Constables were to be issued with more than the usual minimal equipment of arm band, staff and whistle, but most of them are unlikely to have benefited from a new uniform since just 50 waterproof capes, 50 pairs of leggings, 140 police whistles and 70 police truncheons were ordered for more than 600 men.






This page was added on 12/08/2020.

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