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In the year 1673, King Charles II enacted a law that permitted ordinary citizens to be sworn as constables at times of civil unrest. To distinguish them from the elected parish constables, they were known as ‘special constables’ and ‘special constabulary’ came about as a collective term. The very first special constables were used to enforce religious conformity according to the King’s wishes.
Over the centuries, special constables were sworn in hastily and reactively to quell civil disturbances, such as during industrial action and riots. They took the oath before the mayor and magistrates in towns and cities and were often stood down when the situation was brought under control.
The Special Constables Act 1831 codified the responsibilities of special constables in England and Wales and set clear terms of reference regarding their powers, jurisdiction and relationship with the regular police. Specifically, the Act increased the power of magistrates in the appointment of special constables and stated, “Two or more justices, upon information on oath that disturbances exist or are apprehended, may appoint special constables,” and that they, “shall only be called upon to act for three calendar months.” The Act was prescriptive as to the occasions when specials could be appointed, being only during times of “tumult, riot or felony.” “Tumult” seemed to include large gatherings of people at civic events, such as Helston’s Flora Day and Ottery St Mary’s Tar Barrels, as specials were often sworn in to police them.
During the Great War (1914-1918) thousands of special constables were appointed across Great Britain under the terms of the Special Constables Act 1914 which removed the need for there to be “tumult, riot or felony” in order to appoint specials en masse. In this time, specials were usually older men who were ineligible for military service. The wartime specials were placed under the direction and control of the regular police force in the area they were appointed. Early in the war, they were issued white armbands with the words ‘special constable’ printed on them and a small brass badge designed to be looped through a button hole. Later in the war, some forces, such as Exeter City Police, provided their specials with proper uniform and merit stripes which denoted the number of years served.
The duties of the wartime specials included patrolling areas deemed vulnerable to attack from enemy saboteurs, such as railway bridges and fuel depots, and assisted the regular police with the enforcement of wartime regulations on the populace. Women were still not permitted to join the special constabulary, however in 1917 the chief constable of Plymouth Borough Police granted twenty voluntary patrolwomen from the National Union of Women Workers quasi-special constable status so they could robustly look after the morals of women and young girls in the town.
A clause in the Act of 1923 permitted the military to appoint special constables at army, navy and air force establishments. This led to the creation of the War Department Constabulary, the Admiralty Constabulary and the Air Force Constabulary. These military police forces had a presence all over the UK, including in Devon and Cornwall, and are the predecessors of the Ministry of Defence Police.
A rank structure in the special constabulary was introduced in the southwest police forces during the Second World War. This created ranks such as special sergeant and special inspector. It was around this time that forces started appointing a senior special constabulary officer in the rank of commandant. The first specials commandant of the Cornwall Constabulary was Richard Trevithick Gilbertstone Tangye.
At the end of the Second World War, it was estimated that the special constabulary in Devon had undertaken over six million hours of voluntary duty.
The first female special constables were appointed in Devon and Cornwall shortly after the Second World War. Some members, such as June Ede from Cornwall (picture above left), were previously members of the regular police force who had resigned upon marriage, as was expected of them according to the regulations of the time.
In 1967, the year Devon & Cornwall Police was established, there were 2,588 special constables across the Devon & Cornwall policing area. There were fourteen commandants, one for each of the fourteen force divisions. Only 56 of the establishment were women. It was common practice in the 1960s to allow an entire division of the regular force to ‘retreat’ from duty and have the special constabulary step in and take control. These ‘take-over’ exercises were a means to thoroughly test the resilience of the special constabulary under exceptional circumstances.
In 1979, William James Roy Acton, previously head of personnel, was appointed as Devon & Cornwall Police’s first Chief Officer of the Special Constabulary with oversight of the force’s eight divisional commandants. His successors were Max Andrews, Buster Brown and Marc Kastner-Walmsley.
Over time, special constables have gained statutory rights similar to regular officers. During the Great War (1914-1918) specials were entitled to compensation from the police authority if they were rendered injured or ill as a result of duty. On 30th August 1919, the Special Constabulary Long Service Medal was established by Royal Warrant. Specials with nine or more years’ service were entitled to the medal, and a bar was added for each additional ten years of service. Since 1st April 2007, special constables appointed by any territorial police force have had jurisdiction over all of England and Wales and may join the Association of Special Constabulary Officers.
These were worn by our Special Constable's during the mid 20th century.
This epaulette is what our Special Constables currently wear.