Special Constables in Surrey

Camberley Special Constables

Title: Camberley Special Constables
Description: SHC ref 9152/2/2/4/1b by-nc

Written by Marion Edwards

At the outbreak of war, the four police forces which operated within Surrey (the Metropolitan Police, the Surrey Constabulary and the Guildford and Reigate Borough forces) found their responsibilities greatly increased with the introduction of such wartime measures as the control of aliens, blackouts, air raid warning arrangements and enforcement of restrictive licensing laws. At the same time, the number of police fell dramatically as officers enlisted and recruitment became more difficult – in December 1914, the strength of the Surrey County Constabulary was 351; by November 1918 it was down to 236.

Introduction of Special Constables

Special Constables were appointed to assist the police as a voluntary, part-time organisation, paid only their expenses, and drawn from all walks of life – individuals who probably already had a full-time job, or who perhaps had retired. As a body, Special Constables compensated for the loss of those regular police who had joined the war effort and added an extra layer of protection during wartime. They had a key role to play in local counter-invasion plans, but they also provided much needed reinforcement in ensuring that wartime regulations and restrictions imposed on the civilian population, from rationing to the blackout, were observed.  The Surrey Mirror of 12 May 1916 carried a report of the Budget Committee of Surrey County Council at which it was stated that the Surrey Constabulary was 73 men under strength and could afford to lose no more and that ‘if it wasn’t for the Special Constables doing such a magnificent job [we] would not have been able to spare so many officers for enlistment’.

Certificate awarded to George Parsons as a Special Constable by Surrey Chief Constable M L Sant (SHC CC98/23/9)

In Surrey, by the end of August 1914, over 150 Special Constables had already been sworn in, and numbers continued to rise. In the Surrey Times of 15 May 1915 it was reported that 2071 Specials had been enrolled, all over military age and including members of the peerage in their ranks. This number was revised downwards, however – on 17 January 1919 it was reported in the Surrey Herald that a total of 1612 Special Constables had enrolled during the course of the war. On 26 February 1916, the Surrey Times and County Express carried an appeal from the Guildford Borough Emergency Committee for women to join the ranks of the Special Constables, in order to ‘deal with the population in times of national emergency’.

Herbert Brockman of Eaton Cottage, Thames Ditton, in his Special Constable uniform, as drawn by his daughter Nancy (SHC ref 9497/1)

Life as a ‘Special’ in Surrey

Sources in the Surrey Archives and in local newspapers illustrate the varied official duties of local Special Constables, their unofficial activities such as fund raising for local charities and institutions, and the many difficulties they encountered.

Special Constables were principally appointed to assist the police in carrying out orders given under the Defence of the Realm Act (‘DORA’). These duties covered emergencies arising from air raids and invasion, as well as more prosaic activities such as enforcing blackout conditions, overseeing rationing and general law enforcement.  Lists of named Special Constables, with their addresses, appear in various SHC collections, along with detailed correspondence dealing with their enrollment and management.  The recruitment of the Special Constabulary in Walton on Thames, Hersham and Oatlands is well documented in SHC ref 9117/box 2: this force of volunteers, 140 strong with ages ranging from 23 to 62, was led by Arthur E Pettit of Burley Lodge, Oatlands Drive, who strove, not particularly successfully, to foster military discipline in its ranks: when exhorting participation in regular drill he wrote ‘It is scarcely necessary to call the attention of the force as a whole to the importance of qualifying as a composite body as rabble against rabble has about an equal chance, whereas a compact body has evident advantages against a disorganised mob’. Relations with Chief Constable Sant of the Surrey Constabulary could be strained, especially over the question as to what equipment should be supplied to the specials and Sant is referred to as ‘that arch rotter’ in one letter.

Training, while considered tedious by some ‘Specials’, could also be quite hazardous – in November 1916, Special Constables and Voluntary Aid Detachment companies had a narrow escape near Kingston in a thunderstorm, when they were almost hit by tree falling across tram cables while marching to do their drill.  They cleared this and pulled down another unstable tree in driving rain.

The difficulties the ‘Specials’ encountered could be serious or amusing, exciting or deadly boring – one anonymous ‘Special’ was reported in the Surrey Comet of 14 April 1915 as considering that ‘even the arrival of a Zeppelin would be welcomed as a pleasant change’ if it meant he could escape from his uncongenial patrol partner. His wish was perhaps granted in 1916, when the destruction of not one but two Zeppelins was reported in local newspapers as witnessed by Surrey residents and ‘Specials’. Invasion dangers could sometimes be misinterpreted, however – after the reported escape of prisoners of war in 1916, Special Constable R D Hutchings stopped a speeding car at Horsell Bridge, only to find that the irate driver was Francis P Neville, chauffeur to Mr L Waddington of Easdale, Horsell Common. Assistance to the British armed forces was another duty carried out by the ‘Specials’ – in 1915, an army lieutenant landed his Sopwith biplane in a field near Stoke Lock, on the River Wey at Guildford, and was guarded overnight by Special Constables.  The authority of the volunteers did not always go unchallenged: correspondence in SHC ref 9117/box 2 laments that when asked to make himself scarce, a gardener responded ‘I won’t move on for you or any other bugger of a special policeman’.

The end of the ‘Baby Killer’ (Wikimedia Commons)

Percy Webb

Perhaps the most fascinating account of life as a Special Constable in Surrey is that of Percy Webb, who enrolled in the Walton on Thames area in 1914. Percy’s brief typescript ‘The Diversions of a Special Constable’ (in SHC ref 9117/Box 2) talks of the ‘discomforts’ of cold night duties, especially wet ones, his efforts to evade attendance at parades ‘owing to the pressure of other work’ and the absence of any ‘stirring personal adventures’ – although he does recount his part in organising the warning against ‘the first Zeppelin night raid’ on Guildford in October 1915.  The Zeppelin passed over Walton and it was thought that it was being signalled to by a flare from the garden of a house ‘then in the occupation of foreigners’ (who turned out to be blameless Belgians).  While attempting to enforce the blackout, Percy admired the stoical reaction of a ‘cheerful hawker’: ‘Are you frightened Mr Webb?  I’m not: what I says is, if they ‘its me they ‘its me, and if they doesn’t, they doesn’t’.  The night destruction of three Zeppelins is described vividly by Webb (although he admits to having missed witnessing the first, having gone off duty): the third, the ‘Cuffley [Hertfordshire] Zeppelin’, he saw ‘glowing like a great elongated sun … till it collapsed and streamed downwards to the earth’.  A ‘small riot’ following the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, when a naturalised German watchmaker was attacked in Hersham, is reported at length by Webb, who aided the Sergeant of Police at the scene in attempting to persuade the rioters to disperse.  Windows were broken, a policeman knocked unconscious and tempers ran high and in Percy’s opinion, ‘the women were the worst and most bitter’, although he sympathised with one, who said ‘Why should I go away, they’ve killed my husband’.  The ‘supernatural’ also provided some night time ‘thrills’ to Webb, who on one occasion heard a ‘ghostly footstep’ preceding him along the road – only to find that the sound was an echo of his own ‘wet and heavy coat’ against his leg.  Early morning patrols had their compensations: ‘I was sorry when the 3 to 6 patrol was given up. In peaceful times one rarely sees the night grow grey and darkness give place to form and colour, till the rim of the sun appears above the horizon, and living nature awakes.  One morning we saw the herons leave Burwood Park in the dawn, and following down to the river, found one of them fishing off Rosewell’s boathouse; a sight that I have certainly never seen there before’.  Percy closes his account with the words of a woman who, meeting him on a dark night, said to her startled companion ‘Taint a soldier, it’s a gentleman’. He wondered ‘Now was that a compliment or not? I would rather have worn the more honourable uniform’, thus nicely summing up the dichotomy of a Special Constable’s position.

Sources for Special Constables at Surrey History Centre

Correspondence, papers and printed orders relating to the enrolment and management of Special Constables in various areas of Surrey can be read at CC98/23/2 and 9117/Box 2

Lists of named Specials, both MS and typescript, with their addresses, appear in 898/4/1-65, 7543/2/1, 8261/13/4 and 9117/Box 2

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