The Role of Special Constables in the First World War
From the records of Frederick Eaton, held at the Norfolk Record Office (ETN 6/14/1/1-52)
There is a long history of the voluntary role of Special Constables which predates the First World War. By the early 1860s a regular paid police reduced the need for a volunteer constabulary. It was in the First World War that their role was redefined with the passing of the Special Constables Act 1914. A large force was recruited to both compensate for the loss of regular members who joined the war effort and to add an extra layer of protection during wartime.
Frederick Ray Eaton, a Norwich solicitor and notary, played a key role in the Special Constabulary in the First World War. His records give some insight into the valuable and yet often under-valued role of the Specials in keeping the city safe.
The following account is taken from the records of Frederick Eaton. Where there are quotes, these are from a handwritten record in Eaton’s collection written by C.E.T in January 1919 (ETN 6/14/1/40). C.E.T began as a Special in another part of the country before moving to Norwich in 1915. His identity remains a mystery.
On enlisting C.E.T wrote:
“I am sure my dear Enemies and friends thought I was a fool. . . . and I began to think so too . . . and surely the War could not possibly last more than six months at most. . . . . . many people looked upon the SC as one who was trying to ease his conscience by serving his country in the least disagreeable manner to himself . . . . but few Englishmen I am sure joined with any less motive than that of patriotism”.
The first group of Specials was sworn in at St Andrew’s Hall, in Norwich following an initial meeting at Caley’s Factory on 2nd September 1914. Four companies were formed with each company taking charge of the whole city a week in turn, initially alongside the regular constables. Eaton was commander of the fourth company. When C.E.T moved to Norwich, he joined the third company. He did 3-4 duties every 28 days.
After enlisting the Specials would be issued with a warrant card, an armlet and a truncheon. C.E.T was also given a pair of handcuffs when he served in another part of the country but in Norwich he was given a silver whistle and chain instead. At first the handcuffs proved to be somewhat of a challenge! C.E.T tested them on his aunt who escaped unscathed. Then he put them on himself.
“It required the united efforts of the whole family to say nothing of the Cat and Dog and took nearly half an hour before the key could be made to work”.
After Christmas 1915 Specials were issued with uniform. “At least the Specials provided their own overcoats and the City provided a hat”. C.E.T bought an ex- Navy coat for 12s 6d “and a splendid coat it has proved”. They were later given a summer uniform too. They were also given an enamel badge to wear with ordinary clothes and, after 3 years of service they were given a silver star to wear on their right arm sleeve of their uniform.
Eaton kept a record book of all the Specials in his company along with their address and availability as the role was in addition to their day to day job. For example; “ill, don’t summon”, “evening duty only”, “joined up”. He noted there was great enthusiasm for drills particularly those held in the open air at Earlham Road Recreation Ground. Training also took place in the Drill Hall at Chapelfield. Route marches were also part of the training. Starting at Norwich market place they would take a circular route venturing as far afield as Wymondham, Wroxham and Attlebridge.
Before coming to Norwich C.E.T had had to guard a river mouth. He took his collie dog Rollo with him. In November 1914 orders were received to keep the telegraph office open all night. As the postmaster was over 80, C.E.T offered to keep vigil and slept on the sofa. Occasionally a nighttime call was received to see if all was well. “I suppose the enquiry was really to find out if I was awake”.
When C.E.T. arrived in Norwich he commented on how dark the city was.
“I did not at that time realise the efforts being made by the Police and Special Constabulary to save the ancient and noble City from the attentions of the Flying Hun”.
One of the key roles of the specials was to “douse the glim”, ie. to ensure no lights were showing to protect the city from zeppelin raids. The instruction was not always well received.
“People could not seem to understand that even if the Zeppelins came their little light could be seen. Then there was the expense of buying dark curtains. No they were certainly not going to bother”.
When doing beat duty Specials nearly always worked in pairs. “Occasionally another Special and I were placed on top of the Castle Keep. This was a very cold duty even in the summer. . . . . We found it practically impossible without a compass to say exactly what building or even from which street the light proceeded”. In pursuing a light in a residential district the householder explained he could not close the blind in the bathroom as his wife was having a bath. “The lady in question was sitting in a hot bath in the dark and could not see to get out”.
“I have stood on duty in the streets on more than one occasion when the Zeppelins buzzed over the city . . . . . . I believe the Specials saved the City from damage by hostile bombs”.
At the end of 1917 the Norwich Emergency Committee met to plan the measures that would be taken if the city was under threat. The confidential minutes of 28th December 1917 detailed what had been agreed:
- The city’s 900 specials would be divided into 8 companies and would be called upon only when a total emergency had been declared.
- Each company had a specific role. 1 Company would collect tools and dispose of petrol. 2 and 3 Companies would form working parties to execute any work required. 4 Company would remove horses and mules. 5 and 6 Companies would remove or destroy vehicles. 7 Company would remove or destroy barges and lighters at quays and harbours. 8 Company would remove or render useless motor cars and cycles. Electrical lighting equipment and tramway equipment would also be dismantled.
- Specials would be required to control traffic at busy crossings.
- With regard to an exodus from the city, 600 specials would patrol to prevent disorder. Three exit routes were identified; Earlham Road to Watton, Hall Road to New Buckenham or Stoke Holy Cross and City Road to the county via Stoke Holy Cross.
Being a Special certainly took its toll. C.E.T caught a very bad chill from regular nighttime exposure.
“I only mention this to bring into prominence the fact that many Specials have actually died through the effects of unaccustomed exposure on cold winter nights”. He reminds the reader that Specials were working all day then on duty at night. “This for no pay, little hope of glory or honour or even thanks and a little ridicule”.
Their wives too were affected.
“How many times have those dear Wives of ours waited our return in the early hours of the morning. How we have appreciated the hot bacon or bread and milk they have had ready for us. They have been alone in the Great Cities and in the lonely country while the bombs have been falling”.
Not all duties involved keeping the city in the dark. Rationing was introduced in 1918. C.E. T describes regulating queues for butter, meat and margarine. One day he noticed a large queue outside a greengrocers. “I heard that the people were waiting for Dates!” The dates were 6d a pound and very popular.
C.E.T describes the occasion of Queen Alexandra’s visit to Norwich on 12th November 1918 to unveil the Edith Cavell Memorial.
“A very gracious Lady visited Norwich just before the Armistice was signed in order to unveil a War Memorial.
After the end of the war Eaton organized a social evening at Buntings Restaurant in Norwich. This was no doubt to thank his company for their service throughout the war.
C.E.T and his company had their final inspection after 11th November 1918 and did his last duty before Christmas. At the end of his account, he reflected on his role as a special.
What we, whom the Army or Navy did not claim, have tried to do to keep the home fires burning and paradoxically the lights from shining”.
Compiled by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.