“Dousing the Glim” and Other Essential Activities

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.


Certificate of Service issued to Frederick Eaton after the war. Norfolk Record Office: ETN 6/14/1/12

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”.

C.E.T concluded:

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”.


Detailed instructions were issued should there be an air raid. NRO: ETN 6/14/1/20

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.


Other duties of the Specials taken from the booklet ‘Work & Duties of Special Constables’ by John Henry Dain, Chief Constable of Norwich (1917). It was issued to all Specials. NRO: ETN 6/14/1/7

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. 



Those Specials guarding the Queen’s route were issued with an enamel star as a memento of the occasion. NRO: ETN 6/14/1/26

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.


Social evening for Eaton’s 4th Company in January 1919. NRO: ETN 6/14/1/41-52

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.


Entente Cordiale Comes to Norwich

On 29th July 1916 Norwich welcomed two French delegates to the city; Lieutenant Georges Weill and Private Cabannes.  Their visit was part of a tour of Britain to see munition factories and other industries related to the war effort and to promote Anglo-French relations.  It followed on from a visit to France the previous year by four British MPs from the Labour Party.

Weill was a lieutenant with the 81st French Infantry Division.  A native of Alsace-Lorraine, he had been elected a member of the German Reichstag. When war broke out he joined the French army which resulted in a court martial in his absence at Strasbourg where he was sentenced to death.  Living with this death sentence Weill served the French army as an interpreter and had a key role in interrogating German prisoners after the Battle of the Somme.

Cabannes was a private in the French artillery. Before the war he had been the organizing secretary of the French United Socialists.

The first report on their arrival in Britain appeared in the Daily Mirror on 26th July 1916.  There was a civic reception to welcome them at the Westminster Palace Hotel where many prominent trade unionists were present.

Weill and Cabannes arrived at City Station Norwich on Saturday 29th July 1916 following their visit to Sheffield.  The Eastern Evening News reported that during their tour they had been received “with an almost affectionate interest”.  The train from Sheffield arrived late by which time “the platforms were thronged and everybody who possessed a little French seemed to be giving it an airing”.  The reception committee included members of the Norwich French Circle.  After introductions the delegates were taken by a circuitous route to the Maid’s Head Hotel, this route being chosen because “of the most unfavourable impression which a stranger arriving by the City Station receives”.  After dinner in the hotel, Weill and Cabannes met the Lord Mayor, Mr E B Southwell.

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The Delegates Arrive at Norwich City Station

The plan for the next day was to continue the delegates’ tours of various factories contributing to the war effort.  However, after all of their visits of such places in other cities, they welcomed the suggestion of spending a quiet day in the country.  They were driven to Wroxham, had lunch on a boat with various civil dignitaries and cruised along the river to St Benet’s Abbey.

On Monday 31st August they reverted to their planned visits and had lunch with the Lord Mayor.  In the evening they attended a public gathering at St Andrew’s Hall in Norwich.  The gathering was presided over by the Lord Mayor and attended by the City Council.

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Souvenir of the Event at St Andrew’s Hall. Weill is on the left and Cabannes on the right. Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry: MC 3205, 1062X6

The Mercury (5th August 1916) reported that:

 “Dr Bunnett played on the organ until the company assembled. The orchestra was occupied by a choir of girls chosen from about a dozen of the elementary schools, who were gaily decorated with the red, white and blue, the French colours.”

On entering the hall the audience stood and clapped and cheered.  The choir, resplendent in their French colours, sang part of the Marseillaise.

The Eastern Evening News (1st August 1916) reported on the evening and the speeches made.  The Lord Mayor spoke first and talked of the united battle to defeat the enemy.  He spoke of the resourcefulness of French and British women when they had “picked up the tools dropped by their husbands and brothers when the call to arms sounded through the land”. 

Weill’s speech followed.  He began by thanking the city for its “enthusiastic, graceful and touching welcome. . . . . . nowhere did greater joy and personal pleasure seem to be manifested at the presence of the delegates than in Norwich”.  Weill spoke of Alsace and Lorraine and their desire to be free from German rule “as they had a right to claim emancipation from a tyrant who had conquered them by brute force and their restoration to their mother country, France”.  He stressed the need for victory; “The murder of Miss Cavell and of the Captain of the Brussels had shown how little the Germans understood the rights of humanity and the rights of citizenship”.  From his work as an interpreter working with German prisoners he went on to say “there is every reason to believe that there is a glimmering of light dawning on the mind of the German soldier”.

The following day letters were exchanged between the delegates and Norwich Education Committee, each expressing their mutual thanks with the Frenchmens’ letter directed to the children who sang at the concert.

In their letter they talk of the children singing their national anthem with ardour and strength and how delicate and artistic it was for them to be dressed in the colours of the French flag.

The Education Committee’s letter thanks the delegates, on behalf of the children, for the opportunity given to them to hear of the heroic exploits of the French soldiers.  It went on to say that Norwich school children had also contributed to the war effort through various schemes and events and that, in future years, it was hoped they would remember with affection the efforts of the French soldiers in the terrible war.

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Letter from Lieutenant Georges Weill and Private Cabannes expressing their thanks to the children who sang at the concert. NRO: MC 3205, 1062X6

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Letters of thanks exchanged. NRO: MC 3205, 1062X6

Weill and Cabanne completed a comprehensive tour of Britain.  Their tour included visits to Cardiff, Newcastle, Bristol, Derby, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield and newspapers around the country reported on the success of the visits.

The Daily Mail (Thursday 27th July 1916) reported on their visit to Birmingham.  It had included tours of munitions factories and other public buildings.  At an evening meeting held under the auspices of the Parliamentary Munitions Committee the committee spoke of the magnitude of France’s contribution to defeating the Germans.  With reference to Georges Weill the article went on to say:

Georges Weill (is) one of the many Lorrainers who are still faithful to their old motherland, France.  Lieutenant Weill is a journalist by profession and has represented Metz in the Reichstag since 1912:  he is a fine figure, red-haired and moustached, in his new uniform of horizon blue, which matches the clear colour of his eyes.  On his head there is a high price, for he has been sentenced to death by a German court-martial, held at Strasburg, because he enlisted in the French army on the outbreak of war”

During his speech Weill described the prisoners as thoroughly dejected who recognized that Germany had no hope of victory.

While Weill was the main speaker at the various civic events one newspaper did comment on a speech made by Cabannes. The Lanarkshire Daily Record and Mail (29th July 1916) informed readers that Weill and Cabannes were to visit the following week.  The articles reported that Weill had characterized the German Socialists as sheep and stated that Alsace was part of France not Germany.  It went on to say that:

Private Cabannes, a typical ‘pioupiou’, short but sturdy, of the 101st Regiment of French artillery, was not less communicative.  Day by day”, he said, “as your army advances, the bonds of understanding are drawn closer; and where there was once distrust there is now complete confidence”.

Weill and Cabannes returned to France after a successful visit.  Weill remained in politics for the rest of his life and died in Paris in 1970.  Cabanne’s fate is unknown.

Compiled by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.