Wearside Echoes: On the beat in Sunderland

OAK BAR: To be found at corner of King Street and South Street from the 1860s. Once a great favourite of local police officers and specials.
OAK BAR: To be found at corner of King Street and South Street from the 1860s. Once a great favourite of local police officers and specials.
Have your say

SPECIAL Constables have been pounding the beat in Sunderland and County Durham for the past 181 years.

FORMULA 1 racing driver Nigel Mansell was one, as were Emperor Napoleon III and TV presenter Judith Chalmers.

Even Jack Hubert, the film and theatre star, managed a stint in the Special Constabulary, working as a commandant in London during the 1940s.

Indeed, Special Constables have been playing a vital role in policing Britain for the past 181 years – and are just as necessary today as they were back in 1831.

“It seems that Durham was one of the first forces to use specials,” recalls police historian Harry Wynne from the North Eastern Police History Society.

“It was during the time of the strike of 1832, when serious outrages were perpetrated upon the lead miners of North Hetton Colliery.

“Named men were sworn in to act in Low Moorsley and High Moorsley before the Durham County Constabulary was actually formed in 1839.”

It was the Special Constables Act of 1831 that allowed two magistrates to appoint as many official Special Constables as they deemed necessary to ‘prevent tumult or riot.’

However, Specials had actually been patrolling the streets of County Durham for several centuries before this, thanks to the King Charles Act of 1673.

“The act was hardly ever invoked in the South of England, but the North of England, on the other hand, displayed no such reluctance,” said Mr Wynne.

“It authorised Justices of the Peace and other law officers to nominate certain citizens to be sworn in as Special Constables. This was normally done around Michaelmas.

“The Specials served for one year during which, if the parish constables needed assistance, the Specials could be called out at anytime, and without delay.”

While Durham was one of the first areas to use Specials, it was in London that the largest numbers were employed. Indeed, during the Chartist Demonstration of 1848 there were between 150,000 and 200,000 officers out on the streets.

“The Specials were sworn in just for this purpose and were disbanded and lost their powers of arrest as soon as the crisis was over,” said Mr Wynne.

“There were also 6,000 sworn in back in 1887, to help with the disturbances in Trafalgar Square that led to Bloody Sunday.

“And in 1911, Specials were called up to police a rail strike, as it was slowly dawning on the authorities that using regular police as strike breakers aggravated what radicals already hoped was a revolutionary situation.”

World War One completely changed the roll of the Specials however, as for the first time they were given a uniform and underwent training.

“They did sterling work such as guarding water supplies, gas works and railway bridges,” said Mr Wynne. “They were not, however, universally popular with the public.

“Exactly why Marie Lloyd sang ‘You can’t trust a Special like an old time copper’ is not clear, but characteristically she represented an attitude that was common among the urban working class.”

Special Constables marked time between the wars, helping out with routine police work, but once again came into their own with the start of World War Two.

“The excellent service rendered by the majority was recognised in the three George Medals and other decorations earned by the Specials,” said Mr Wynne.

Specials have continued to help police Britain ever since the war, with women being inducted for the first time in 1950 – just after the first woman police officer joined up.

And today many volunteer even receive payment for their help, following a move by Durham Constabulary in 2004 to provide officers with a cash bonus.

“The work of a Special has never been an easy task,” said Mr Wynne. “He would do his job all day and then go out to do his police duties. If anything happened, he could be out all night and still have to work again the next day. It was a very hard job for them.”

** Anyone with old pictures of Sunderland’s Special Constables, or local police pictures in general, can contact Mr Wynne on 565 7215.

SIDEBAR: A brief history of Durham Constabulary

THE first North East police force was raised in Durham City in February 1836, after the Government passed the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835.

A force for Gateshead followed in October of that year, then Sunderland Borough Police in October 1837 and South Shields in 1839.

All four forces were eventually to come under the control of Durham County Constabulary however, which was set up in 1839 following The County Police Act.

The act gave County Justices the discretionary power to establish a uniform system of police - at a ratio of not more than one Constable to 1,000 head of population.

Durham County Magistrates were amongst the first to act and, on December 10, 1839, the first Chief Constable was appointed. His salary was £250 a year.

His first officers, however, weren’t appointed until January 20, 1840, and they had to wait to receive their uniforms for another month.

The uniforms themselves were based on those of the Metropolitan Police, with a blue tailed coat, thick trousers, black boots and a reinforced top hat – to give protection.

Each officer was also presented with a truncheon, handcuffs, lantern, knapsack, journal and instruction book. They finally became operational of February 29, 1840.

Hartlepool became one of the first towns to break away from the County Constabulary, forming its own Borough Police Force in 1851.

But despite this loss, the County Force was still growing rapidly in strength and, in 1879-80, it was forced to move to a larger HQ, complete with training school.

One change which must have put a smile of the faces of officers came in 1893, when they were permitted one day’s leave per month ‘when and where practicable.

Another was the introduction of telephones, with lines being installed at 13 of the most important stations in 1899 – long before many other forces.

It took another two years, however, before officers were allowed to wear their own clothes, rather than uniform, when off duty.

Durham City Police amalgamated with the County Constabulary in April 1921 – the same year that most superintendents were allowed to use cars while on duty.

But the West Hartlepool Superintendent, as well as the inspectors in charge of Stanhope and Barnard Castle, were only given motorcycles and sidecars.

It was not until World War Two that women were employed by the County, when members of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps joined the beat.

After the Auxiliary Force was stood down at the end of the war, it took another couple of years before the first full time policewoman was signed up.

The passing of the 1964 Police Act saw Sunderland, South Shields and Gateshead join the County Constabulary in 1967/8 and it was renamed Durham Constabulary.

But in 1974, following County boundary changes, Durham lost Gateshead, South Shields and Sunderland to the new force of Northumbria Police, while Stockton and Hartlepool came under the new Teesside Police – later Cleveland Constabulary.