Before the onset of professional policing, something often overlooked, is the close relationship, which once existed between the local church and the delivery of law and order. Parish constables, sometimes referred to as petty constables, were supervised not only by justices, but also by church wardens. Like parish constables, they were locally appointed and oversaw the upkeep of the church fabric and property.
The parish was the smallest unit of local government in the country. Every parish was centred on an Anglican church and, after the Reformation, was responsible for administering civil and religious government at a local level.
Many parishes developed a Vestry; a small body of village officials, answerable only to the bishop and the local justices, and responsible for the ecclesiastical and secular well being of the parish they served.
Originally established in the Middle Ages for the management of ecclesiastical affairs only, many Vestries gradually took on more secular responsibilities, including overseeing law and order. For example, the Driffield Vestry minutes for 21 September 1842, tell us that on this date, 15 parishioners were nominated to serve as constables in Great Driffield. Contrary to popular belief, not all constables were decrepit and old, but the quality from parish to parish was variable
As the parish constable was appointed by the parish, the records of his office and duties were kept in the parish chest. A visit to your local church may well uncover a wealth of information about how your local community was policed in bygone years. 17th Century records, maintained in the Milton Keynes Reference Library for the County of Buckinghamshire, describe how parish constables reported large numbers of offenders for not attending church. Non-attendance of four weeks could result in a fine of £20.00, an enormous sum given that the average labourer earned only £8.00 per annum. Consequently, significant numbers of parishioners, unable to pay, were jailed.
Although unpaid, being a parish constable was a dangerous office to hold, as is evidenced by the case of Peter Jerome, from Woodham Mortimer, Essex in the early 19th century. Jerome attacked a parish constable with his knife, wounding the officer. Brought before the justices at Chelmsford, he received a fine of six shillings and eight pence. The number of parish constables who were killed whilst on duty, is unknown.
Two individuals who met this fate whilst undertaking duties as parish constable were Thomas Bett Gell and James Beech. Parish Constable Gell (Hemingby, Lincolnshire), died on 15 October 1876, aged 53 years. Having attended the home of a woman who was being attacked by her son in the late evening of 14 October, Thomas Gell was repeatedly beaten about the head with a rail by the man. He received severe head injuries and died early the next morning.
James Beech was killed on 5 May 1843, stabbed to death whilst attempting to arrest poachers in his Parish of Chesterton, Cambridgeshire. Parish constables lived in turbulent times. They were often held in low esteem, resented by many sections of the populous, risks to life and limb would be ever present. Many times, individuals appointed as parish constables, refused to take up their appointments; preferring prison to the risks involved in policing their community.
As most parish constables did not wear uniform, normally their only identifiable feature was the staff or truncheon they carried. Ranging in size from 30 centimetres to nearly a metre long, they were often engraved or richly decorated. Carried as a notional badge of office, truncheons provided little defence when up against a gun or a sword. Having said this, before the creation of the modern police service, many constables and watchmen equipped themselves with whatever effective weapon was to hand. A lasting legacy to the parish constable can sometimes be found adorning a wall in parish churches, testament to the close affinity between the church and local law enforcement.
Parish constables also played a role in public health during outbreaks of plague. The handbook of the duties and responsibilities of the parish officer, The Compleat Parish Officer, published anonymously in 1734, records:
‘Constables may command and oblige Persons infected with the plague to keep within their houses; and if after such command, they wilfully go abroad, having any infectious Sores upon them, it is felony; and if they have no Sores, they may be bound to Good Behaviour, and punished as Vagabonds, by whipping, etc.’
Some parish constables covered the area, known as the Close, which surrounded many cathedrals. The Close, an enclosed precinct, which housed buildings associated with the cathedral, fell under the jurisdiction of the Dean and Chapter. Officers appointed by them are the predecessors of today’s cathedral constables.
Today, there are five cathedrals which appoint constables (Liverpool, Hereford, Chester, Canterbury and York Minster), although they are not attested as such. But in the past, many cathedrals appointed constables, including, Westminster Abbey, Ripon and Salisbury, to name but a few. These appointments were not created under legislation but at Common Law. It may well be possible, under Common Law, for the Dean and Chapter of any Anglican cathedral, to appoint sworn constables. Who knows, perhaps in the future cathedral constables may be attested once more.