Parish constable

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A Parish constable was a law enforcement officer, usually unpaid and part-time, serving a parish. In some parishes, the position was known as "high constable", e.g. the High Constable of Holborn.

In London, the position was ended with the introduction of the Metropolitan Police Service in 1829, which created a full-time professional force. Elsewhere, parish constables were gradually replaced with professional county police forces after the County Police Act 1839 was passed. Parish constables derived most of their powers from their local parish.

History of the position[edit]

The office of constable has its origins in the medieval period; it originates from the Latin comes stabuli, or "count of the stable". The term was originally used in England and Scotland for the Lord High Constable, one of the Great Officers of State responsible for the command of the army; however, the term was also used at the local level within the feudal system, describing an officer appointed to keep order.[1]

In 1285 King Edward I of England "constituted two constables in every hundred to prevent defaults in towns and highways".[2] There are records of parish constables by the 17th century in the county records of Buckinghamshire; traditionally they were elected by the parishioners, but from 1617 onwards were typically appointed by justices of the peace in each county.[2]


The London metropolitan area was predominantly policed by unpaid parish constables until the introduction of the Metropolitan Police Service in 1829. The historian Stephen Inwood describes the 4,000 parish constables existing in this period as "of variable quality and commitment"; some parishes, such as Kensington, Fulham and Deptford (with over 55,000 inhabitants between them at the time of the 1821 census) had no policing at all, and the quality of policing was generally considered inadequate by this period.[3]

The Metropolitan Police Act 1829 ended the position of most parish constables in London, replacing them with a professional and trained police force. The City of London, which controlled its own police force, was exempt from this; its police force continues today as the City of London Police.

Outside London[edit]

Outside London, the County Police Act 1839 ended the positions of most parish constables. The Act gave counties opportunity to establish full-time police forces, headed by a Chief Constable who was appointed by the justices of the peace of the county. The first county to implement this was Wiltshire, which appointed its first chief constable on 28 November 1839.[4] Other counties followed this pattern; for instance, Essex appointed its first Chief Constable on 11 February 1840.[5]


  1. ^ p72, Bruce, Alistair, Keepers of the Kingdom (Cassell, 2002), ISBN 0-304-36201-8
  2. ^ a b p276-7, Markham, Sir Frank, History of Milton Keynes and District, vol.1 (1973), ISBN 0-900804-29-7
  3. ^ p591, Inwood, Stephen, A History of London (Macmillan, 1998), ISBN 0-333-67154-6
  4. ^ Wiltshire Constabulary History, Wiltshire Police website
  5. ^ The Making of a Chief Constable Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine., Essex Police website