'Men of good Character, strong, decent and active': Hertfordshire's Petty Constables, 1730-1799

Saunders, Elaine (2018). 'Men of good Character, strong, decent and active': Hertfordshire's Petty Constables, 1730-1799. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000db20


This thesis provides the first detailed historical analysis of eighteenth century rural petty constables, through a study of their operation in Hertfordshire from 1730 to 1799. Every Hertfordshire parish appointed at least one unsalaried, part-time constable annually to act on behalf of, and within, that parish. Constables were representatives of higher authority, authority figures within their communities, and mediators between the two. This thesis contextualises constables within Hertfordshire’s overlapping administrative, judicial and personal networks, and shows that the boundaries between personal and official authority were often blurred. It presents considerable new research on constables’ work, social status, funding and the importance of Hertfordshire’s manorial courts in appointing constables throughout the eighteenth century. Discussions of constables’ roles in arrests, detecting crimes, peacekeeping and crime prevention illuminate the substructures of eighteenth-century judicial administration and augment existing histories of crime and prosecution. This thesis also examines vagrancy administration uniquely from the constable’s viewpoint and shows how Hertfordshire’s constables exercised considerable discretion when arresting, transporting and relieving travellers on the county’s roads. Constables' essential roles in county and parish governance, pauper administration and community management are also considered. Instead of examining constables in isolation, this study shows that they were one of several local officers whose responsibilities and specialist skills dovetailed in local governance, including the making and implementation of social policies. Constables are thus repositioned as key figures in Hertfordshire’s local government institutions, and shown to be higher status, harder working, less reluctant, better connected and more effective than previously allowed.

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