Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors


Duties of the Parish Constables in the County of Oxford

Between at least 1601 and 1728, men coming on to the council in Oxford had to serve a term as Head Constable, but many of them chose to pay a fine of 3s. 4d. to avoid this duty.

Below is a verbatim transcript of the three printed pages published in 1849 giving details of the duties of Oxfordshire Parish Constables.

[For the use of the PARISH CONSTABLES in the County of Oxford]

SUGGESTIONS as to the DUTIES of the Constables.

BY the Statute 5th and 6th VICTORIA, chapter 109, the Constables are to be annually appointed by the Magistrates in Petty Sessions; and the Allowances to the Constables for the performance of their duties are fixed by a Table prepared under this Statute. And, whilst the Law provides payment for the performance, it imposes penalties upon the Constables for the neglect of their duties; such Penalties to be recoverable before two Magistrates.

 The following Suggestions are framed in accordance with the encasements of the above Statute, and the Statutes 11th and 12th VICTORIA, chapters 42 and 43, as well as the general Law of the Land:

 The first and constant duty of a Constable is to preserve peace, and PREVENT the committal of crime.

 The Constable may arrest any one whom he has just cause to suspect to be about to commit a Felony. Thus, when a drunken person or a man in a violent passion threatens the life of another, the Constable should interfere and arrest.

 He should arrest any person having in his possession any implement with intent feloniously to break into a dwelling-house, warehouse, coach-house, stable, or out-building, or any person armed with any gun, pistol, bludgeon, or offensive weapon, or having upon him any instrument, with intent to commit a felonious act.

 Every person found in any dwelling-house, warehouse, coach-house, out-house, or stable, or in any enclosed yard, garden, or area, and being there for any unlawful purpose, may be arrested.

 In each of these cases the Constable must judge from the situation is. In some cases no doubt can exist, as when the party is a notorious thief, or acting with those who are thieves, or when the party is seen by the Constable to try people’s pockets in a crowd, or to attempt to break into a house, or to endeavour to take any property secretly from another. The Constable will not act hastily, in case the intention is not clear, but content himself with watching closely the suspected party, that he may discover his design.

 The Constable must arrest any one whom he sees in the act of committing a Felony, or any one whom another positively charges with having committed a Felony,* or whom another suspects of having committed a Felony, if the suspicion appear to the Constable to be well founded, and provide the person so suspecting to go with the Constable.

 *The principal Felonies are, murder, and attempts to murder or maim; manslaughter, rape; robbery and attempts to rob; burglary, house-breaking; cattle, horse, and sheep-stealing; stealing from the dwelling-house, the person, and theft generally; receiving stolen goods, embezzlement, &c.; also setting fire to any house, out-building, stacks, or crops; and all cases of forging and coining. The minor offences are called Misdemeanors, such as frauds, uttering counterfeit coin, riots, assaults, affrays, &c.

 Though no charge be made, yet if the Constable suspect a person to have committed a felony, he should arrest him, and if he have reasonable grounds for his suspicion, he will be justified, even though it should afterwards appear that no Felony was in fact committed; but the Constable must be cautious in thus acting upon his own suspicions.

 Generally, if the arrest be made discreetly and fairly in pursuit of an offender, and not from any private malice or ill-will, the Constable need not doubt that the law will protect him.

 The Constable must make every exertion to effect the arrest; and the law gives him abundant power for the purpose. If the Felon, or party accused of Felony, flee, he may be immediately followed wherever he goes; and if he take refuge in a house, the Constable may break open the doors, if necessary, to get in, first stating who he is, and his business; but the breaking open outer doors is so dangerous a proceeding, that the Constable never should resort to it except in extreme cases, and when an immediate arrest is necessary.

 There are some cases in which a Constable may and ought to break into a house, although no Felony has been committed, when the necessity of the case will not admit of delay, as when persons are fighting furiously in a house, or when a house has been entered by others with a felonious intent, and a Felony will probably be committed unless the Constable interfere, and there are no other means of entering; except in such cases, it is better, in general, that the Constable should wait till he has a warrant from a Magistrate for the purpose.

 The authority of a Constable of any Parish in Oxfordshire will extend over the whole of that County and also over all parts of any other County surrounded either wholly or in part by Oxfordshire; and, in case of fresh pursuit, the authority will extend to any place in the adjoining Counties of Berks, Buckingham, Gloucester, Northampton, and Warwick, within seven miles of the borders of Oxfordshire: And if the pursuit should extend beyond seven miles from the borders aforesaid into any adjoining County or place, and the Constable is provided with a Warrant, it will be requisite to get it backed by a Justice of such latter County or place; And, if not provided with a Warrant, the aid of a Constable of such latter County or place should be obtained. But the Law does not oblige any Constable to act beyond his own Parish, unless acting under the Warrant of a Magistrate.

 And in cases where a Magistrate of, and residing or happening to be in, this County shall be also a Magistrate of any adjoining County, and shall have granted a Warrant to a Constable, – it will not be requisite for the Constable, in case of pursuit or otherwise, to get the Warrant backed, – provided it appear upon the face of it to have been granted by a Magistrate of this and such adjoining County. And so, vice versâ, where a Magistrate of, and residing or happening to be in, any County adjoining Oxfordshire, shall be also a Magistrate of this County.

 If a Prisoner should escape, he may be re-taken; and, in immediate pursuit, the Constable may follow him into any place or any house.

 If a Constable find his exertions insufficient to effect the arrest, he ought to require all persons present to assist him, and they are bound to do so.

 In cases of actual breaches of the peace, as riots, affrays, assaults, and the like, committed within the view of the Constable, he should immediately interfere (first giving public notice of his office, if he be not already known), separate the combatants, and prevent others from joining in the affray. If the riot, &c. be of a serious nature, or if the offenders do not immediately desist, he should take them into custody, securing also the principal instigators of the tumult, and doing everything in his power to restore quiet.

 A Constable, in cases of assault which have not been committed in his presence, or within his view, is not authorized to arrest or assist in arresting the party charged, without a Warrant from a Magistrate, nor is he to receive a person so charged into his custody, unless the party has been arrested by some other Constable who saw the assault committed.

 He may arrest any one assaulting or opposing him in the execution of his duty.

 If a person forcibly enter the house of another, the Constable may, at the request of the owner, turn him out directly; if he have entered peaceably, but having no right to enter, and the owner request the Constable to turn him out, the Constable should first request him to go out, and unless he do so, he should turn him out, in either case using no more force than is necessary for the purpose.

 When the offence has not yet been committed, but when a breach of the peace is likely to take place, as when persons are openly preparing to fight, the Constable should take the parties concerned into custody; if they flee into a house, or are making preparations to fight within the house, the Constable should enter the house to prevent them, and likewise take the parties into custody; and should the doors be closed, he may break them open, if admission be refused, after giving notice of his office and his object in entering.

 If any party threaten another with immediate personal violence, or offer to strike, the Constable should interfere and prevent a breach of the peace; if one draw a weapon upon another attempting to strike, the Constable should take him into custody. If persons be merely quarrelling or insulting each other by words, the Constable has no right to take them into custody, but should be ready to prevent a breach of the peace.

 The Constable ought to arrest and take before a Justice any person exposing to view any obscene print or exhibition.

 If any party charged with a Misdemeanor escape out of custody, he may be pursued immediately anywhere; and if he takes refuge in a house, the doors may be broken open after demands of admission, and after notification by the Constable of his office and object in coming.

 After arrest the Constable is, in all cases, to treat a prisoner properly, and impose only such restraint upon him as may be necessary for his safe custody; and in no case endeavour to obtain, either by persuasion or threats, any statement or admission as to the offence he is charged with.

 The Constable is bound to follow the directions contained in a Magistrate’s Warrant, and to execute it with secrecy and dispatch; the power given to him for the purpose of arresting having been already shown. If the Warrant cannot be executed immediately, it should be executed as soon as possible afterwards.

 The Constable must execute the Warrant himself, or, when he calls in assistance, must be actually present. Upon all occasions he ought to state his authority, if it be not generally known, and should show his Warrant when required to do so.

 Upon the arrest being made, the prisoner is to be taken before the Magistrate as soon as convenient. When the prisoner is brought before the Magistrate, he still remains in custody of the Constable until his discharge or committal, or until the officer receives the Magistrate’s orders.

 The Constable may enter a house to search for stolen goods, having first got a search warrant from a magistrate for that purpose. He should when it is possible so to do, execute it in the day-time. If he find the goods mentioned, he is to take them to a Magistrate, and, when the warrant so directs, he must take the person also in whose possession they are found. To avoid mistakes, the person who applied for the warrant ought to attend at the search to identify the goods.

 The Constable has power to apprehend and carry before a Magistrate every person placing himself or herself in any public street, highway, or passage, to beg, or gather alms, or causing, or procuring, or encouraging any child so to do, all such being declared by the law to be idle and disorderly persons; deserters, and every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or out-house, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence, and not giving a good account of himself or herself; every person wandering abroad, and endeavouring, by the exposure of wounds or deformities, to obtain or gather alms; every person going about a a gatherer or collector of alms, or endeavouring to procure charitable contributions of any nature or kind under any false or fraudulent pretence; every person playing or betting in any street, road, highway, or other open or public place, at or with any table or instrument of gaming at any game or pretended game of chance.

 In these cases the Constable has by law power to arrest.

 Any sum of money levied by a Constable under a Warrant of Distress; – any sum received by him in payment of penalty, &c. and costs, in order to stay the execution of a Warrant of Distress; – and any sum received by him from a Defendant whom he has taken under a Commitment for a penalty, &c. and costs, – must be paid by the Constable to the Justices’ Clerk of the Petty Sessions Division in which the Magistrate issuing the Warrant usually acts.

 And the Constables are specially required to visit the Public Houses and Beer Houses in their respective Parishes to see that they are closed by Twelve o’clock on the Saturday night until the end of the Morning Service of the Church of the Parish on the Sunday; and the same on every Christmas Day, Good Friday, and any Day appointed for a Public Fast [sic] or Thanksgiving Day: And likewise during the hours of Divine Service in the Afternoon, as well as Morning on Sundays and the other aforesaid Days; and also at the proper hours at night throughout the week; and to take care that no gaming or other irregularity is suffered. And the Constables are required to report to the Magistrates of the Division any breach of the law on the part of the Keeper of a Public or Beer House.

Printed by order of the Magistrates

County Hall, Oxford, February 1849

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 24 September, 2018

Oxford Mayors home Small Shark Oxford History home