The Parish Constable in Georgian times. Back to the Main Historical Society page

The Parish Constable in Georgian times.

from Barwicker No.59
Sept. 2000

Before the creation of a county constabulary in the nineteenth centuries, the control of law and order in parishes was in the hands of a local constable appointed for a year from among the inhabitants of the parish supported by two high constables in each wapentake (called the Chief Constable in the parish accounts) and Justices of the Peace.

We know from the Quarter Session records that in 1640 John Taylor of Barwick-in-Elmet was appointed as one of the two high constables for Skyrack for a period of three years. Further study of the Quarter Session records may reveal others who served in this capacity.

We know something of how the system operated in Barwick-in-Elmet parish from the parish accounts which detail all items of expenditure incurred by the post holder. The post of parish constable is an old established one. Its origins are unclear and is thought by some to date back as far as King Alfred's time. By the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) villages were required to have one or two officials called constables to assemble the local militia. This fell on those already responsible for 'police' matters.

The position was formalised by legislation in Edward III's reign in 1328 and 1330. They became such useful officers that under Henry VII, constables were ordered to 'favour, help and assist' tax collectors within their townships, thus serving central as well as local government.

Constables also had enlarged responsibilities as a result of their obligation to execute the commands of higher justice officials, i.e. the Sheriff, the Coroner and especially Justices of the Peace.

Thus the post was a hybrid of local and state responsibilities. We do not know how constables were selected. They were local residents. They must have been competent, reliable, literate at least to some degree, trusted, and acceptable to both the local community and the Justices of the Peace. We also know that in some years there was a deputy constable for he was paid 6s 8d for the year. If there was always a deputy, his salary was not always in the accounts.

Formally the power to appoint constables was held by manorial courts until 1842 when it was passed to vestry meetings until the practice ended in 1872. As usual the formality of local power structures is blurred in the case of Barwick-in-Elmet. The post clearly covered the whole civil parish and was under the scrutiny of the vestry meetings at which the accounts were approved from the time of the first surviving parish account book.

The accounts show us that the constable was routinely used for:

  1. The administration of justice. This involved:
    1. Apprehending offenders
    2. taking them before the magistrates
    3. undertaking local punishment e.g. use of the stocks and the ducking stool.
  2. The organisation of the Militia Muster.
  3. Acting as the Coroner's Officer.
  4. Ensuring the security of the community by
    1. Maintaining field gates
    2. Organising watches and searches.
    3. Rewarding acts of bravery
    4. Maintaining and repairing the bridges of the parish and any other waterway construction such as hecks (gates which are hung across waterways.)
  5. Supervising beggars, vagrants and others in distress passing through the parish.
  6. Tax collection. The constable had to:
    1. organise the survey and listing of those liable for tax
    2. collect taxes
    3. report to the Tax Commissioners.


We only know about the apprehending of offenders when it took sufficiently long to involve taking the offender before the Justice of the Peace. In the accounts of James Parkin, the constable in 1753/4, we have several items:

Spent in searching for James Robinson 
A man and Myself two days searching at Knottingley for James Robinson  
Taking James Robinson and carrying him before Sir H. Ibbetson and expenses  

In this case, the offence may have been no more than that of not staying in the parish, which was responsible for him if he were a Barwick man in need of support, and becoming a vagrant in another parish. The parish registers refer to a James Robinson of Osmonthick (the name given to the Woodhouse Farm/Flying Horse Farm part of the parish), whose son John was baptised in 1728.

Sir H. Ibbetson was Sir Henry Ibbetson, a wealthy woolstapler, created a baronet for his patriotic service in the 1745 rebellion when, as High Sheriff of Yorkshire, he raised a band of 100 men at his own expense. Not only was he a magistrate but at the time was an Alderman of Leeds. However the parish register records the baptism of his son, Carr, in 1752 "the son of Sr. Henry Ibbetson, Bart., of Red Hall". Presumably this is the Red Hall in the north west of the parish. The other Red Hall, in Leeds which stood on land which is now occupied by the Schofield Centre, was occupied by the Calverley family. In addition Sir Henry owned property in Kirkgate and elsewhere which he was anxious to improve at the time (see Beresford's East End, West End. Vols. LX and LXI, Thoresby Society pp 112-113) and would probably not be suitable for a man of his standing. More work needs to be done to establish whether he was a resident of the parish at the time or not.

The constable also had to attend court when required. In 1753 his accounts show

Two days attending at Leeds Sessions upon Mary Haist account  

We know nothing about this case. Mary Haist was born in February 1734 and was the daughter of Thomas Haist of Kidhall Lane End who died in 1740. She was married in July 1754 to John Waites of Barkston in the parish of Sherburn by "Licence from Edwd. Cookson, Surrogate" Was the attendance at court something to do with her being married under the age of 21 and having no father to approve?

There are only vague references in the accounts about the role of the constable in seeing that punishment was carried out. In 1736, the constable, James Bullock, paid for the repair of the ducking stool. We have no record of it being used but it is unlikely that it was no longer in use if it was repaired. The ducking stool was a punishment which usually befell women prisoners. Grossly unpleasant, and often fatal, the woman would be strapped into a seat which hung from the end of a free moving arm. The seat and the woman would be dunked into the local river or pond. It was up to the operators of the stool as to how long she remained under the water. Many elderly women were killed by the shock of the cold water. While the ducking stool was used in America for witches, in Britain for the punishment of minor offenders, prostitutes, and scolds. We do not know where the ducking stool was located in the parish. There were ponds in Scholes but none as far as is known in the east of the parish.

In 1739, Thomas Whitehead the constable was paid 1s 6d for "going to Mr. Ibbotson concerning a man putting (sic) stocks and a man attending of him whilst in the stocks." This is a rare record of the use of the stocks in the parish. We don't know when the stocks ceased to be used or where they were located. Presumably they were in Barwick itself as this was the most populated place in the parish until much later. There is no mention of a lock-up in the parish but it is almost certain that there would have been. In 1751 the constable paid 13s 0d to Robert Barton for new stocks and 1s 2d for "Blacksmiths bill for stocks".


The first reference to a parish constable of which we are aware was in the muster rolls of 1539 taken under the threat of war with France. The muster for 'Berwyk in Elmet cum hamletis' is headed by:
'William Bryge, Constable, abill in person, archer, haveng no harnez'

For a full account of that muster see The Barwicker No.9. The fact that the list is headed by the constable emphasises his role in organising the muster as required since the thirteenth century.

By the eighteenth century when we have written detail to define the task more clearly, the mustering of militia was a minor part of the task for most of the time. The events surrounding the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 has been described in the Barwicker No.49. In that event the constable, with several assistant constables to help, did not muster the Militia but was required to set watches, hunt for 'papist' sympathisers' weapons and bring suspects before the justices.

In 1756, the country was at war with France. There were clashes with France in India, the West Indies, the American Colonies, Canada, the Mediterranean and Germany. The British Isles were under threat of invasion from France and we had to rely on Hanoverian and Hessian troops to defend the country. A bill was passed to re-establish the Militia, which was only raised in times of crisis. The effect of this bill is seen in the constable Richard Burland's accounts for 1757.

s d
Going about the parish two days to get a list of the men liable to serve for the Militia and for Wm. Knapton going with me and Charges and return
I with the same to Mr. Plant 0 7 0
For two copies of the list writing 0 2 0

Mr Plant may have been the Officer appointed to take charge of the Militia in this part of West Yorkshire although this is not at all certain. In addition the accounts reveal

Going to Leeds to meet the Commissioner of the Militia
and hiring Paul Kay and Charges
0 7 6

The accounts covered similar activities every year following for at least the next twenty years. Occasionally, there is mention of other matters connected with the Militia. In 1759, Thomas Whitehead recorded the following expenditure

Gave the Militia Man for advance 1 2 0
Cockade 6d Swearing him and several times
Going to Leeds Charges Self and Horse
0 7 0

Some years the Constable appears to pay the wages of "the Militia Man" or Mr Plant amounting from 33.3s.31/4d to 5.14s.6d. Clearly there is much more to be researched about the parish's Militia.


As the person involved in the administration of sudden or suspicious deaths, the constable was responsible for taking the appropriate action such as informing the coroner, distributing his warrants, calling a jury and dealing with the corpse. Some of these occurrences in the accounts are:
1735 (Constable Richard Lumb):
Paid at Aberford at an inquest 0 15 6
Bringing the Dead Woman from Sand Banks 0 4 6
Going to the Coroner and distributing the Warranty 0 4 6
Her Coffin 6s To Robert Knapton & Coroner 15s (sic) 1 0 0
1746 (Constable William Butler)
To Richard Varley for bringing Thos. Jackson to Scholes when slain

The detail of the events is missing and there are no coroner's records surviving before the middle of the nineteenth century.


The constable was also required to ensure that the physical security of the parish's cattle, sheep, horses and other farm animals. Approaches to the parish were gated and the constable's funds paid for their repair and maintenance. Similarly, the pinfold was maintained through him and he provided locks for it.. In 1735 he also paid 5s 0d for a heck (a gate across a stream or river which allowed water but not large objects to pass through it) to be fitted on Long Lane Beck plus 6d for its carriage. In 1753 the constable paid for:
s d
Potterton Bridge mending & Door hanging 0 1 0

The constable seems to have paid for a number of bridges in the parish to be repaired or replaced. Why the constable's funds paid for this rather than those of the Surveyors of the Highway is not clear for some of the bridges named in the accounts were part of the highways of the parish.

In the article concerning the Jacobite Rising of 1745 reference was made to the organisation of watches and searches which were the responsibility of the Constable. It is not known to what extent this took place at other times for the accounts make no mention of funds being used for this purpose except in 1740 there is an item:
Monthly searches 0 12 0


There are a few cases when the constable's funds were used to reward acts of bravery. Presumably the high constable and the Justices of the Peace were aware of the acts of bravery before the constable paid out the rewards. At the time one shilling was the amount paid to the constable for a day's duty.

Paid to Benj. Rawlinson attacking the Deserters 0 3 0

Benj. Rawlinson became Constable in 1741. He was a farmer and possibly a lime burner.

James Doughty for pursuing a Highwayman 0 1 0

Jonas Doughty, Farmer of Barwick as he is referred to in the parish registers was not born in the parish and appears not to have been married. He died in 1775 aged 67. His brother, Henry, was 'kild with a Cart' aged 68 five years later.

Does the award of an amount to Benjamin Rawlinson three times the value of that received nearly twenty years later mean that the payment depended on the danger involved?


The accounts give us a tantalising view of people in distress who are passing through the parish. The constable was responsible for seeing that they were supported but sent on their way. While most travellers would use the Great North Road to travel through the district, there would be some passing in an east-west direction between the Great North Road and the West Riding. From the accounts we find a wide range of travellers in distress. Some found are:
1735 (Constable Richard Lumb)
s d
Given to a man burnt by fire 4d To 3 travellers 2d 0 0 10
Given to an Old Soldier 0 0 2
Given to 2 men who had been Captives in Barbary 0 0 6
To a man that had lost his Vessel at Sea 0 0 6
Given to 6 Shipwrecked men in one Company 0 1 0
To a poor woman sufferer by the Marrin(?) 0 0 4
To a dumb man 4d. To a man for losses 3d 0 0 7
1753(Constable James Parkin)
To Ann Hebden for lodging a poor Woman and carrying her to Abberford 0 0 8
To a poor man 0 0 2
Paid for a poor Man's lodging & Supper 0 0 3


Since Henry VII's reign the constable had to act as the parish's tax collector on behalf of the State. A large part of the accounts consists of entries for duties for assessing, regulating, collecting and paying in tax. Associated with this work was the administration of licences, in particular Brewing licences which involve an element of fee collection and legal supervision. The following entries give a clear indication of the work involved
s d
Six Days collecting Window Money and
going to Justice
0 6 0
Spent on Mr Vevers appeal before the Commissioners
of the Land Tax(viz) of Benj. Haist,
Stephen Vevers & going with them
0 4 6
Going to the Commissioners of the Land Taxes
to stop their proceeding and summoning in
Evidence against Mr Vevers
0 1 0
Carrying in the Names of the Assessors of Land Tax 0 1 0
Their Warrant & fetching 0 2 0
Spent when Landtax was laid 0 6 0
Four assessors going in 0 6 0
Landtax Duplicates signing 2s carrying them 1s 0 3 0
A landtax duplicate signing 0 1 6
Summoning Brewsters to take Licence 0 1 0
Going to Brewster's Sessions 0 1 0

As can be seen above the Land Tax was an important form of income for the government and involved the Constable in considerable unpaid effort.

A task which fell to the Constable, Richard Smith, in 1772 showed the responsibility which was entrusted to the village constable:
Expenses for 2 Waggons and 2 Carters going with
the King's Baggage 7s 6d
and on Hired Waggon 2s 6d
0 10 0
Myself going at the same time 0 2 6

Of this one item we know no more. Presumably the King (George III) was passing through the vicinity and his baggage needed to be conveyed securely through the parish.


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