The use of Special Constables to keep order during Victorian elections was common – as one court case illustrates, however, this practice could do more harm than good:
During the 1874 election for Newcastle-under-Lyme, there were disturbances in which large crowds of men gathered and several free fights took place in the neighborhood of both the Conservative and Liberal parties. The Conservative committee rooms were smashed, with public-houses displaying red flags also targeted. The Mayor threatened to delay the declaration of results, which had the desired effect of ending the violence.
In the aftermath, several rioters were brought before the local magistrate, including Martin Fallon, John Kelly, Alfred Rogers, and three members of the same family – William, John, and Sarah Matthews. Three regular policemen gave evidence, corroborated by several other witnesses, that during the breaking of the windows of the Gardener’s Arms, one of the Constables went into the mob and was attacked by John and William Matthews. In a striking example of female participation in rowdy popular politics, Sarah Matthews was also present in the crowd and apparently masterminded the assault.
Other crowd members, following the Matthews’ lead, then attacked the policeman, causing cuts to his temple and bruises to his head and face. These rioters included Fallon and Rogers who were, scandalously, supposed to be acting as Special Constables. Thus, Special Constables charged with keeping the peace during the election found themselves charged with assaulting their temporary colleagues – indeed, the article noted that the Specials used the staves specifically given to them to carry out their duties to carry out the attack.
The most lenient sentence was given to Sarah Matthews – she served fourteen days, while her brothers served a month or more in prison. The harshest punishment was given, unsurprisingly, to the Special Constables Fallon and Rogers, who served six months each.
(Source: Bolton Evening News, 10 February 1874. Retrieved 2019, via British Newspaper Archive. Newspaper Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)