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The petty constable was a local official whose origins date
back to Anglo-Saxon times. They were unpaid, and were elected
from local men. On the whole they were chosen from respectable
tradesmen, craftsmen and shopkeepers, not ordinary labourers.
They served for one year only. Their job was arrest criminals
and to carry out instructions passed down from the JPs or
the County Assize Justices. This could be awkward, as the
petty constable found himself having to report on, even arrest,
his neighbours. For this reason, they often used their discretion
in applying the law and could get into trouble with higher
authorities as a result. However, most petty constables did
their duties as best as they could, alongside their full-time
employment. It also meant that local people were involved
in enforcing the law.
Watchmen had long been employed by local communities, more
often in towns, to patrol the streets at night. Each one had
a lantern, and a stick, and traditionally called out the hours
and the weather. Because they were regulated by an Act of
Charles II they were known as "Charleys".