The Office of High Sheriff is a Royal appointment and it is the oldest continuous secular Office in the United Kingdom after the Crown, dating from Saxon times. The first High Sheriff of Berkshire and Oxfordshire was Godric, who was described as “a rascally old scoundrel”. The exact date of origin is unknown but the Office has certainly existed for over 1,000 years, since the Shires were formed. For hundreds of years, the High Sheriff or ‘Shire Reeve’ was responsible to the Monarch for the maintenance of law and order within the shire, or county, and for the collection and return of taxes due to the Crown. They were also responsible, when required, for raising an army. Gradually over the centuries, these particular duties have been transferred from the Monarch to parliament itself.
Today, there are 55 High Sheriffs who serve the counties of England and Wales each year. Whilst the duties of the role have evolved over time, supporting the Crown and the judiciary remain central among its elements today. In addition, High Sheriffs actively lend support and encouragement to crime prevention agencies, the emergency services and to the voluntary sector.
How did you become High Sheriff?
Every county has a High Sheriff and an appointing panel which represents church, charity, education. The panel meets once a year to discuss names put forward. Their decision has to be approved by Privy Council and the High Court and is made official by the Ceremony of Pricking. I had been asked by a previous High Sheriff if I would be happy to be nominated. I was very surprised to be approached but it was probably because I have lived here all my life, done public service and been Deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire since 2011 supporting the Lord Lieutenant.
You are actually selected as High Sheriff four years before you take office in order to give you time to prepare for the role.
How do you feel that the role benefits the community?
High Sheriffs bring a spotlight on the incredible work being done in our communities. We can help bring people together and can direct grants towards good causes and nominate people for awards. We pay tribute to the phenomenal work being done by our local charities. For instance I give awards at ceremonies such as the Royal Berks Fire & Rescue Service Awards and make speeches about the astonishing stories of bravery. This helps keep up the profile of these services in the public eye.
How busy are you as High Sheriff?
Before I became High Sheriff life was already pretty full as I run Chilton Farms and Chilton Estate (which has been in my family since 1908), a farming and fishing business, let commercial property, forestry and arable. I am also a Governor of two schools and trustee of the national charity Salmon & Trout Conservation UK, and the Newbury Spring Festival.
I decided that the only way I could cope with the extra High Sheriff commitments was to hire a PA for the year. This was my decision and responsibility. High Sheriffs receive no remuneration and no part of the expense of a High Sheriff’s year falls on the public purse.
You certainly have to be able to multi-task! One evening I was in full High Sheriff uniform presenting awards at a Police Cadet Attestation Ceremony in Reading.
As soon as the ceremony was over I had to dash to my car to get changed out of my uniform before rushing to my next appointment at Reading Minster to meet the amazing team of paramedics, church volunteers, clergy, police and street pastors who look after homeless people there every night. The High Sheriff uniform is based on Eighteenth Century court dress. It is not designed to be easy to change out of on your own in the dark in a car park!
How many female High Sheriffs have there been?
In Berkshire the first female High Sheriff took office in the 1990s. There have been a few since but certainly it has been a predominantly male role.
How do you decide what to do during your year?
I’m autonomous but there are a few set pieces the High Sheriff has to organise, for instance the annual service for the Judiciary that marks the opening of the Crown Court. It’s an enormous job as you have to invite over 1,000 important people including judges and bishops who need to be treated and seated appropriately.
Luckily in Berkshire there is a good baton that is passed from High Sheriff to High Sheriff so I’ve been included in the set piece events for the past few years to learn how they are organised.
I also get a lot of support from Lord Lieutenant James Puxley, the Queen’s representative in the Berkshire who stays in the role until he is 75 yrs old and provides valuable continuity.
How has being High Sheriff changed your life?
It has changed my life by helping me feel more appreciative of basic things and how much good is being done in our communities.
As Her Majesty the Queen’s Representative in all things to do with law, order and the judiciary, it is my privilege this year to visit courtrooms and police stations, to attend parades and concerts as well as church services. I’ve been so impressed by the tireless devotion of countless volunteers across Berkshire who work in centres for homeless people, who help the vulnerable, the young, the elderly, those who have had difficult starts in life, and so many others in need.
Whilst visiting various prisons across the Thames Valley, I’ve talked to prison officers and prisoners, probation officers and some of the teachers who work within prisons. On each occasion, I have been humbled, often shocked, always impressed, usually uplifted and amazed, and above all deeply grateful that there are so many inspiring people who are working in every corner in Berkshire doing such incredible things on our behalf.
I am particularly inspired by the way that so much of this is undertaken with great efficiency but also modesty. So often, the work that I see people in these areas doing seems to be fuelled strongly by a great respect for the community itself, and a desire to do the best that can be done to look after it. Our Courts are in the hands of fair compassionate people. I have found the judges and magistrates to be pragmatic, humane, professional and warm human beings.
I also feel increasingly appreciative of the great generosity of spirit that so many have bestowed on the town of Hungerford, which makes it the cohesive community that it is. Sadly more than most places, Hungerford has had its challenges and sadnesses and yet, thanks to the tireless work and dedication of some incredible members of our community, our town continues to thrive and flourish with an atmosphere of intent and improvement, forging ahead, heads held high and with cheerful purpose.
So often, we read stories about the bad things that go on and hear of the things that go wrong. Let us not forget that there is so much to applaud and celebrate as well.