Reforming the shrievalty (ii): 1888

Where some of the money went: the Sheriff of Oxford’s javelin men, escorting the judges of assize, 1845 (Illustrated London News, 15 March 1845)

In 1888, the Select Committee of the House of Lords on High Sheriffs conducted an inquiry into the ‘mode of appointment, the duties, and the obligations of High Sheriffs of Counties’. The historical summary includes the information that medieval sheriffs ‘collected escheated estates, fines, oblatas, amerciaments of divers sorts, escuages, aids, tallages, and casual profits’. The report also states, somewhat alarmingly, that ‘the High Sheriff himself knows little what the extent of his duties is’, the point being that most of his duties were performed by the Under Sheriff. The report seems to have been prompted by difficulty of recruiting High Sheriffs. ‘The obligation on all owners of land to act as High Sheriff is felt to be a great hardship. In Lancashire, Yorkshire, and perhaps one or two other counties, there is no difficulty in finding rich men ready and willing to act as High Sheriffs; but generally there is “a growing reluctance to serve,” and some difficulty in finding fit persons.’

There had been a spate of ‘Gentlemen who have urged Excuses against being called upon to serve the Office of Sheriff’, the reasons given being ‘want of means’, ‘ill health’, and ‘other causes’ – the latter comprising ineligibility of one sort or another, including ‘not a landowner’, ‘previous service’, ‘no residence in the county’, or being an M.P. Between 1875 and 1888, of the 998 gentlemen nominated, 98 urged ‘want of means’, although the excuse was accepted in only 63 of those cases. In Essex, during those years, only five urged excuses, three for ill health and two for other causes. In Suffolk, by contrast, 21 urged excuses (the highest figure for any county), nine of those for want of means. In Essex, the average expense incurred by High Sheriffs was £300, one of the lowest figures; in Norfolk it was £800, in Lancashire £1,400, exclusive of the Sheriff’s own expenses (£300 in 1888 equates to about £38,000 in 2018, £1,400 to £178,000).

One of those who gave evidence to the Select Committee was C. B. O. Gepp, Under Sheriff of Essex, and Secretary of the Under Sheriffs’ Association. Gepp was Under Sheriff to twenty-two High Sheriffs between 1883 and 1906 (two High Sheriffs during those years went elsewhere), the third of six Gepps to hold the post between 1827 and 1987 and the fourth of ten members of the same firm (now Gepp Solicitors) to hold the post up to the present day. It was C. B. O. Gepp who provided the figure of £300 quoted above, as being the average expenses over the previous seven years, ‘including all costs of entertaining, that is to say, either his staff, or luncheons for the grand jury’.

A particular concern of the Committee’s was the need to provide a carriage and horses for the use of visiting judges. In Essex, during those seven years two or three of the High Sheriffs had their own carriage and horses, which reduced the expense. Gepp proposed that each Sheriff should pay, say, £50 ‘and use a permanent carriage as it were, and also permanent servants and a county livery’. In the recent past Essex had had a shrievalty fund, which was used to pay for the javelin men who formed part of the sheriff’s procession; but that role was superseded by the police and so the fund fell into abeyance.

In Essex a carriage continued to be used to meet judges until 1915, when a motor car was used for the first time.

[Report from the select Committee of the House of Lords on High Sheriffs; together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix (1888).]

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