High Sheriffs’ “rigging”

Old Style Velvet Court Dress, from Dress and Insignia Worn at His Majesty’s Court (1937)

‘It is a common delusion that there is a Sheriff’s Uniform; there is nothing of the sort,’ wrote Andrew Johnston in 1881 at the end of his year as High Sheriff of Essex,[1] and the same applies today; but then, as now, the High Sheriff traditionally wore either a military uniform of some sort or what is known as Court dress. Court dress was quite a familiar outfit in 1881, but is rarely seen nowadays; apart from High Sheriffs, the most visible wearer of Court dress (or a version of it) is Black Rod, seen at the State Opening of Parliament summoning the Commons to attend the Lords. Velvet Court dress of the type still worn by High Sheriffs was specified by the Lord Chamberlain in 1869, as follows:

  • Black silk Velvet Dress Coat, with gilt, steel, or plain Buttons.
  • White Waistcoat, or Black silk Velvet, without collar, with similar buttons, but of smaller size.
  • Black silk Velvet Breeches, Black silk Hose, Shoes, gilt or steel Buckles.
  • Black cocked Hat, with gilt or steel Loop and Button.
  • Gilt or Steel handled Sword, with Silk Shoulder-belt.
  • White Neckcloth.[2]
‘The New Court Costume’ (Illustrated London News, 27 February 1869, p 209)

This came to be known as ‘old style’ Court dress following the introduction of ‘new style’ Court dress towards the end of the century. With ‘new style’, the coat was cut differently, but the most obvious difference is that a white bow tie was worn (as in ‘white tie’ evening dress) with no lace frills at the neck or cuffs. The ‘new style’ Court dress was permissible for High Sheriffs but seems not to have been widely worn.[3]

New Style Velvet Court Dress from Dress Worn at His Majesty’s Court (1912)

The possibility of female High Sheriffs was not seriously considered in 1869, or indeed 1881, although in 1878 the Daily Telegraph remembered that Lady Anne Clifford had been hereditary High Sheriff of Westmorland as recently as 1676, and speculated as to what a female High Sheriff might wear;[4] as it is they tend to wear a bespoke outfit that captures the spirit of Court dress, usually in velvet, but often in a more adventurous colour than black or midnight blue.

Court dress had existed in one form or another for centuries before 1869. It had developed alongside court ceremonies such as the Levee, introduced in the reign of King Charles II, when gentlemen were presented to the monarch; those without military uniform wore a stylised form of everyday dress that evolved at a very much slower pace, so that by the middle of the 19th century Court dress was about a hundred years behind the times and might still include, for example, a long waistcoat with floral embroidery. The make-up of Court dress was not precisely defined, although from time to time the Lord Chamberlain would issue reminders on such details as the wearing of shoes and stockings with shoe and knee buckles.[5] The reforms of 1869 also introduced a Court dress of dark-coloured cloth that was considered more contemporary in styling but was probably not adopted by High Sheriffs,[6] and both versions, velvet and cloth, were intended for those who had no Naval, Military, or Civil Uniform.

The High Sheriff of Norfolk, Edmund Rolfe, 1769

Court dress was also worn widely beyond the Royal Court: Members of Parliament wore Court dress on state occasions, mayors and other civic dignitaries commonly wore it beneath their robes, and parliamentary candidates wore Court dress for elections. It was readily obtainable from a number of tailors, not just in London, although it was remarked that the change in 1869 was ‘said to have given a very considerable and beneficial impulse to West-end trade’.[7] Court dress was also frequently worn at fancy dress balls in the Victorian era, sometimes by the High Sheriff himself while in office; historic Court dress from the Georgian period was also popular.

But Court dress was not simply worn by High Sheriffs because it was the default outfit for ceremonial occasions. Andrew Johnston put it in these terms: ‘at Assizes, the Judge directly representing the Crown, the Sheriff must wear some dress in which he would be received at Court’. This was, however, very much a matter of custom rather than being laid down in any law. A notorious situation arose in 1878 when the High Sheriff of Derbyshire attended the Assizes in ‘morning costume’ and the judge, Mr Justice Hawkins, threatened to fine him £500 unless he appeared properly dressed; he returned next day in the uniform of the Derbyshire Volunteers (the threat was widely reported but subsequently denied).[8] Official guidance, such as it was, said that

it is usual for High Sheriffs, when in attendance on the judge, to wear uniform or Court dress. It is not necessary to have been presented at Court to enable the Sheriff to wear the latter. The new style of Court dress is very simple, and not expensive.

Mr Justice Hawkins himself said that

I have strong feeling that he ought to attend the Judge of Assize in uniform or Court dress. I look upon the observance of this as due not only to the representative of the Crown, but to the high and important office which the High Sheriff fills in his county.[9]

Practice varied widely from county to county. The High Sheriff of Essex attended a trial at the Old Bailey in 1834 ‘in full Court dress’;[10] in 1838 the High Sheriff of Lincolnshire was noted as wearing ‘full Court Dress, with sword, lace ruffles, &c.’[11] But in 1836 and 1837 the Norfolk Chronicle noted disapprovingly that the High Sheriff ‘waits upon the Judges in everyday habiliments’,[12] and in Cambridgeshire in 1843 the High Sheriff wore ‘full court dress, a novelty which has not been seen in Cambridge for many years’.[13] In Oxfordshire in 1846 the High Sheriff (Mortimer Ricardo) ‘declining to make a guy of himself in a Court dress… waited on the Judges in a plain black frock coat, common waistcoat, and trousers, for which breach of etiquette he was duly or unduly reproved by the representatives of the majesty of the law’. To make matters worse, he wore an ‘Imperial’ beard, at a time when ‘the beard and moustache movement was… in its infancy’, drawing a rebuke from the judge that ‘I notice you have not had the common decency to shave’.[14]

In Yorkshire, the High Sheriff wore the uniform of a Deputy Lieutenant in 1843 and 1850, but in 1851 he wore court dress, the Yorkshire Gazette carefully listing the names of his tailor, hatter, shoemaker, hosier, and hairdresser.[15] By 1858, the Maidstone Journal was observing that

this Deputy Lieutenant uniform is now worn on every occasion… The High Sheriff of a County…, being a Deputy Lieutenant, puts on his red coat to greet the learned judges on their arrival at the assize town: he does so because it is a court dress, as all military uniforms are received by the Sovereign.

The same writer thought that the High Sheriff should have his own distinctive uniform, ‘something of a legal form – a crimson or black silk robe, with the becoming insignia of a gold chain of office’, a suggestion that no one seems to have thought worth following up.[16]

The wearing of Deputy Lieutenant’s uniform was not, however, universally approved. Andrew Johnston ‘wore the black velvet Court dress in preference to the Deputy Lieutenants, and was complimented on this by the Judges, who said that while they could not refuse to recognise military or semi military uniforms, such as Deputy Lieutenants, because they would be received at Court, such uniforms were quite out of place at Assizes, a purely Civil occasion.’ Yet he went on to say that he would not ‘on this account recommend a Sheriff who possesses a Deputy Lieutenants [sic] Uniform, and does not possess a Court dress, to go to the expense of procuring the latter on purpose for the Shrievalty’, adding helpfully that ‘with the Court dress in cold weather I recommend a pair of spun silk stockings to wear under the others, or thin woollen are still better.’[17] (He also advised his successors on the protocol surrounding the meeting of the judge at the railway station: ‘After shaking hands, the Sheriff precedes them down the stairs, walking backwards as much as his sword will allow him…’)[18]

Sir Harry Seymour Foster (‘Men of the Day. No. 518.’) by Sir Leslie Ward. Chromolithograph, published in Vanity Fair 26 September 1891. NPG D44561 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
He is wearing Court Dress as a Sheriff of the City of London.

The Field, in 1886, also objected to the wearing of Deputy Lieutenant’s uniform on the grounds that a Deputy Lieutenant, by definition, ranks below the Lord-Lieutenant, whereas the High Sheriff (until 1908) took precedence over the Lord-Lieutenant: ‘the mere fact of his executing the duties of his chief pageant in the guise of his own deputy’s deputy, as he often does, tends to show how obsolete are his functions, and how thoroughly his original office is overlooked.’[19]

As Johnston noted in 1881, there is no High Sheriff’s uniform, and it seems that there is only one definitive statement concerning High Sheriff’s dress, to be found in Philip Mather’s Compendium of Sheriff Law, written by a former Under Sheriff of Newcastle-on-Tyne and published in 1894:

The proper dress for sheriffs is court dress (e.g., black velvet dress court suit, with knee breeches and silk stockings, or claret-coloured coat and trousers, the coat being of the same shape as dress uniform of consuls and members of diplomatic corps, and the trousers having a gold stripe), or military or other uniform, with, in the case of a City sheriff, his robe of office.

Under-sheriffs usually wear evening dress, or sometimes court dress. It would seem, however, that they have no particular dress as a matter of right, except, perhaps, as to court dress, when they have been presented at court.[20]

Although this is written with some conviction, it is not clear what the authority for it is, and ‘proper’ indicates convention rather than law; and his interpretation of Court dress is wider than normal (he may have been thinking of the High Sheriff of Hampshire who, in 1844, sported an outfit that ‘was rather unique, being… one of a diplomatic character, composed of blue cloth with gold lace trimmings’[21]).

In Essex, in the 19th century, Deputy Lieutenant’s uniform must have been a regular alternative to Court dress for Johnston to have spoken of it in the way he did, but his successor T. J. Spitty also opted for Court dress, writing to him to say

I liked your Dress better than the Deputy Lieuts and thought I might perhaps follow suit therein. Might I ask, who supplied it to you, and if not regarded as too inquisitive, I should like to know something about the probable cost of such an appropriate “rigging” would be.[22]

Johnston’s reply has not survived, but we know from his accounts that he paid £41 7s 6d for ‘a new Court dress… (including doing up my Great Grandfathers Sword)’.[23] However, when the Under Sheriff C. B. O. Gepp wrote a helpful letter to the incoming High Sheriff R. B. Colvin on various aspects of the office, he said that ‘Sheriffs who are Deputy Lieutenants wear their uniform as such at the Assizes. I presume you will wear your full dress uniform as an officer of the Royal Suffolk Hussars’, indicating that it was the norm for Deputy Lieutenants to wear their uniform rather than Court dress.[24]

Old Style Velvet Court Dress from Dress Worn at His Majesty’s Court (1912)

Thus it was that in 1895–6 Henry Joslin ‘wore the uniform of a Deputy Lieutenant of the County which I had by me & so was spared the expense of new Court dress; thus saving about Fifty pounds’,[25] and in 1903–4 Col R. P. Davis ‘wore my his Regimental Uniform, which I had by me, so saved certain expenses’,[26] whereas Davis’s successor, James Paxman, ‘wore full Court dress, with knee breeches, black silk stockings, and buckle [sic] shoes’.[27]

Advertisement for Herbert Johnson from Dress Worn at His Majesty’s Court (1912)

In 1917 there was what might seem a belated response to wartime conditions; the incoming High Sheriff’s warrant was accompanied by a circular recommending various economies, including the wearing of what was later known as ‘Alternative Court Dress’, i.e. evening dress (white tie and tails) but with knee breeches, stockings, and shoes.[28] Further recommendations included the wearing of khaki by trumpeters, and the use of a motor car rather than horse-drawn coach or carriage for conveying judges from the station (Essex had already taken this radical step in 1915).

Between the wars each High Sheriff of Essex went his own way. Major G. G. Gold was confused because in 1923 ‘the Privy Council issued an order that High Sheriffs were not permitted to wear Naval, Military or R.A.F. Uniform, when in attendance on H.M. Judges. This order was cancelled & I always wore the Levee dress of the Essex Yeomanry.’[29] The Chelmsford Chronicle reported this as ‘the brilliant green and gold uniform of the Essex Yeomanry’, noting also that the Under Sheriff ‘appeared in Court dress for the first time’;[30] this has remained standard dress for Under Sheriffs of Essex to the present day, although practice varies widely across the counties.

Deputy Lieutenant’s Full Dress Uniform, from Dress and Insignia Worn at His Majesty’s Court (1937), as worn by successive High Sheriffs of Essex, including Lt-Col Francis Whitmore in 1922

For the next fifty years it seems to have been the norm for High Sheriffs in Essex to wear Deputy Lieutenant’s or other military uniform. Most High Sheriffs were appointed Deputy Lieutenant before taking up the office, and most High Sheriffs would have served in one or both World Wars and would have been comfortable wearing military uniform. Thus, in 1925 Sir Frederic Carne Rasch ‘wore the uniform of his old regiment’ at the Winter Assize,[31] and his successor, Major R.K. Magor, wore ‘the full dress uniform of a Deputy Lieutenant’.[32] Lt Col F. Hilder also wore Deputy Lieutenant’s uniform when proclaiming the accession of King Edward VIII in 1936, as did G. M. Strutt for the proclamation of King George VI later the same year.[33]

The Second World War brought restrictions on ceremonial, as had the First. When J. K. Swire was appointed in 1941 he received a letter from the Privy Council Office informing him that footmen and trumpeters should be dispensed with, his chaplain should do without silk robes if he did not already have them, and as for his own dress:

While a Sheriff who possesses uniform of Court Dress should continue as in the past to wear it, provided he is entitled to do so, other Sheriffs may wear the Alternative Dress (i.e., Evening Dress, knee breeches, stockings and shoes) or Morning Dress. During the war, High Sheriffs who are Deputy Lieutenants of Counties may obtain permission to wear the Service Dress uniform of that Office on applying in writing to the War Office (A.G. 4.c.). Such permission, however, will be granted only for occasions on which a Deputy Lieutenant is actually carrying out his duties as Sheriff. A separate communication is being addressed to Sheriffs on the subject of the use of military uniform by retired Officers.[34]

Captain Swire, no doubt disappointed, ‘consulted the Lord Lieutenant, among others, as to how seriously I should treat these instructions, & he felt very strongly that I should rigidly adhere to them. I accordingly somewhat reluctantly abandoned trumpeters & banners, & also the formal Sheriff’s luncheon… The latter would, in any case, have proved impossible owing to rationing…’[35]

For D. A. J. Buxton, appointed in 1944, the difficulty was of another order:

I enquired of the Lord Chamberlain whether I should wear Court Dress (to match the Under Sheriff who wore his on the first day of each Assize). The Officer concerned replied that he had no jurisdiction over what the High Sheriff wore: he only lays down the law for Court ceremonies: but his advice was, in wartime, to wear not Court dress but a uniform of one of the services. This gave me the option of wearing my 1914/18 war Army uniform as Deputy Lieut: or Home Guard Uniform (I was commanding the Essex & Suffolk H.G. M.T. Column) or R.A.F. uniform as a Wing Commander (I had raised & commanded 909 County of Essex Balloon Squadron 1938–41: retd 1943). I wore the last.[36]

His sucessor, Sir Adam Ritchie, had an altogether different problem:

My dress for official occasions occasioned a little difficulty, as not being entitled to wear Service Uniform I had to procure a new Court Dress. My application to the Board of Trade for the necessary Clothing Coupons was refused on the grounds that “Court Dress was unessential when judged by war time standards”. Not being satisfied with this explanation I cast around in other directions and eventually procured from the universal providers Messrs Moss Bros & Coy Ltd a complete Court Dress including sword, hat, and mantle, which might have been cut for me in Savil [sic] Row, without having to give up any coupons. I think this may be of interest to any of my successors faced with a similar difficulty.[37]

Advertisement for Moss Bros from Dress and Insignia Worn at His Majesty’s Court (1937), showing Civil Uniform (Levee Dress)

Essex High Sheriffs recorded these matters in such detail as a service to their successors, perhaps in reaction to the lack of official guidance available. Brigadier General Charlton noted:

Before my year of office I enquired at the Lord Chamberlain’s Office & War Office as regards the correct dress at Assizes & on other official occasions. No one seemed to have very definite views about this, so I decided to wear the blue frock coat, with aiguillettes & sash, of a Brigadier General, at Assizes. On other occasions I wore the khaki service dress of my rank or that of a D.L.[38]

Others broadly followed his example, according to their rank. G. N. Capel-Cure (1951–2) ‘wore the dress of a D.L. on all occasions requiring uniform, full dress at the Assizes, and on most other occasions Khaki. The full dress is decorative but uncomfortable if worn for long periods in Court. There were no comments from the Judges on my turnout.’[39] P. V. Upton (1954–5) ‘wore Deputy Lieutenants No 1 Dress – Ceremonial at Assizes and at other functions requiring uniform No 1 Dress – Ceremonial or Non Ceremonial with or without medals as the occasion demanded. The sword and slings of Ceremonial Dress are a bit awkward in court, so I always unhooked my sword and put it on the floor. Only once was I caught improperly dressed, when the Judge retired without warning.’[40] G. B. Hoare (1959–60) offered further advice to his successors:

I had the honour to be made a D.L. before I was appointed High Sheriff so wore Ceremonial Deputy Lieutenant’s uniform in Court. In the Winter Assize I was discharged officially & when I attended Mr Justice Byrne off & on to see he was comfortable and when the Under Sheriff happened to be ill I wore morning dress. I do not recommend this early on as the judge’s clerk also wears morning dress. I contacted the Clerk to the Lieutenancy when I knew the Lord Lieutenant was going to a function and found out what he was going to wear. I also found it necessary to ring the Mayor’s Secretary for directions when dress was not stated on the invitation. At Receptions given by the Borough’s [sic] my wife took particular care to wear her best for the occasion.[41]

For Major Norman-Butler (1968–9) the advantage of Deputy Lieutenant’s uniform was that ‘it adds a bit of colour to the proceedings & prevents one being mistaken for a waiter’.[42] He was able to borrow ‘a most admirable cloak’ that had been used by his predecessor, G. E. Ruggles-Brise, who had in turn been lent it by his friend and predecessor Major Strutt.[43] Major (later Sir Nigel) Strutt also admitted to enhancing the regular uniform with ‘“squiggles” on the shoulders, silver sword scabbard, white gloves, etc.’[44]

R. C. Butler, on the other hand, who was appointed in 1969, was ‘not a D.L. nor did my brief National Service really entitle me to wear Army Uniform. I was fortunate enough to inherit from my great uncle, William Julien Courtauld, his pre-war court dress and as it required only minor alteration I wore this at all Assizes. Morning Dress would have been the alternative but it makes one look like an undertaker and also like the court officials. I wore a suit on all other official occasions when dinner jackets were not being worn.’[45]

Summer Assize, May 1971: the High Sheriff, A. J. V. Arthur, and Under Sheriff, T. C. Gepp, with Mr Justice Melford Stevenson and Mr Justice Geoffrey Veale (Essex Record Office, S/U 6/2, reproduced by courtesy of Essex Record Office)

The last High Sheriff to attend the Assizes in Essex was A. J. V. Arthur (1971–2), who hired his Court dress (at a cost of £45) and wore it ‘whenever I attended the Judges in Court. I also wore it for the Bishop’s Enthronement and Maldon Charter Day.’[46] With the ending of the Assizes the ceremonial surrounding the arrival of the judges three times a year, and the requirement to dress appropriately for it, came to an end.

This might have meant the end of High Sheriffs in Court dress, but on the contrary, it has resulted in Court dress being worn very much more frequently, for all sorts of occasions, as the range and quantity of engagements has increased in line with the changing role of the High Sheriff. Wearing of Court dress is encouraged by the High Sheriffs’ Association, as it serves to make the High Sheriff immediately recognisable and adds greatly to the dignity and ceremonial of events they attend. The Association discourages the wearing of Deputy Lieutenant’s uniform, partly because of the confusion that might result between the respective roles of the Lord-Lieutenant and the High Sheriff, but some still choose to do so, and a few wear military uniform to which they are entitled. The last High Sheriff in Essex to wear military uniform was George Courtauld (2001–2), who felt unequal to the challenge of wearing tights and opted instead for the Brigade of Guards ‘Blues’.[47]

The growing number of female High Sheriffs has also given a new lease of life to the wearing of Court dress or its female equivalent: and as Penelope Keith put it, when appointed High Sheriff of Surrey in 2002, ‘I had a suit designed that defined the office and made people realise that I was attending a function as the High Sheriff, not as Penelope Keith’.[48] That applies equally to all High Sheriffs, male and female, and is now perhaps the strongest argument for wearing Court dress.


[1] Essex Record Office, S/U 6/1, p 38.

[2] London Gazette, 12 Feb 1869, pp 722–3. For Levees, which took place in the morning, ‘Black silk Velvet Trowsers’ were worn instead of breeches.

[3] G. A. Titman, Dress and Insignia worn at His Majesty’s Court (1937), pp 98, 116–7.

[4] Daily Telegraph, 5 Aug 1878, p 5.

[5] London Gazette, 27 May 1833, p 1009; cf 30 Apr 1822, p 717, for a similar reprimand.

[6] When the High Sheriff of Suffolk attended Spring Assizes in 1869 ‘in the new Court dress’ it is impossible to be certain whether he was wearing velvet or cloth (Suffolk Chronicle, 3 Apr 1969, p 6).

[7] Oxford Chronicle, 6 Mar 1869, p 8.

[8] The Times, 3 Aug 1878, p12; Birmingham Daily Post, 8 Aug 1878, p 5; etc.

[9] In response to an enquiry by the Under Sheriff of Pembrokeshire (Welshman, 10 Jan 1879, p 5).

[10] Essex Standard, 28 Nov 1834, p 3.

[11] John Bull, 11 Mar 1838, p 7.

[12] Norfolk Chronicle, 2 Apr 1835, p 4, and 8 Apr 1837, p 4.

[13] Cambridge General Advertiser, 29 Mar 1843, p 2.

[14] Obituary of Mortimer Ricardo, Worcestershire Chronicle, 13 May 1876, p 8.

[15] Yorkshire Gazette, 11 Mar 1843, p 6; 9 Mar 1850, p 8; 8 Mar 1851, p 5.

[16] Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser, 27 Mar 1858, p 5.

[17] ERO, S/U 6/1, pp 38–9.

[18] ERO, S/U 6/1, p 29.

[19] The Field, 2 Jan 1886, p 16.

[20] P. Mather, Compendium of Sheriff Law (1894), p 11. I am grateful to David Pugsley for bringing this to my attention.

[21] Hampshire Advertiser, 2 Mar 1844, p 5.

[22] ERO, S/U 6/1 (22 Feb 1881).

[23] ERO, S/U 6/1, p 106. £41 7s 6d equates to about £5069 in 2019 (Bank of England Inflation Calculator). His great grandfather was Thomas Fowell Buxton, High Sheriff of Essex 1789–90.

[24] ERO, S/U 6/1, p 121 (31 Mar 1890).

[25] ERO S/U 6/1 p 136.

[26] ERO S/U 6/1 p 162.

[27] Chelmsford Chronicle, 17 Jun 1904, p 5.

[28] ERO S/U 6/1 p 234.

[29] ERO S/U 6/1 p 264.

[30] Chelmsford Chronicle, 22 Jun 1923, p 5.

[31] Chelmsford Chronicle, 6 Feb 1925, p 5.

[32] ERO, S/U 6/1, p 274.

[33] ERO, S/U 6/1, pp 324 & 332.

[34] ERO, S/U 6/1, p 363 (26 Mar 1931). ‘Provided he is entitled to do so’ would seem to mean that Court dress could only be worn by someone who had been presented at Court, but this was not the case.

[35] ERO, S/U 6/1, p 364.

[36] ERO, S/U 6/2, p 26.

[37] ERO, S/U 6/2, p 49.

[38] ERO, S/U 6/2, p 75.

[39] ERO, S/U 6/2, pp 111–2.

[40] ERO, S/U 6/2, p 144.

[41] ERO, S/U 6/2, p 238.

[42] ERO, S/U 6/2, p 355.

[43] ERO, S/U 6/2, p 347.

[44] ERO, S/U 6/2, p 338.

[45] ERO, S/U 6/2, p 365. W. J. Courtauld was High Sheriff 1921–2. A photograph in the Crown Court at Chelmsford shows Butler wearing ‘new style’ Court dress, i.e. with a white bow tie and collar and no frills.

[46] ERO, S/U 6/2, pp 390, 392, 405.

[47] G. Courtauld, The Rambles of a fat bulldog (2019), pp 17–18.

[48] The Times, 28 Aug 2002, p 23[S].