The Declaration Ceremony (coronavirus style)

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From Chapman & André’s map of Essex, 1777

Nearly twelve months ago I described the Declaration Ceremony and the Declaration itself. No one would then have guessed how different things would be for my successor, Julie Fosh. In January came news that there were likely to be some changes to the wording of the Declaration. When the new version arrived at the end of February it turned out to be very different from the old one. Gone were the interminable unpunctuated sentences about such matters as sheriffwicks and bailiwicks and ‘let to farm’; in their place a series of concise, elegantly worded undertakings, including what is arguably the key one, to ‘support the Judiciary and all who maintain The Queen’s Peace, who administer justice, and who protect and support their fellow citizens’.

The other change was unplanned and crept up on us at first slowly, and then rapidly. It wasn’t until Friday 13 March, of all dates, that I realised we should be thinking of contingency plans for the Declaration Ceremony because of the increasing disruption being caused by the coronavirus, which had been declared a pandemic two days earlier. After a number of changes of plan in response to ever-stricter Government advice, it was decided to bring the date forward, from 6 April to 25 March, to ensure that the key players were in good health, and then, as the situation developed, to limit the ceremony to those who absolutely needed to be present for legal reasons, and to hold it at Julie Fosh’s house in North Fambridge. 

The large-scale event of the kind we have become used to is a relatively recent invention. The Council Chamber at County Hall was first used in 2015, for Vincent Thompson’s Declaration. Before that it took place in various Crown Courts, and in some years at Hylands House. Go back a little further in the 20th century and you will find the Declaration being made in the Under Sheriff’s office with just the necessary Justice of the Peace as witness. We came close to that this year, but in the end returned to what used to be the common practice of the High Sheriff making his Declaration in his own house (and it always ‘his’ in those days). When Henry Grapnel made his Declaration in 1290 it’s more than likely that he did so in Tiled Hall, close to Latchingdon old church, a stone’s throw from where Julie is making her Declaration today. And for Henry Grapnel, and every High Sheriff before 1753, today, 25 March, Lady Day, was the first day of the new year, so he would have thought this a much more natural date for the Declaration than 6 April.

One of the pleasures of the last year and more has been getting to know Julie and Paul Fosh. Those of you know her already do not need telling that she will be a wonderful High Sheriff, and everyone else will soon find out. She will, I think, take the Essex shrievalty to new places, and not just because the current situation requires it. I wish her every joy in the role, and hope that in spite of all the challenges ahead she finds it as interesting and rewarding as I have done.

[Footnote for the benefit of future historians: The Queen’s Remembrancer has decided that in the current situation s. 7(1) of the Sheriffs Act would encompass the Declaration being read out by the incoming High Sheriff either by telephone conference or by any form of digital video link with a High Court judge or justice of the peace of the relevant county.]

Valedictory despatch

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Before social distancing: with Alf, a volunteer at a community club in Waltham Forest run by Voluntary Action Epping Forest

How quickly the situation changes. When I published my post The great outdoors on 16 March it already had a retrospective feel, and now most if not all of the activities I mentioned are no longer running. To take just one example, Abberton Rural Training tweeted on 18 March that that would be their last day of normal operations for the foreseeable future. Now they are looking at ways of delivering services by other means. The closure of cafés affects not just commercial enterprises but social ones too. Hadleigh Farm’s tea room is not just a tea room, it is also a training centre for people with learning difficulties, who do a real job by staffing the café and thereby acquire skills that they can use elsewhere. The Coffee Grind café behind the Castle Point Council offices in Thundersley, run by Carers Choices, is in a similar predicament. Drop-in centres like 57 West in Southend and Sanctus in Chelmsford are run by volunteers who may themselves be getting over some of the issues faced by those they are helping. As places like this are forced to close down the loss of services will have an impact on staff and volunteers as well as users.

In the greater scheme of things it is no more than a minor technicality that we have decided to bring forward the Declaration of my successor as High Sheriff by a few days, in the hope of ensuring that all the key players can be present. On these occasions it has become customary for the outgoing High Sheriff to deliver a report on their year, but what I shall be saying is not what I had intended; so I shall publish it here instead, with apologies for the length. Much of it may not seem particularly relevant in the current situation, but it deals with some of the values that form the basis of our society – in particular, public service and the rule of law – which are as important now as they ever have been, and will be greatly needed over the coming months.

So, my reflections after not quite a full year as High Sheriff are divided into three groups of three. The first group comprises the three themes that I chose to highlight during my year in office: litter, Travellers, and women offenders.

Litter seems like a bit of a first-world, middle-class problem, but it is of course an offence, it is one step away from the very serious problem of fly-tipping, and there is evidence that a litter-free environment, especially in built-up areas, is less liable to suffer from anti-social behaviour: the one breeds the other. There are a great many individuals and groups across the county who regularly go litter-picking and I hope I’ve been able to do something to support and encourage them, as well as making my own modest contribution with my shrieval litter-picking-tool. As with so many environmental issues, young people are often more aware than their elders and so-called betters, and inspired by a litter-pick Lucy and I did with the 4th Rochford Scouts I worked with Richard Pattison, County Commissioner for Essex Scouts, to organise a countywide litter-pick by cubs and scouts over the last weekend in March. [This, of course, was overtaken by events, but we hope it can be rescheduled for September.]

If, when I move on from litter to Gypsies and Travellers, you say to yourself that you can see where this is going, then you’ve fallen into my trap. If you nod knowingly when I tell you that most of the Travellers I have met and spoken to have been in Chelmsford Prison, then you have fallen even further in. I do not set myself up as a champion and defender of Gypsies and Travellers – that would be presumptuous – but I do deplore the stereotyping of this group of people, and the way in which they are talked about in terms that would not be acceptable if applied to other minorities. Like all groups of people they are made up of individuals, and while I would not presume to call them my friends I have spent some entertaining hours in their company, enjoyed their hospitality, and shared their food, and I think I am right saying that they appreciate a little non-hostile attention from an unlikely quarter. The bodies who work with Travellers – specific officers of local authorities, the County Council’s Countywide Traveller Unit, and Essex Police’s Rural Engagement Team – have all built up a good working relationship with them precisely because they treat them as individuals. Some good work is being done to bridge the gap between the Traveller community and the wider community, particularly in Basildon with the Council’s Traveller Wellbeing Group, and one of the High Sheriffs’ Awards that I was particularly pleased to make was to Southend YMCA for the bus which they take to Travellers’ sites, filled with help and advice and activities that enable Travellers to engage better with the wider community. After a gap of a couple of years the bus was back at Oak Lane (next to the site of the better-known Dale Farm) in March and, taking this as a model, plans are underway to introduce a similar scheme across the whole county.

The particular circumstances of women offenders is a concern that arose directly out of my experience as a magistrate. It has been well understood for many years that women suffer disproportionately compared with men as a result of their treatment by the criminal justice and prison systems, systems designed by men for men. Most women who are sent to prison are there for relatively short sentences, for non-violent offences, very often committed under the influence of controlling male partners to the extent that they are victims as much as they are perpetrators. Because there are fewer women offenders than men there are fewer prisons, further apart, which in the case of Essex means being sent to Peterborough. Their children are likely to be taken into care and it is well known that children who have been in care are more likely to become offenders themselves. Some good work has been done in Essex by our Community Rehabilitation Company working with Open Road, Wilderness Foundation and others, to provide programmes specifically for women that address offending and provide a realistic alternative to prison, and a major development took place at the end of 2019 with the opening of a women’s centre in Harlow by Safer Places: women’s centres have proved to be extremely effective in other locations, and this is the first of its kind in Essex. But we need more, and more needs to be done generally, and I was delighted to be able to work with Essex CRC and the national charity Clinks to organise a one-day conference at the end of March which brought together the various agencies from across the county to review progress so far and see how the situation can be improved. We were fortunate to have engaged as keynote speaker Vicky Pryce, the economist and author of Prisonomics who, you will recall, was sent to prison for taking penalty points on her licence that should have gone to her husband Chris Huhne. As Vicky’s journey through the criminal justice system started with being interviewed by Essex Police I think it was particularly gracious of her to accept my invitation. [This too was overtaken by events but we hope that this also will take place in September.]

My second group of three comprises events in the last year that have raised issues of concern to all those interested in law and order. The first was the Supreme Court ruling on the prorogation of Parliament in September. The ruling confirmed, except for those who strongly disagreed with it, the independence of the judiciary that is fundamental to our way of life in this country and underpins the rule of law that affects not just the judiciary but of course the police and everyone else who is responsible for maintaining law and order. It is arguably the first objective of the High Sheriff to support the judiciary, and I have no hesitation in doing that. I started out the year with a high opinion of judges, and during the year it has only grown. The job they are doing is particularly difficult at the moment, as a result of repeated cost savings made by the Ministry of Justice, to the point where it is increasingly being said, not just in private but in public, that the system is close to breaking point. Those who work in the courts are under increasing pressure and there are good reasons to fear for the long-term future of what is, or was, the finest justice system in the world. Our judges here in Essex do a magnificent job, and I’d particularly like to thank His Honour Judge Gratwicke, resident judge in Chelmsford, for his kindness and hospitality over the past months, and similarly to thank John Lodge who retired as resident judge in Basildon at the end of November. To be able to sit beside them on the bench is a real privilege, not to say an education.

The second event was the shocking death of thirty-nine Vietnamese migrants in Thurrock in October. Perhaps this incident led you, like me, to wonder what it is about this country that makes people go to such lengths and take such risks to get here. A part of the answer, not necessarily something that those migrants would have consciously thought about, may lie in the matter of judicial independence that I have just been talking about. Another great part of the answer may lie in the response of the emergency services and other authorities to an incident that is way beyond what most of us expect to encounter in our daily lives. I have spent many hours with a variety of police officers as they go about their work, and have been enormously impressed by their professionalism and, in particular, by their dedication to serving the public. I cannot deny that it has been fun dashing from one side of the county to the other on blue runs, chatting with police dogs and their handlers, exploring the police armoury, and cruising down the coast from the Crouch to the Thames in the Marine Unit’s launch. But the death of the Vietnamese migrants shows just how much we expect of our police and emergency services, and the impact of this event on the ambulance crew who were first on the scene, the police who had to investigate the crime, and the hospital staff and coroner’s officers who had their parts to play in the process, can barely be imagined by the rest of us. At such times these people, who do the vital jobs that the rest of us are very glad not to have to do, need all the support that the community they serve can give. I’d like to take the opportunity at this point to pay tribute to our senior coroner, Caroline Beasley-Murray, who this year has been president of the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales. The courtesy and sympathy with which she treats those who come before her in court, particularly grieving relatives, is an example to us all.

The third event was the equally shocking incident at Fishmongers’ Hall and London Bridge in November. For many in Essex this event was close to home because one of the victims, Saskia Jones, had studied at Anglia Ruskin University. The immediate reaction seemed to be that anyone convicted of a terrorist offence should be locked up indefinitely, until it was pointed out Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt believed passionately in the possibility of rehabilitation through education, the very opposite of lock ’em up and throw away the key. What the legal effect will be of this incident, and of the more recent knifing incident in Streatham, remains to be seen, but what happened at Fishmongers’ Hall did at least draw attention to the event that was being run there and the possibility of rehabilitation: such an important thing to believe in, and a deeply held belief which I have observed on many occasions in the last year on various visits to Probation, the Essex Community Rehabilitation Company, and the Youth Offending Service. I have heard more than one staff member describe what they do as a vocation, and we are very fortunate to have these dedicated people working among us. If as a society we lose faith in the possibility of rehabilitation of all offenders, regardless of their offence, we will have reached a very sorry state.

For my third trio, I offer briefly three observations on the shrievalty. The first is by François de la Rochefoucauld, a young French aristocrat who visited England in 1784. ‘It is an honour to have been Sheriff,’ he wrote, ‘but being it is very troublesome.’ It’s one of those pithy sayings that the French are so good at – it is worthy of Voltaire, and no doubt sounds even better in French. The duties of High Sheriff then were indeed onerous, and an unwelcome distraction from the normal routine of a gentleman. Now I think we can all agree that it is still an honour to have been Sheriff, but being it is time-consuming, yes; exhausting, at certain points in the year; but hugely rewarding and, very often, great fun.

The second is by Robert Erith, High Sheriff in 1997–8, who told me that being High Sheriff changed his life. Well, I think that’s probably right in my case too, although it’s still too early to tell.

The third observation was made to me by David Boyle, High Sheriff in 2002–3, although he does not claim to have said it first. ‘There’s nothing as ex as an ex-High Sheriff.’ I’m sure that’s true as well, as I am about to discover, but it has always been at the back of my mind as an incentive to make the most of every opportunity offered during the past year.

The great outdoors

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Close encounter at Wellies-On (and I do realise it’s not a goat)

It wasn’t until I encountered my third goat that I began to spot a trend, but I have now visited quite a number and variety of farms and gardens that provide programmes and services that might be broadly termed therapeutic. Given that some 72 per cent of the land area of Essex is devoted to agriculture, and with significant urban populations not just within the county but also over the border in Greater London, it’s not surprising that small farms, in particular, should be used in this way. An example is Wellies-On, a 40-acre social or care farm at Abberton that has been providing therapeutic and educational services since 2005. As well as offering visits that might include helping to feed and groom the animals, and work in the vegetable garden, Wellies-On also has a ‘flat pack farm’, complete with chickens, goats, Shetland pony, sheep, and farm dogs, that it takes to care homes and schools, including the Heybridge Co-Operative Academy that I wrote about recently. Rainbow Rural Centre at Barnston, near Dunmow, provides a similar opportunity for people to interact with animals and nature on an organic farm.

The idea of putting farmland to positive social use has been around for a long time. The Salvation Army’s Hadleigh Farm was started by William Booth in 1891 to provide training for young men from the East End of London, with the idea that they would then be equipped to seek a better life in the Empire overseas. The role of the farm changed after the Second World War and in the 1950s it was used for training former youth offenders and boys on probation. In 1990 the Hadleigh Training Centre opened in conjunction with the farm and it now provides facilities to train people with special educational needs, some of whom go on to regular employment. It is spectacularly sited overlooking the Thames Estuary, with a public café and access to the neighbouring country park, as well as a rare breeds centre to visit.

Header_TestimonialSomewhere I was particularly keen to visit was Circles Farm, near Stock, because I’d heard about them when sitting as a magistrate in the Youth Court. There was something appealing (to me) about the rather scruffy and ramshackle collection of buildings at the far end of a bumpy track: a mix of old farm buildings, new ones that had been, or were being, built as part of the farm’s activities, and donated portable buildings clad in black weatherboarding to satisfy the planners. It’s an environment so far removed from home or school as to be unthreatening and therefore nurturing for the young people who come here, and although there are plenty of animals around there is also an engineering workshop and a beauty salon, with the opportunity to earn BTEC qualifications. The atmosphere is happy and relaxed, but serious work gets done too.

Lambourne End Centre similarly offers alternative provision for young people struggling in mainstream school, with courses leading to City & Guilds qualifications in animal care and estate maintenance. As well as being a working farm (complete with shop that sells meat from their own animals as well as eggs as other produce), the 54-acre site also has a range of outdoor activity equipment including a climbing wall and zip wire, and all within the M25. It was odd to walk round there on a rather cold morning and then drive five minutes down the road and take a Central Line train to Holborn, with plenty of good Essex mud on my shoes.

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Wilderness UK TurnAround graduates at their celebration in February

There are animals too at Abberton Rural Training, although not permanently resident; but if there are animals at Wilderness Foundation UK, they are wild, not domesticated, and I failed to spot them. Wilderness’s Essex base at Chatham Green is what they call a 400-acre living classroom, and I’ve already written about the excellent work they do with women offenders. I returned there in February to celebrate the successful completion of another TurnAround project: eight young people with problems of one sort or another who have been helped over nine months to come to terms with their lives with the help of a range of activities and mentoring, mainly in Essex but including challenging outward-bound expeditions in Wales and Scotland. The results are impressive, in terms of building confidence and skills. The sad reality is that such intensive programmes are available to only a tiny number of people, and there are many more who would benefit from it.

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A warm welcome at Dig4Jaywick community garden

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that you need hundreds or even a single acre to provide nature-based opportunities for improving health and wellbeing. One of the places I have enjoyed visiting most is the ‘Dig4Jaywick’ community garden. I saw it briefly on a wet Sunday in August following a beach clean along Jaywick Sands. As there was no one around I made a point of returning a couple of weeks later, taking with me a rose for the garden. I was a bit overdressed for the occasion (I was going on to a Firebreak parade at Clacton Fire Station, but that’s another story), but I had a very friendly reception and in return for my rose came away with a bag of tomatoes and onions. Jaywick gets a bad press as being ‘the most deprived area in England’ (news stories usually accompanied by out-of-date photographs of unmade roads), but anyone who’s been there and talked to residents will know that it has a very strong community spirit, and the garden is an excellent example of that.

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Inspecting cuttings with green-fingered Dave

The High Sheriffs’ Awards

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The High Sheriffs of Essex make quite a few awards of one sort or another. I’ve just been to HMP Chelmsford to judge the nominations for awards that I’ll be presenting at the end of March. Both staff and prisoners nominate other staff and other prisoners, as individuals or as teams. It’s a nice way of acknowledging and encouraging some of the positive behaviour to be found in the prison on the part of both staff and prisoners. Last December, as I wrote in an earlier post, I presented similar awards at the Military Corrective Training Centre in Colchester. Soon I shall be presenting High Sheriff’s Crown Court Awards, for which judges nominate people who have been instrumental in securing the arrest and conviction of criminals, often at considerable personal risk, and later in the month awards to staff of the Essex Community Rehabilitation Company who do such good work working with offenders on probation.

The High Sheriffs’ Awards, however, are those which are made each year from the High Sheriffs’ Fund, administered by the Essex Community Foundation since 1997. (The position of the apostrophe reflects the fact that the Fund has been built up by successive High Sheriffs.) These awards provide recognition and some financial support for schemes where local people or organisations tackle crime or social problems in their communities, or run projects which help to make their communities safer places in which to live. Since 1997 nearly 650 organisations operating in Essex, Southend and Thurrock have benefited from grants totalling £580,000.

Some High Sheriffs, I think, can find it depressing to realise just how much suffering and deprivation there is in their county. The fact is that in our communities there have always been those in need of support, and however hard we all try there always will be; what has changed is the way in which society provides that support, and, to a lesser extent perhaps, the nature of the need. Drug addiction, for example, was not a problem that the authorities had to tackle in the Middle Ages, when people were cared for either by their feudal lord or by the Church.

The system has of course changed since then, and there is much that is heartening about the way in which society deals with present-day problems. It seems to me that we have arrived at a model which, on the whole, works very well: a mix of what is provided by the state, what is provided by profit-making companies, and what is provided by the so-called third sector. And the third sector is a remarkable place.

It has two distinct advantages over the old-style charities. The first is that it is very much more professional in how it goes about the business of gathering, managing, and spending money. The paid staff, as well as being passionate about what they do, are better trained to do the job. The second advantage is that those who volunteer in the third sector are of all ages and backgrounds, and bring to it a wide range of experience. We also know that those who volunteer get as much out of volunteering as those they are helping, and enrich their own lives. That is an enormous benefit for society as a whole. How wonderful it is that so many people who might otherwise put their feet up want to give up so much of their time to volunteering, and equally wonderful that so many people – many of them the same people – give money to support this activity, not least by donating to the High Sheriffs’ Fund and the Essex Community Foundation.

With the High Sheriffs’ Awards we celebrate all that is good about our voluntary sector, and having engaged in one way or another with some seventy charities and other voluntary organisations over the last eleven months I can testify to the enormous amount of good work that is being done, covering a very wide range of issues, including hate crime, homophobia, racism, homelessness, addiction to alcohol and drugs, reoffending and rehabilitation, knife crime, and modern slavery.

This year, the High Sheriffs’ Fund received forty-eight applications requesting a total of £230,000. Clearly, we could not meet that demand – and here’s where the magic of the ECF comes in. I’m delighted that the High Sheriffs’ Fund has been able to support twenty organisations with grants totalling £33,000. On top of that, the ECF has been able to add a further £57,749 to these grants from its other funds. Of the remaining applications received, it is likely that twelve organisations will also receive grants. This means that of the forty-eight organisations that originally applied for a High Sheriffs’ Award, thirty-two will receive grants totalling £124,000.

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Winners of the five cups and shields (l to r): Inclusion Ventures, Wilderness Foundation UK, Safer Places, Teen Talk (Harwich), and North Avenue Youth Centre

In addition to the regular awards of grants ranging from £500 to £2000, there are five special awards:

  • the High Sheriffs’ Shield for outstanding contribution to community safety in Essex: Safer Places (Harlow);
  • the High Sheriffs’ Cup for community support making Essex a safer place: Teen Talk (Harwich);
  • the Essex County Council Bowl for extra effort to deliver programmes direct to the community: Wilderness Foundation UK (Little Waltham);
  • the Essex County Fire and Rescue Shield for an organisation’s work with young people: Inclusion Ventures (Clacton);
  • and the Essex Police Cup for the work of organisations and individuals in the community: North Avenue Youth Centre (Chelmsford).

These are outstanding organisations in a very strong field of award winners, among the many organisations that I’ve visited and been enormously impressed by. One of the winners wrote to me afterwards, ‘it was such a huge surprise and I was really holding back the tears as I know how much this meant for all our team and participants… and personally of course. I am so proud of the team and what we do.’ As are we all.

Follow the links for a full list of the awards and for photographs of the presentations.

Tales out of school

Welcome to Crays Hill Primary School

I haven’t had as much contact with schools as I had expected, although schools have provided the venue for a range of events. In October we spent a memorable evening in North Street Primary School, Leigh-on-Sea, attending a performance by N-Act Theatre in Schools of ‘Invisible’, which explored issues relating to mental health in young people. They perform the play to audiences of children in both primary and secondary schools, but this evening was for parents (partly to help them spot early signs of something not being right with their children) and teachers. The plays are powerful, very well performed with just a few props to support the acting, and are followed by discussion led by Dr Sharon Williams, N-Act’s founder and artistic director. We’ve since seen another of their plays, ‘Friends’, which tackles the subject gangs in an equally engaging and thought-provoking way.

Then in January I visited the Heybridge Co-Operative Academy, only a couple of miles down the road from where we live and therefore somewhere I’ve driven past many times, but also an institution I’d heard about (as a pupil referral unit) from my time as a Youth Panel magistrate. I’d imagined something rather run-down, where hopeless cases are contained during school hours, but instead I found a bright, well-equipped school, with artwork on the walls and children in uniform much like any other school, the difference being that it’s all on rather a small scale (it was built in 1913 as a village primary school) with a total of about 115 students in classes of four or five. Although it caters mainly for disruptive pupils who have been excluded from mainstream school (and may well have been in trouble with the police), the school also provides for children who have medical conditions which make mainstream schooling difficult, and for young carers. Of course the behaviour of some of their students continues to be challenging, but some return to mainstream  schooling and others go on to college (and may already be studying one or two days a week before they leave Heybridge). Some of their students have gone on to university and they told me of one who is now a doctor. In 2015 (then Heybridge Alternative Provision School) they were rated Outstanding by Ofsted.

It was surprising, then, to find myself visiting two schools on the same day earlier this week. In the morning I went to Hamilton Primary School in Colchester at the invitation of the headteacher, Nick Hutchings, to speak at their assemblies – first juniors, then infants. I was probably more worried about this than anything else I’ve done as High Sheriff, anxious as to how I would manage to explain to a young audience what the High Sheriff is and does. But one good thing about the High Sheriff’s outfit is that it is a very good icebreaker, and the sword in particular is an easy way of engaging attention. I was relieved to find that the Sheriff of Nottingham is still a familiar figure, and if the Wild West generally is not as popular a cultural theme as it once was, the figure of Sheriff Woody from ‘Toy Story’ is familiar to most. So the link to law and order (of a sort) was made and they asked enough questions to convince me that their good behaviour was more than just politeness.

At Hamilton Primary School, almost displaying fairness and honesty

The afternoon visit to Crays Hill Primary School, just to the north of Basildon, could not have been more different: from an ‘Outstanding’ school with over 400 pupils to a ‘Good’ one with 103. But the reason for the visit was not to meet the children but to attend a meeting of the Traveller Health and Wellbeing Group that is organised by Basildon Council. Of the 103 pupils, 101 are children of Irish Travellers from the nearby Oak Lane and other sites, and the main reason the school is rated Good rather than Outstanding is that the children miss out on so much of their education while they are travelling with their families, for weeks or months on end. It’s a sad fact that almost none of the children go on to secondary education, largely because the expectation is that boys will start working with their fathers and the girls will start looking after the home. It is not that the children end up lacking skills, but they are not the skills that are currently considered the norm in the wider community. Bullying at secondary school – where they are very much the minority – does not exactly help. Crays Hill does a wonderful job with its pupils but the fact that only two children are not Travellers is a sad reflection on the general state of prejudice; young children are generally more accepting of difference in all its forms than their parents.

Those at the meeting included representatives of Basildon Council, the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit, and Essex Child and Wellbeing Family Service, and also Father Dan Mason, parish priest in Billericay, who is a governor of the school as well as being the National Catholic Chaplain to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. Essex Police and the Fire and Rescue Service are regular attenders, although not on this occasion – this was an extra meeting that had kindly been convened to fit in with my timetable. Much of the discussion was concerned with Southend YMCA’s SOS bus, which will be resuming visits to the Oak Lane site in March following a gap in funding that has now been filled (with a little help from the High Sheriff). The bus is staffed by a mix of agencies that provide social welfare services and health promotional outreach, and there is no reason to doubt that it will prove as successful when it resumes as it has been in the past. A degree of trust has been built up which helps to bridge the gap between the Travellers and the wider community, and the hope is to secure more funding to provide a similar scheme across Essex, under the auspices of the Countywide Traveller Unit. It’s an initiative that deserves the widest possible support.

Thrice an under sheriff, and ever a knave

Winter Assizes, 1956: the procession led by the Under Sheriff, A. D. P. Thompson.
The Under Sheriff is wearing ‘New Style’ Court Dress, with wing collar and white bow tie, and the High Sheriff, S. R. Allsopp, is wearing Deputy Lieutenant’s uniform. It is now customary for male High Sheriffs and Under Sheriffs to wear ‘Old Style’ Court Dress, with lace frill at the neck and ruffles at the wrists.
From the High Sheriffs’ record book, Essex Record Office, S/U 6/2
(reproduced by courtesy of the Essex Record Office).

‘Thrice an under sheriff, and ever a knave’ seems to have been a generally understood expression at the turn of the 17th century. Sir John Harington, in his famous work A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596), describes a dream in which ‘there came to me a nimble dapper fellow (I cannot hit on his name); one that hath pretty pettifogging skill in the law, and hath been an under sheriff (but not thrice), and is now in the nature of an attorney’. In a note, Harington cites the saying, to point out that the man in his dream, having not been Under Sheriff three times, is not a knave (he may have meant ‘not yet’). Similarly, in John Marston’s play The Malcontent (1604), the character Malevole responds to the insult of being an ‘arrant knave’ by saying ‘I have been twice an under-sheriff’, i.e. not three times.

It is perhaps not surprising that Under Sheriffs had a poor reputation, because they and the bailiffs (for whom no one has a good word either) did much of the legwork on behalf of the High Sheriff. Francis Lenton, in his entertaining Characterismi (1631), described Under Sheriffs as ‘the feare and terror of all debtors’. Until the passing of the Courts Act 2003, High Sheriffs still had the duty of executing High Court Writs, something that in practice was carried out by the Under Sheriff on the High Sheriff’s behalf. (The job is now done by High Court Enforcement Officers, including a firm called ‘The Sheriffs Office’.)

There have probably been Under Sheriffs for as long as there have been Sheriffs. We know the names of some of Essex’s Under Sheriffs in the late 12th and early 13th century, and it may be that one or two of those (John de Corherde or Cornerthe, John de Nevill) served in both capacities.

J. B. Gilder’s history of Gepp & Sons gives a very good account of the role of the Under Sheriff in modern times, including a list of Under Sheriffs of Essex since 1770. Essex has been remarkably fortunate that Gepps have been willing to provide successive Under Sheriffs, starting with T. F. Gepp in 1827, succeeded by C. B. O. Gepp in 1883, W. P. Gepp in 1907, H. H. Gepp in 1908, A. D. P. Thompson in 1946, T. C. Gepp in 1963, Jonathan Douglas-Hughes in 1988, and Roger Brice in 2014, with only a very small number of ‘interlopers’.

As well as being on duty alongside the High Sheriff during the Assizes, the Under Sheriff undertook much of the organization of parliamentary elections, arranged and attended the execution of prisoners found guilty of capital offences, and collected debts for the Crown (for which the Under Sheriff often received a percentage of anything he received in payment). In the early 20th century Gepp & Sons seized a whale that had beached itself in the River Crouch, and a Boeing 707 belonging to the President of Liberia.

It goes without saying that ‘Thrice an under sheriff, and ever a knave’ does not apply to Essex.

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).]

Reforming the shrievalty (i): 1258 and 2008

The sheriff who gave the shrievalty a bad name, as imagined by Howard Pyle (1883): but which sheriff of Nottingham(shire), and which king?

From time to time the monarch (in the Middle Ages) or parliament (in more recent times) has felt that the role of the sheriff needed investigation and reform. Some of the most far-reaching reforms were included in the so-called Provisions of Oxford, to which King Henry III gave grudging assent in 1258 – part of wide-ranging constitutional reforms promoted by Simon de Montfort. The principal change as far as sheriffs were concerned was that they were to hold office for only a year at a time, and should not make any charge for his services. Restricting the office to a single year made it difficult to find enough suitable candidates, but it recognised the fact that corruption flourished when sheriffs held office for too long.

For the first time, he had to take an oath upon entering office, that he ‘will do right to all people according to the power which he has from his office and that he will not fail for love nor for hate, nor for fear of any, nor for greed, as well and as soon to do speedy justice to poor as to rich’ – words remarkably similar to those in the Declaration which today’s High Sheriffs make.

In order to prevent him taking advantage of his position, the sheriff also had to swear that he would not take anything from anyone except the meat and drink which by custom is brought to his table and then for one day only; that he would not bring more than his own horse to the place where he lodges; that he would not lodge with poor people or indigent religious houses; that he would not lodge with the same people more than twice a year and then only by their invitation; that he would not accept a gift from his host above the value of one shilling; and that he would restrict the number of his servants to the minimum required to administer his bailiwick. All this arose out of the tendency of sheriffs to travel round the county on their business with a large retinue, turning up at abbeys or castles and emptying their larders and cellars.

750 years later, in 2008, the Justice Committee of the House of Commons was more concerned about the way in which High Sheriffs are appointed, and those interested in this should read the Committee’s Report (which includes a very clear account of the process) and the Government’s response.

[For the Provisions of Oxford, see Irene Gladwin, The Sheriff: the man and his office (1974), pp. 161–65, and W. A. Morris, The Medieval English Sheriff to 1300 (1927), p. 170.]

Christmas inside

If you’re ever invited to a carol service in a prison, don’t say no. I can promise you that it will be quite unlike any other carol service you will have been to. Chelmsford Prison’s is held in the visitors’ centre, rated ‘bright and welcoming’ by Ormiston Families, the charity that manages it. We guests assembled a good hour before the men arrived, giving us plenty of time to get through security (quite a business when the party includes half-a-dozen Salvation Army bandsmen and their instruments) and have a chat over a cup of coffee and a mince pie. Our number included the Lord-Lieutenant, a couple of past High Sheriffs, the Bishop of Chelmsford and the Bishop Emeritus of Brentwood, and, besides members of the prison’s chaplaincy team, various outsiders who have shown an interest in the welfare, education and rehabilitation of prisoners.

The VIPs sat in a row facing the body of the hall, so once the men had arrived (in dribs and drabs, depending on which wing they were coming from) and the service was underway we had plenty of opportunity to observe them. As in most institutional congregations there were some keen singers, some uncertain ones (the keen ones helping them find their place in the service booklet), and some total abstainers, not to mention some surreptitious vaping. The overwhelming impression, however, was of total engagement with the proceedings, and when the Bishop of Chelmsford stepped down among them to deliver a moving and inspirational address, they responded with all the respect and perhaps more enthusiasm than the average congregation. But then he spoke to them as individuals, not as an anonymous body of criminals.

A big difference between this and other carol services I’ve been to is that when the men were called up to take a reading or prayers, and when they’d finished, the others applauded, and I took that to be a genuine appreciation of the magnitude of the task those men had undertaken: standing up in front of a roomful of people and speaking unfamiliar words. When the man reading Luke 2:8–14 got to the bit about the shepherds being sore afraid, he interjected ‘and me, I’m terrified’. For the men it was an achievement of a kind they may not have managed before, and as such a step, perhaps, on the road to rehabilitation.

In contrast to the slow build-up to the service, once it was over we dispersed quickly, the men to their cells and the guests out into the street; and that is the main difference between a prison carol service and most others. We’re used to wishing people a Happy Christmas as we go our separate ways, but it’s hard to wish someone a Happy Christmas if you know they’re going to spend it in prison.

A week after the prison carol service we were at the Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) on the outskirts of Colchester, not for a carol service but to present some High Sheriff’s Awards. The MCTC is sometimes referred to as a military prison, and most people’s reaction on visiting it is to ask why civilian prisons can’t be like this. There are many answers to that question, the first being the nature of the inmates (‘detainees’ at the MCTC) and their offences. Most of the detainees have not committed criminal offences, but have breached military regulations: the majority have gone absent without leave. The regime at the MCTC is very different from that in a prison, with detainees on the go for most of the long day and not banged up in cells.

The stated purpose of the prison service is to enable prisoners to lead law-abiding and useful lives, both while they are in prison and after they are released: in other words, to rehabilitate offenders and prevent them from reoffending. No one would deny that the success rate is pitifully low. The MCTC has the same purpose but with an impressively high success rate, because it devotes considerable resources – more than would be acceptable in a civilian prison – to useful training that will result in better soldiers and sailors and airmen, or, in the case of detainees who are discharged after they have served their sentence, better trained to find suitable employment.

They are motivated, as I see it, by two principal factors. First, because the Army, Navy and RAF have already invested a lot in the detainees, and with a little further investment in the form of corrective training they can get them back on the right track, and the initial investment will not be wasted. Secondly, there is a culture in the Armed Forces which it is not always easy for civilians to understand: a very strong sense that when someone joins the Forces, and in particular a regiment, they are joining a family; and on the whole, up to a point, we stick by members of our family even when they break the rules and however annoying they are.

The difference between the MCTC and the prison service is that in the big wide world society does not look upon criminals as being members of our family, and has not invested very much in many of those who end up in prison; so why should we spend more money on them than the bare minimum needed to lock them up, out of sight and out of mind. This is not to say that there are not a great many individuals working in prisons to produce the same sort of results that are achieved by the MCTC; but there are not enough of them, and are never likely to be.

The High Sheriff’s Awards at the MCTC were initiated by Lady Ruggles-Brise, High Sheriff in 2011–12, based on the existing system of awards in Chelmsford Prison. At the MCTC they are made on the recommendation of the Commandant to staff who have made an outstanding contribution to the establishment. This year, in addition, we made an award (for what I believe is the first time) to a detainee, thus mirroring the practice within the prison: a soldier serving his second sentence for going absent without leave, who has distinguished himself by befriending new detainees at high risk of self-harm and suicide, and shown himself to possess great leadership potential. He is due to be discharged, to take up a new career using the welding skills he has acquired at the MCTC. Efforts to persuade him to stay on have been unsuccessful so far; if he did, he might even join the select number of former detainees who have gone on to be commissioned and rise to high rank.

From the MCTC we went to an event in Clacton to celebrate the achievements of boys who have completed programmes run by Lads Need Dads. It was a poignant occasion, particularly in the context of visiting MCTC and Chelmsford Prison. Lads Need Dads is one those brilliantly simple and obvious ideas, so simple and so obvious that no one really thought of it until Sonia Shaljean came up with it. But anyone who has worked with children, and in particular with children who have found themselves caught up in the criminal justice system, knows that far too many boys grow up without a positive male role model to follow. If you have spent time in the Youth Court or the Family Court you will know that most of the young people who fall out of education and into crime have either been in care, or live in a family that, for a variety of reasons, does not include their dad.

Sometimes boys will be lucky enough to find a father-figure outside the family: it might be a teacher, or a Scout or cadet leader, but this is less likely for boys from more troubled backgrounds. One excellent father-figure I met recently was teaching carpentry to a boy who was on a Referral Order, which means the boy had had to go through the criminal justice system before he could find the help and guidance he needed. I think he’ll come out of it all right, and will go to college to do the necessary training and get a job in construction, but it’s a pity he could only get there by committing a crime and going to court.

That is why the work done by Lads Needs Dads is so important, and why their achievements have been recognised by, among others, the Centre for Social Justice, the Police Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, and successive High Sheriffs. And it seemed particularly appropriate, and not especially surprising, that one of the MCTC staff to whom I gave an award earlier in the day had been nominated for his work with Lads Needs Dads: a mentor himself, but also an active recruiter of other mentors within the Military Provost Staff, of whom it was said that ‘his emotional intelligence, positive role-modelling and mentoring ability have directly helped the charity’s beneficiaries’.

Between them the MCTC and Lads Need Dads have much to offer when it comes to showing how to rehabilitate offenders and, better still, stop people offending in the first place. Rehabilitation is a subject that has been much in the news as a result of the horrific events at Fishmongers’ Hall and London Bridge on 29 November, when two young people, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, were murdered by someone attending a workshop they had helped organise for a prison-based education project, Learning Together. They passionately believed in the possibility of rehabilitation for even the worst offenders, and although at first it looked as though the incident might have undone all their good work, it soon became clear that it had raised public awareness of what they were striving to achieve. If we cease to believe in the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption, our society will be all the poorer.

Doing bird (or not, as the case may be)

Camouflage is an outdoor game, something like a cross between hide and seek and grandmother’s footsteps, which involves hiding behind anything you can find or lying as still as you can in long grass before dashing to reach base. Luckily it was a fine dry day, and I was dressed for an outdoor lunch; anyway, one should expect to get a bit muddy if visiting an organisation called the Wilderness Foundation. I’d been before, for a general look round, but returned to join a session of the programme for women on probation, part of the Essex Women’s Support Service run by Open Road for Essex CRC. The principle behind the programme is that simply being outdoors has a positive impact on mental health, with the additional benefit of activities that build confidence, in a safe and (normally) all-female environment. It’s the ideal situation in which to talk through problems and come to terms with past offending. For me to be able to chat to these women as we sat round their campfire eating lunch that they’d just cooked was a real privilege.

Relaxing round the campfire, before the excitement of Camouflage

Just why there should be a special programme for women offenders is a question that was first raised for me by the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, writing in The Times in September 2018 to explain why she was leading a debate in the House of Lords calling for a change to the way women are sentenced. As a magistrate, I should have read the Equal Treatment Bench Book more carefully, and remembered the simple rule, that treating people equally does not mean treating them the same. Numerous studies have shown that, compared to men, women suffer disproportionately by being sent to prison. The Bench Book tells us that ‘although women are less than 5% of those in prison, they account for over 25% of self-harm incidents, an indication of the traumatic impact of imprisonment on many.’ Women are less likely than men to find employment on release from prison, and more likely to lose their accommodation; even more damaging, because the impact is wider, if they have children they are likely to be taken into care. 84% of women in prison have committed non-violent crimes, and are often themselves the victims of crimes more serious than those they have committed; their offending is frequently the result of coercion by abusive partners. The closing words of Mim Skinner’s excellent book Jailbirds sum up the situation simply and clearly: ‘It is almost never beneficial to imprison women’.

A good place to start if you want to get an idea of what life is like inside women’s prisons, and to understand why most would be better off outside

The issues have been widely discussed since the publication of the landmark Corston Report, published in 2007, and although some progress has been made in parts of the country, much remains to be done. An important step was taken in Essex in September with the setting up of the Women’s Service Action Team (WSAT) under the chairmanship of Alex Osler, Director of Essex CRC. This brings together representatives of the various agencies who are working with women offenders in Essex, Southend and Thurrock, with the aim of increasing the provision of community-based alternatives to custody and reducing reoffending. Experience in other localities, notably Greater Manchester, has shown that this ‘Whole System Approach’ to tackling offending is extremely effective.

A key component of the Whole System Approach is the provision of women’s centres hosting a range of services and activities. Good examples can be found in this region in Northampton and Cambridge, but until now the size and geography of Essex has made it seem too difficult to set one up here: but now one has been opened in Harlow by Safer Places – the Rosie Centre – that will not only provide for the immediate area but could also serve as a model for similar centres in other parts of the county. They are quite rightly very excited about the potential of this venture.

Their experience will feed into the conference that I’ve been working on with the WSAT and the national charity Clinks that will be held in March 2020. This will explore all aspects of provision for female offenders, looking at examples of current good practice in Essex and beyond, and seeing what can be done to improve the situation in the future, whether it’s more and improved community programmes, more women’s centres, or (and this is so often the crucial factor) suitable accommodation for vulnerable women who are at risk of offending or reoffending. I feel very much more hopeful than I did a year ago.