A Focus on Young People

My theme for the year is volunteering, with a particular focus on those who work so hard and willingly to make their communities safer and more caring.

Almost all the conversations I have had in these first few weeks of being High Sheriff, have highlighted how important it is to try to ensure our children and young adults get the best possible start in life. Many who face early challenges go on to do really well; but investing in young people, without question, brings huge benefits. Many organisations I have met regret the decline in the provision of council-led youth services, but the voluntary sector has a real focus on young people.

The stories I have heard have often been inspiring – such as the fabulous work done by the members of the Essex Boys and Girls Clubs, which are mostly run by volunteers. Right across the county, affiliated clubs offer a wide range of activities for young people. With the expertise and resources EBGC have built up over many years, many of these activities can be made available to those who otherwise could not afford the excitement of adventurous holidays; and some can be delivered especially for those who might otherwise find themselves in trouble.

Commending Rita and Ray Williams, mainstays of the Thaxted Youth Club for 30 years, at the Essex Boys and Girls Clubs annual dinner

But spending time with a group of youth leaders from different organisations in Chelmsford highlighted for me the risks that young people can face, particularly when excluded from school. The grooming of young people into drugs gangs is a reality, despite the innovative work of Essex Police, working in partnership with many others, for example the Essex Violence and Vulnerability Unit. Those organisations and individuals working to provide safe spaces for young people and to offer a sense of ambition for their future is commendable.

I was pleased to recognise the initiative taken by Luisa Di Marco to set up ‘Keep it 100′ and to help bring the Knife Angel to Chelmsford recently.

Presenting a High Sheriff’s Certificate to Luisa Di Marco

Support for our children can sometimes be necessary even from the earliest days. In Billericay I visited Baby Basics who provide baby items such as clothing and other essentials, all in a ‘Moses basket’ , for new parents in need to see them through the first few weeks. They share a community hub that also acts as a base for the Schools Pastors, yet more volunteers who provide a listening ear to students in local senior schools.

Visiting the Billericay Community Hub where the
Baby Basics charity is based

Sadly, things don’t always work out for families and children. Hearing about the work of our Family Courts from our Resident District Court Judge was sobering. Domestic abuse has significantly increased over lockdown and many children have been affected as a result. Other youngsters have themselves found lockdown hard to handle, and it was distressing to learn of the considerable difficulty of finding safe and secure places for those in greatest need, and at risk of harming themselves.

On the more positive side it was wonderful to hear how satisfying it can be to place children successfully into adoption and to see them flourish. Our Family Court judges have an exceptionally difficult job and I fear their work is undervalued and their work not sufficiently well-known. I look forward to spending more time with them.

Engaging young people as early as possible in positive activities is recognised by everyone to be the best solution to many problems. Giving children the skills to have self-confidence is an important step. A delight for me was judging the Might Oak public speaking competition for Year 4 children in Essex schools. The final rounds were held at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford and I was hugely impressed, not only by the children’s high standard of public speaking, but also by the commitment and enthusiasm of their teachers and those organising the competition. (If the public speaking was slightly nerve-racking for the children, judging wasn’t a doddle either!)

The winning team from Our Lady Immaculate school in the Mighty Oak Public Speaking competition

There are many organisations that offer teenagers and young adults the chance to learn new skills, disciplines and enthusiasms. I’m looking forward to seeing the work of the Volunteer Police Cadets later this year, but was pleased this week to visit the Headquarters of the East Anglia Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. Across the Eastern region (so wider than just Essex) there are 338 cadet units where nearly 2,000 officers and instructors, almost all volunteers, take responsibility for and train 12,500 cadets. This commitment from volunteers to our young people is so valuable. Thank you all!

With Col Ray Wilkinson, Chief Executive of the East Anglia Reserve Forces and Cadets Association

Possibly most impressive are those organisations run by young people for young people. The hugely successful Essex Young Farmers Show highlighted what can be achieved by dedicated and hard working volunteers showcasing their skills and promoting farming, still so important to Essex, and offering a really great day out to the local community.

Meeting the National Chairman of the Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, Ed Gaitland, and Essex Clubs Chairman, Ellie Gemmill

There are of course, many other groups, some large and some small, offering similar support for our children and young adults. I’m looking forward to meeting many of them over the coming year, and especially those who work with children who might otherwise be led into anti-social behaviour or crime.

I have learned it can be tough work for the staff and volunteers who run those organisations; but also how rewarding it can be. The testimony of those whose lives have been turned round – for the better – has been compelling and heart-warming.

If Music be the Food of Love

Orsino may have been wanting more music simply to cure his love for Olivia, but music of all sorts plays an important part in the lives of many, if not most people.

I have grown up with music; a piano in the house, record players and radios; and from an early age singing in choirs. At King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford and at church and Chelmsford Cathedral I sang, and I also played ‘cello in the school orchestra. Wonderful teachers set me on a path of amateur music-making that I still enjoy.

Across Essex, amateur music groups of all sorts; choirs, orchestras and bands large and small of every variety, week by week practise and prepare for the concerts, church services and shows that add so much to our community and cultural life. Enabling and supporting this great wave of amateur music making are the many dedicated professional musicians who teach, train and lead.

Hutton and Shenfield Choral Society performing recently.

The COVID pandemic presented huge challenges to music professionals and to volunteers on the committees who organise all these groups. It was a hard struggle for everyone. As ‘volunteering’ is the main theme of my year as High Sheriff, I thought, as regular concerts resume, I would help promote some of them across the county, to give me the chance to say ‘thank you’ to those who have worked so hard to keep alive this important aspect of community life.

Many music groups also perform to help promote or raise funds for local charities. Most of these, too, have had tough time during COVID. To help give those local voluntary groups some extra publicity, I am also inviting the music groups I visit simply to team up with a local charity to help promote their work. This will give me the chance to say, on behalf of all of us in Essex, thank you to those charities for the work they do to care for those in our communities who need a bit of extra support.

The first of these concerts is on June 11th at Great Waltham with the Waltham Singers, promoting the Chelmsford charity, Sanctus which provides meals and other services for those in need in the city. You can read details here. It will be a great concert.

I will give details of future concerts on social media, so do keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter.

Perhaps music can, truly, be the food of love.


Last week I recorded some recollections of meeting Her Majesty the Queen for Basildon’s Gateway 97.8 for broadcast on the Saturday of the Jubilee weekend. I had to choose a song and selected ‘Tapestry’ by Carol King from the album of the same name that I have grown up with since it was released the year I went to university. It was a tough year as my mother died just after Christmas at the end of my first term.

As I reflect on my first three weeks as the High Sheriff of Essex, I might reflect, with gratitude, that my own life has been a rich tapestry, with an ‘ever-changing view’. Rather, I am struck by the extraordinary tapestry – of rich and royal hue – formed by the community and voluntary sector in Essex, working with partners in local councils, the police, religious organisations and many others.

The opening of the ‘Me Myself and I’ unit at the Knightswood Centre at Asheldham on the Dengie.

So far, I have visited groups serving those with hearing loss, those living with dementia, the suicidal, the hungry, the poor, the recently arrived in England, the isolated – and many others in need. Some groups are long established, some new. Some are part of a national network, some very local. Some are faith based; some not. All rely on volunteers who, again echoing Carol King’s words, “have seen suffering among those they don’t know”.

The St John Ambulance Cadets receiving an award at the ‘Heart 4 Harlow Awards’ evening.

Our councils, at their best, support and celebrate the work of these groups, and I have already shared in that cheer too, with presentations in Chelmsford, Maldon, Harlow, Colchester and Southend. There is also much evidence of good coordination either led, or supported, by the local coordination groups – such as Maldon CVS or Community360, in Colchester.

Presenting a High Sheriff’s personal award to the Transport Team at Community 360 in Colchester.

I knew the role of High Sheriff would give me the opportunity to ‘see and feel’ this ‘wondrous woven fabric’; and so it has proved. But there are always clouds. There is much anxiety about recovery from COVID-19, and now the rapidly rising prices of food and fuel. There is also some worry about replacing those volunteers who stood down during the pandemic. Volunteering is the theme for my year as High Sheriff and I have already seen how many opportunities for volunteering there are across Essex and the variety of these roles. Your local CVS  – or Volunteer Essex – are great resources to find openings near to you.

Andrew, a volunteer with Hearing Help Essex, helping fix a client’s hearing aid in Witham.

Again in Carol King’s words, I have met many people in these first three weeks who say, every day, to those they may not know, ‘You’ve got a friend’.

That gives me great hope.

The start of a new Shrievalty year

A view over Harwich – the town where I was born.

Thank you, and well done, for finding your way to this ‘Blog’. I hope to write at least one each month during my year as High Sheriff of Essex, sharing my journey in this extraordinary role. I am grateful to Dr James Bettley, himself High Sheriff in 2019, who created and maintains this excellent website, and who offered to host these articles here. One great advantage for me is that I do not have to retell the history of the role of High Sheriff as there is so much information on this website, and all so much better researched and written that I could possibly have achieved. Do enjoy reading the many excellent articles.

It is a great honour and privilege to have been appointed to serve as High Sheriff of Essex, a role for which I assumed responsibility this week. Essex is the county in which I was born, in Harwich police station, and where I have lived most of my life. I have a great affection for it, and while I think I know the county quite well, I am sure I will learn so much more during this year. As you can read elsewhere in this site, the main role of the High Sheriff now is to support the voluntary and community sector and particularly those organisations working in the fields of criminal justice and community safety.  

As a trustee of Essex Community Foundation for five years, I have got to know much about the voluntary sector across Essex, but there is still so much more for me to learn about the vital work, often unseen, that so many people contribute to making Essex communities safer.  I am also looking forward to learning more about the work of our courts in Essex, the police and other emergency services, the probation and prison services. I know how important the work of the probation service is, and while it is inevitable and right that some who offend serve time in prison, I am keen to learn how that time can be used, where possible, to turn around people’s lives to avoid them reoffending.

My overall theme for the year is volunteering. Volunteers are the lifeblood of our communities, working not only in the charitable and voluntary sectors, but often, and unrecognized, in many organisations on which we rely, such as the police, our hospitals, the fire service, the lifeboats and other essential services. I am looking forward to learning so much more about how volunteers serve their communities, and to encouraging everyone to consider volunteering to enrich their lives, as well as those of others.

If you are involved in the voluntary and community sector across Essex and you think during my year that I could help you, through a visit, perhaps thanking your volunteers or by giving publicity to your work, please do get in touch with me at essex@highsheriffs.com.

One of my own interests is choral singing. During the year I hope to encourage music groups across Essex, who offer so much to our local communities, by attending concerts where local charities can also be featured.  The first on 11 June, is a concert by the Waltham Singers who will be promoting a Chelmsford based charity. More details will follow soon. As we come through this dreadful pandemic it has never been more important to build community links and a community spirit. I hope in a small way that I can encourage this.

During the year I will be organising other events, some to bring together those who volunteer, some those who care about justice in our communities, and some just for fun and to raise money for the High Sheriff’s Fund. You can read about the Fund and the awards it supports here.

Thank you for your interest – and please come back for more! You can also follow me on Facebook at High Sheriff of Essex, on Instagram at Nick Alston (high_sheriff_of_essex) and on Twitter at @Essex_HS

The Declaration Ceremony (coronavirus style)


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 until 1752, 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


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

Wellieson (2)

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.


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.


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.


Inspecting cuttings with green-fingered Dave

The High Sheriffs’ Awards


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.


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 link 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.