What is a High Sheriff?
As Sir Philip Williams prepares to hand over to John Young as High Sheriff, his predecessor, Jennifer Coombs, talks to Harry Bucknall about the role this ancient office plays in Dorset today
Published in March ’17
The ancient office of ‘Shire Reeve’, which dates back over 1000 years, was a Royal appointment to oversee the monarch’s interests, especially the collection of revenues and the maintenance of law and order. The High Sheriff’s extensive powers ranged from judging cases, through raising the ‘hue and cry’ in pursuit of felons, to summoning and commanding the ‘posse comitatus’ – the military force of the county.
The first recorded High Sheriff in Dorset was Hugh Fitz Grip, appointed by William the Conqueror, who denied any Englishman who had fought against him any position of authority or the right to own land. The ironically named Fitz Grip took his King’s command to heart, seized most estates and pillaged and sacked most of the manors in the county.
Today, while the High Sheriff is still appointed by the Queen, it is not the sinecure of yesteryear. Candidates – considered by a nomination panel which includes the current and previous incumbents, Lord Lieutenant, business leaders, representatives of the judiciary, police and fire services, faith groups, education and local authorities – must be of unblemished public reputation, own property in the county and have demonstrated service to the community. The panel is charged to encourage diversity in those appointed, to ensure geographical representation and political impartiality.
At the Privy Council of 19 March 2015, Jennifer Coombs, was ‘pricked’, that is to say appointed by the Queen to the Shrievalty – to use the historic term – of Dorset for the coming year. Living near Blandford for over thirty years, Mrs Coombs, who was previously vice-president of Dorset Opera, founded the Dorset branch of Yehudi Menuhin’s outreach charity, Live Music Now!, as well as being closely involved with Dorset County Museum, Dorset Archive Trust, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and as an Ambassador for the Dorset Community Foundation.
‘I saw being High Sheriff as an opportunity to learn more about our police, the judiciary and the prison service, and to support other organisations which rely on voluntary contributions and do so much for the community,’ she says. ‘So my chosen charity was the Footprints Project, which mentors people leaving prison or serving a community sentence who are returning to Dorset. It does so much – on a shoestring – to help offenders re-integrate into the local community and reduce the chance of re-offending. I also chose to support home carers, an area of personal interest to me. There are 244,000 carers under the age of eighteen in the UK and 23,000 of those are under the age of nine.’
The High Sheriff’s Summer Garden Party represented an opportunity for Jennifer not only to thank key members of Dorset’s services and authorities but to lend added focus to the charitable aspects of her year as High Sheriff, in particular Home Start, the charity that supports struggling families with children under five across the county.
‘The value of the appointment, in my opinion, is someone who can put people together. I did this by hosting a series of High Sheriff’s Round Table Lunches, which gave eight or ten key people who might not otherwise meet the chance to get to know each other.’ One of the 380 engagements Mrs Coombs undertook was to attend the Annual General Meeting of Buddens Farm Scout Centre. As a result of introductions made at one of the Round Table Lunches, the Dorset Youth Offending Team are now able to take up spare capacity at Buddens Farm, benefitting both the rehabilitation of Dorset’s young offenders and the Scout movement. It was just one of many occasions when she felt that the Shrievalty was both beneficial and relevant to the county.
‘But being High Sheriff is not a role to be taken lightly’, Jennifer continues. ‘It is a Royal appointment and when I pause to reflect about our country, first and foremost I think of our monarchy, and the extraordinary calm and strength it brings; something that does not waver in a changing society. So perhaps in a way, the High Sheriff stands for constancy, compromise and altruism.
‘What do I mean? Well, that the Shrievalty has existed for over a thousand years makes it yet another enduring testimony of strength of institutions like the monarchy and grounds us in the knowledge that from the days of Magna Carta and onwards our statutes uphold the right of every citizen and the rule of law.
‘Then compromise, which is key. For over those thousand years since the Shire Reeves were installed, they have had to adapt, and this is another strength that demonstrates flexibility, power-sharing and the ability to negotiate. The High Sheriff today as an independent, non-political appointment shows that an unpaid voluntary role can still take a lead in supporting the principal organs of our constitution.
‘And finally, there is altruism, which is demonstrated by giving a year to public service – it is an honour to be High Sheriff and an opportunity to be pro-active at a higher level with greater influence in our community. For example, my predecessor, Jane Stichbury, supported the Safe Bus and Safe Wise organisations, she worked with Bournemouth University Dementia Institute and the Shrievalty Students, in collaboration with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, to support people with dementia.
‘With two Law Lords and an internationally renowned criminologist living in the county, it seemed the perfect time to reinstate the High Sheriff’s Law Lecture’, she says, referring to Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury and Professor Roger Graef of the LSE. ‘It is another example of how the High Sheriff can make things happen and bring the judiciary into the community in an engaging way. I asked Mary Ann Sieghart to chair the evening and following that she made a programme for Radio 4 about prosopagnosia – face blindness – which is a condition Bournemouth University are researching.’ Looking out of the window like an artist considering the next brush stroke, Jennifer pauses and then says, ‘Being High Sheriff is a unique honour, like having an incredible blank canvas on which to serve your county.’