HIGH SHERIFFS IN LEICESTERSHIRE
The word ‘sheriff’ comes from Shire-Reeve, the Crown’s administrator of a Shire. The earliest record of a Sheriff of Leicestershire is 1158 and for the next four hundred years the county was administered jointly with Warwickshire, under a single Sheriff. He would make the one day’s ride between the two county towns, present his twice-yearly accounts for each county to the King’s Exchequer in London, collect men and provisions for the King’s army, supervise the two counties’ Assizes and royal jails and, using his armed posse, oversee the keeping of the peace. From 1311 the qualifications to be Sheriff were threefold: to hold land in his shire; be a political supporter of the King; and a competent administrator. In the medieval period the two-county shrievalty was dominated by such powerful land-owning lords as the Bassetts, de Verdons, Segraves, de la Zouches, Hastings, and the Earl of Warwick, who all held office for a number of consecutive years, though in the 1500s Sheriffs William and Roger Wigston broke new ground, as they came from a family of prosperous town merchants.
In the seventeenth century the Civil War split the principalshrieval families of the county into two camps; amongst the Parliamentarian followers of Lord Grey were Sheriffs Babington, Hartopp, Heselrige, Packe and Pochin; and the Royalists, headed by Lord Hastings, sawFarnham, Nevill, Shirley, Skeffington and Turville as Sheriffs. By now shrievalexpenditure for the Judges’ attendance at the Assizes had becomevery extravagant. John Bainbrigge’s accounts for 1630 list six hogsheads of beer, much wine, the sheriffs’ men’s diets, 40 horses at livery, venison pasties, livery cloaks, with hats and feathers, criers, trumpeters and flags. In the eighteenth century the duties of Leicestershire Sheriffs included publicly proclaiming the new King and putting on a sumptuous feast to celebrate Peace with France. In 1766 the principal shrieval families of the county contributed generously to the building of the new Leicester Infirmary. The fashionable Court Dress of that period, the velvet breeches, tights and lace jabot, has remained the correct formal dress for High Sheriffs to this day.
Three Royal visits to the county were a feature of nineteenth-century shrieval duties. The dowager Queen Adelaide was welcomed with a cavalcade of 300 horsemen and 50 carriages, though due to the current considerable discord between local Whigs and Tories, High Sheriff Dawson, a Whig, did not ride in his processional carriage. In 1843 High Sheriff Dixie was present when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Belvoir Castle; but the greatest Royal visit was in 1882 when the Prince and Princess of Wales opened the newly laid out Abbey Park in the presence of High Sheriff Winterton, a former Leicester Mayor, who had successfully negotiated the purchase of 66 acres of land “dedicated to the use of the people of Leicester for ever”.
At the turn of the century, when Leicester’s flourishing industries of hosiery, boot and shoe manufacture and engineering were making it the wealthiest city in Europe, a number of High Sheriffs sprang from the factory-owning capitalist families, great local benefactors, who gave much of their wealth back to the county. Successful industrialists such as Corah, Fielding Johnson, Faire, Atkins, Oliver, Levy, Bennion and Gee dominated the shrievalty in the early twentieth century, though by the 1950s and 1960s some families of the Quorn and Fernie hunting fraternity took shrieval office – Hignett, Gemmell, Tilney, Murray-Smith, Penn Lloyd, Newton and Cowen.
In the political climate of the 1990s, the Privy Council was questioning the relevance to the modern world of the ancient office of High Sheriff, and the formation of a High Sheriffs’ Association helped to promote new procedures and values. Diversity of gender, social background and ethnic origin were encouraged, to make the office more inclusive, and in 2004 Mrs Freda Hussain, a dynamic Head Teacher of Pakistani birth, became High Sheriff of Leicestershire. In 1993 High Sheriff Robin Murray-Philipson founded Leicestershire’s Crimebeat, that gave grants to young people for their projects to combat crime, and this led to the formation of the present High Sheriffs’ initiative of Warning Zone.
© C.M. Wessel