Revealed: the duties behind nations oldest Crown office
The 130-plus people who attended Thursdays 29th annual charter anniversary luncheon of the Inner Wheel Club of Ashbourne and district were given a first hand account of what is involved, by Miss Jane Walker-Okeover, who was High Sheriff of Derbyshire 2001/02.
In this role Miss Walker-Okeover was following in the footsteps of her father, the late Sir Ian Walker-Okeover, High Sheriff in 1936 whose photograph she had put on display along with her dress and hat and other regalia.
Miss Walker-Okeover explained that High Sheriff was the oldest secular office under the Crown, the holder appointed by the Sovereign, the duties mostly formal and traditional with all writs issued in the name of the High Sheriff; being returning officer at general elections; looking after the well being of circuit judges and giving support to the Police, Fire Service, Ambulance Service, Probation Service and so on. It is unpaid and non-political.
Miss Walker-Okeover explained that in the past High Sheriffs were very powerful. In the days when there was no police they could raise a hue and cry and posse and collect taxes. The high Sheriff was the most important person in the county until Edward VII brought about a change in 1908 when Lord Lieutenants - who came into being in 1547 - took precedence.
Miss Walker-Okeover explained how the High Sheriff appoints an under-sheriff and a chaplain, the latter in her case being the Rev Ian Aldersley, her own Vicar from Osmaston.
She spoke in detail about the legal service held each October in Derby Cathedral, which celebrates law and order, and of how the various aspects had been put together - music, hymns, readings, prayers.
During a detailed account Miss Walker-Okeover explained about the swearing in ceremony which in her case had taken place at Callow Hall and of the need to appoint a secretary, driver and cook.
As law and order had been her province she had attended court a number of times, sitting with the judge but taking no part.
"There were some terribly sad cases of young people with drink and drug problems. Still they all breed, with children here there and everywhere and you wonder for the next generation that the process is going to repeat itself."
Judges, she explained, could also give rewards to people who had helped the police in catching criminals and she recalled the presentation of one bravery award to two young men who had rescued a woman from a burning house. But the woman was not pleased because she had been trying to commit suicide and ran back into the house, only for the young men to rescue her again.
"I said to them it must have been extremely frightening, but in a typical British way one of them said that it had got a bit warm."
Miss Walker-Okeover also spent a day at the magistrates' court and a day with the coroner for whom she had enormous respect. "It was very sad but interesting, for unless you have been unfortunate enough to be involved in a coroner's inquest you may not know anything about it."
As Miss Walker-Okeover's talk continued she explained time she had spent with the Probation Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Police and had visited Sudbury Open Prison and Foston Hall, the closed prison for women.
Other duties during her year in office had included accompanying the bailiff with writs signed in her name; a visit to see the Nottinghamshire police horses; the police dogs; and the helicopter which is shared with Nottinghamshire.
She had even spent a day on the police skid-pan, had seen the armed response vehicle; attended the cadets passing out parade; a training morning for special constables and police awards ceremony.
Miss Walker-Okeover said that 10 or 11 years ago High Sheriff David Wigglesworth had become involved in Crimebeat through which five to 25 years olds could put forward ideas for the good of their community. Through a special fund the High Sheriff supported good ideas with grants of up to a maximum of £750 and since Mr Wigglesworth all Derbyshire High Sheriffs had continued this support.
The scheme had also been taken up by many other counties and there was now a national competition for each county's best idea and during her year in office the Derbyshire winner had been third equal nationally.
A seemingly endless list of duties for the High Sheriff, and Miss Walker-Okeover in particular, had also included visiting Fire Service HQ; the Derbyshire Dales general election count until four in the morning; mayor making ceremonies; Beating Retreat and remembrance ceremonies; royal visits; company and industry visits and many more besides.
Mrs Rachel Chipchase, President of Ashbourne Inner Wheel Club, thanked Miss Walker-Okeover for her talk and presented her with a cheque for Crimebeat.