This summer two new candidates were elected to the position of Sheriff on London. But what do they do exactly?
As I meandered my way around The City of London website one afternoon I saw an announcement. “The City elects new sheriffs”, it proclaimed. Now this got me thinking. How many people know what the sheriffs actually do? You might think sheriffs were a distant memory, like drinking mead and gathering around the gallows of a Monday for execution day.
The role of sheriff is part of the patchwork of antique titles in the City of London, which remain largely mystical to any Londoners who don’t work closely with the Guild Hall. Wards beadles, aldermen, livery companies such as the Worshipful Company of Wheelrights – these ancient institutions are still very much part of life within the square mile.
Intrigued by the historical pageantry of the City’s past, I endeavoured to catch up with one of our newly elected sheriffs to find out what being a sheriff means to them.
Sheriffs, or “shire reeves” as they would have been known, once held the highest office in The City of London before being bumped off the top spot by mayors in 1189. They governed the City as King’s representatives, collected royal revenues and enforced royal justice. All very Robin Hood.
Alan Yarrow and Wendy Mead are the 21st-century sheriffs. It was Sheriff Mead who graciously granted me an interview.
“It’s a role that dates back to the 9th century – Saxon times – so I feel I am stepping into to a deep and ever-flowing river of history,” said Mead.
“Of course it is a privilege and I am only the fourth woman, since those times, to be elected it is a great honour also. It is a big role and rather daunting, but very exciting.”
It’s certainly wonderful to see a woman take up the position. But I was eager to find out exactly what that position was in our modern society. Would she be out collecting taxes in Blackfriars? Er, no.
The shrivel year of an aldermanic sheriff is a sort of testing ground for a person who, one day, aspires to be elected Lord Major of London
“Sheriffs support the Lord Mayor, whose main job is to represent the UK-based financial services industry and the City of London Corporation – whose elected head Lord Mayors are.”
A substantial part of the role involves hosting events at the Old Bailey, as well as taking part in the various ceremonies that punctuate the year at Guild Hall.
“To give an example: I host the daily lunch for the judges,” explained Mead. “This is designed to give them a brief and modest break from the harrowing cases of murder, rape and terrorism which they try.”
The role of sheriff is a precursor to the role of Lord Mayor. According to the City Corporation “The shrivel year of an aldermanic sheriff is a sort of testing ground for a person who, one day, aspires to be elected Lord Major of London.”
On the subject of the future Mead expressed her delight at taking part in the ceremonies in the coming year:
“I love the ceremonial aspects of the City of London and we are very good at that, but the great thrill is to be meeting people from all walks of life, and it will be very special next year when we celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.”
I was fascinated to find how someone goes from, in Mead’s case, running a successful catering company to wearing the fur-trimmed, scarlet gowns of the aldermen.
Mead began her service to the City of London when she took the chairmanship of the Save Bart’s Campaign in 1992, which successfully halted a government plan to close the 900-year-old City institution.
“I am still chairman of the campaign that contributed so much to saving the hospital. I was elected to serve the Ward of Farringdon Without [the Ward with Bart’s in it]in 1997 and I became passionately involved with the fascinating mix of civic interests and duties which make the City of London Corporation so amazingly interesting.”
Clearly the role isn’t merely ceremonial, nor retained for history’s sake. Wendy Mead and Alan Yarrow will spend the year assisting the Lord Mayor in his role as ambassador for all UK-based financial and professional services, and, potentially, moving up to the top job one day. Vital work.
Now, how can I get an invitation to one of those lunches?