Meet the new man in an ancient role

by ANDREW MOSLEY

High Sheriff of South Yorkshire John Pickering with his wife Julie

HANDS up who ever thought that one day they might like to become the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire?

That’s probably no-one because it is not a position many people know about, but it’s a great title and it’s one that 63-year-old John Pickering has just taken.

John and wife of 38 years Julie, who live in Baslow in Derbyshire, have just begun a year they hope will see the position become better known and in a stronger place to help communities across the county.

Originally from Rotherham, John concedes that most people have no idea what the High Sheriff — appointed by the Queen — is or does. “I don’t think there’s a great public knowledge of the role and what it means, and the same may be true of the title of Lord Lieutenant. They are completely separate but there is a huge overlap in terms of our activity,” he says.

John attended Oakwood Comprehensive and then the town’s sixth form college before moving away to university and returning to work at Irwin Mitchell solicitors, where he became a partner and helped them grow from a local business to a top 20 firm, heading up the personal injury practice before being elected national managing partner in 2009.

He became group chief executive in 2011 before retiring five years ago and says the High Sheriff role, for which there is no financial support, came completely out of the blue.

“I was contacted and we talked it through and decided to do it. There is quite a long lead in period and I was supposed to be coming in in 2020, but another person dropped out and I have taken on the role a year earlier.”

The role of Yorkshire High Sheriff can be traced back to the Domesday Book of 1066 and some records go back to Saxon times. “After the monarchy it is the oldest secular office and the name of sheriff derives from the shire reeves. The Sheriff’s job originally was to collect local taxes for the king and look after the judges, meet them at the county borders and make sure they were safe, raise a posse to go after criminals etc. There are many interesting stories of past high sheriffs; one got into gambling debts with King John, which was not a wise thing to do, and, much more recently, it was the high sheriff who issued a writ for the arrest of the environmental campaigner Swampy back in the late 1990s.

“There was a lot of power but for various reasons those powers were moderated and it is now a titular role but duties involve working with the judges and looking after any particular high court judges who are visiting the circuit and entertaining them.

“There is also an obligation to work with and promote the other civic offices such as the police, fire service and prisons and, importantly, to take an interest in the local community.

“There are still a lot of ceremonial duties and the high sheriff will support the lord lieutenants on any royal visits,” says John, who is also a trustee of the South Yorkshire Community Foundation — which connects with the role’s support of charities.

“Last year’s high sheriff Barry Eldred concentrated on homelessness and our interest is in the healthcare field. We have been talking to the Sheffield Hospitals Charity as well as the police and crime commissioner and listening to their concerns about dementia and knife crime. There are huge demands on resources which they have to manage as best they can for the community.”

John and Julie, 62,who has worked in fundraising and event organisation for charities, have found their diaries quickly filling up and one of their favourite moments so far was attending a fire brigade graduation day, which gave them more of an appreciation of the work the service carries out. “I have always had great admiration for the fire service because I was at King’s Cross in 1987 when the fire broke out and remember the fire service there going straight in and helping to save lives. Such bravery. There’s such a lot goes into the make-up of a firefighter,” John says.

The only advice the couple, who have two children, were given on starting their — and John describes it as a team role — job was: “Do it your way.”

“Some parts are set in stone, but beyond that you go out and meet people and respond to invitations. We were surprised at the amount of invitations coming through as you don’t really think people know about the role.

“It is very hard to define what impact you might have in a year, but I want to make a positive contribution and hopefully set in train a number of things that have a positive effect on the community, the police, health service and others at a time when they have lost significant resources,” he adds.

High Sheriff factfile:

  • The High Sheriff of South Yorkshire is a current High Sheriff title which has existed since 1974
  • For around 1,000 years the entire area of Yorkshire was covered by a single High Sheriff of Yorkshire
  • After the Local Government Act 1972 the title was split to cover several newly created counties, including South Yorkshire
  • There are 55 High Sheriffs serving the counties of England and Wales each year
  • Of the 63 clauses in the Magna Carta of 1215, no less than 27 related to the role of the Sheriff and from 1254 the High Sheriff supervised the election to Parliament of two Knights of the Shire
  • By Acts of 1856 and 1865 all of the Sheriffs’ powers concerning police and prisons passed to the prison commissioners and local constabulary
  • The ceremonial uniform that is worn by male High Sheriffs is called Court Dress and consists of a black or dark blue velvet coat with cut-steel buttons, breeches, shoes with cut-steel buckles, a sword and a cocked hat. A lace jabot or white bow tie is worn around the neck.

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