For many years, the town of Southampton had been under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff of Hampshire, but in the fifteenth century the important burgesses running the town secured privilege after privilege from the Crown which reduced the Sheriff’s ability to interfere in its affairs.
Finally, in 1447, King Henry VI granted a Charter making the Borough a County in its own right, separate from Hampshire, and with its own Sheriff. The Charter specifically mentions as a main reason for the grant that the Mayor and other officials and also the merchants had been arrested and imprisoned by the county Sheriffs.
The important and burdensome duty of the Sheriff of Southampton in the next two or three centuries was that of paying the farm fee (an annual payment to the King in lieu of all royal revenues due from the town,) This sum which became increasingly difficult to find as the prosperity of the town decreased rapidly from the end of the fifteenth century.
Southampton was run as a separate county right through until 1974, when its separate role was abolished during a review of local government boundaries. The privilege of a Sheriff, however, remains. In Southampton he was elected each year by the burgesses and later by the councillors from amongst their number. This contrasts with the County Sheriffs who have always been chosen each year by central government.
The Sheriff has always, therefore, been a member of the Town Council, and has usually succeeded to the office of Mayor in the following year.
The Sheriff has worn the robes of an alderman since at least Elizabethan times, but his or her distinguished chain and the staff of office are Victorian. Nothing has been found out about the staff in the records, but the Council Minutes of 9th November 1892 record the presentation to the Corporation of a “Gold Necklet with enamelled Badge for the future use of the Sheriffs of Southampton” by Mr William Lankester JP, the retiring Sheriff. A newspaper reported that Mr Lankester had long felt that some such distinctive mark for the Sheriff was desirable, and that, as the Mayor’s chain bore the date 1792, it was especially appropriate for the Sheriff’s chain to be presented in 1892. The same newspaper then reported, unfortunately, that Mr Lankester was not then chosen as Mayor because of his increasing deafness.
From 1974 the office of Sheriff has been without particular legal or fiscal duties, but even today, its occupant plays an important role in civic life. Traditionally, the Sheriff takes part in the “Beating the Bounds” and the “Court Leet” which are described in the attached document –
If it is not possible for the Mayor to personally attend the many events to which he or she is invited, the Sheriff acts as an able substitute.