The Office of the New South Wales Sheriff is the second oldest public position in English law. The only public offices older than the Sheriff are the positions of King and Queen.
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, King Alfred the Great divided England into Shires (called ‘soires’) to improve the administration of the country. These Shires were the equivalent of today’s local councils. A Reeve or overseer was appointed to administer the Shires on behalf of the King. The combination of the words ‘soire’ and ‘reeve’ (soire-reeve) eventually became known as Sheriff.
In the early days, Sheriffs had significant authority in the administration of law and order in the Shires. Their role included many functions that today would be undertaken by the armed forces and police.
Permanent armies were not introduced in Europe until the 19th century. Before this, if an army was needed to defend the country from invasion, it was gathered from among the general public. Gathering an army in times of war was one responsibility of the Sheriffs of England.
Halsbury’s Laws of England, one of the earliest written collections of English law, said that the Sheriff was “a conservator of the King’s peace”. It was the “… duty of the Sheriff to … defend his County against invasion by the King’s enemies…”
A permanent police service also did not exist in England until the 19th century. As a result, all law enforcement work was part of the general responsibility of the early Sheriffs. The Sheriff had the power to
“suppress unlawful assemblies and riots, to apprehend offenders, and … to pursue and arrest felons and for that purpose to raise the hue and cry.”
Halsbury’s Laws of England states that every person in a County was legally bound to be “ready at the command of the Sheriff and at the cry of the County to arrest a felon.” This was called raising ‘the hue and cry’.
The idea of deputising members of the public to go after suspected criminals was carried on in colonial America for many years. The head of the police service in many areas of the United States of America are still called Sheriff to this day. Today, Sheriffs in Australia play a very different role to the Sheriffs of old.
History of the Office of the Sheriff
The Sheriff in Australia
The Sheriffs of the Colony and State of New South Wales