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Friday, 03 February 2017
On her return to Bolton School Girls’ Division, Lady Smith of Leigh, the High Sheriff of Greater Manchester, handed out awards and delivered an entertaining address to the morning assembly. Recalling how she had sat in the very same hall “several decades ago” she spoke about the history and duties of the High Sheriff’s office. “For starters”, she said, “it is not everyday you get to wear a uniform like this!”
The term “Sheriff” was first coined in Saxon times and is the oldest continuous secular office under The Crown. In the Magna Carta, 27 of the 63 paragraphs talk about measures designed to cut the power of the High Sheriffs. Lady Smith said if she had been in office during King John’s time she would have had tax collecting duties and would have been very powerful but now the role is largely ceremonial and symbolic as a keeper of the Queen’s peace. The first female High Sheriff in recent times was in 1967 in the county of Gloucestershire, although there are two notable exceptions from earlier times: Dame Nicolla de la Haye from Lincoln, who defended a castle against the French and Lady Anne Clifford. Lady Smith recounted a debate held in the 1920s where it was argued that women were not suitable for the role because it included the overseeing of executions! The first female High Sheriff in the Duchy of Lancaster was in 1974 in the borough of Greater Manchester.
Explaining more about the role, she said one of her jobs is to entertain high court judges and she does have the pleasure of meeting royalty when they visit the area. She said she had found all of them to be very pleasant but had particular praise for the Duke of Kent who managed not to laugh at her when she fell off her chair! Her role involves supporting the emergency services, the police and armed forces but the best bit for her, she said, is when she visits people working in the voluntary sector. One of her concerns with the position, which lasts for one year, is that you have to pay for everything yourself, which means that not everybody can undertake the role. Rounding off her talk, she said it has been a fascinating year and exciting to think that she has the power to call up the police and ask for them to arrange for her to visit anyone or any place!
Lady Smith is married to Lord Smith of Leigh, leader of Wigan Council, an Old Boy who returned to hand out awards at the Boys’ Division Prizegiving evening in 2013.
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