The historic role that still makes a difference

The office of High Sheriff dates from Saxon times and it is the oldest secular office in the United Kingdom after the Crown.
Published in UK Director Magazines Summer 2024

Community Spirit: Essex Community Foundation

One of the oldest roles undertaken in the county is that of the High Sheriff. It may not be a role that is widely known about, but thanks to the tenacity of the individuals who have successively taken it on, voluntary and community organisations across the county are benefitting from vital support.

Historic role

The criteria to hold the position is brief to say the least: you simply must own a property in the county. Individuals are nominated and an independent panel considers them.

William the Conqueror understood the value of the office of Sheriff. After his victorious invasion in 1066, he retained the role but replaced King Harold’s sheriffs with his own men. Shrieval duties (duties of the sheriff) have been adapted as times have required and today the role is voluntary, and one of the most important responsibilities is to encourage the voluntary sector.

The historic role that still makes a difference 1The latest person to take on this historic role is David Hurst, who becomes the 844th High Sheriff of Essex. Armed with an impressive amount of experience in the business and voluntary sectors, David is aiming to make the most of his year of office and will travel the county, helping to highlight its attributes and its needs.

He says: “I am very honoured to become High Sheriff of Essex. I know my own area, around Southend, very well and I am going to be learning a lot about other parts of the county. It is a great opportunity to see things I haven’t come across before in many different communities.

“I also want to encourage people to take up volunteering – the sooner they get into it the better for their community. People sometimes just need some encouragement to realise that there are no barriers, anybody can become a volunteer.”

David has been involved in his own community as a volunteer for decades and has been chairman and trustee of several charities. He is currently president of Southend Round Table 106, and his charitable fundraising efforts over the years led to him becoming chairman of the Southend Community Fund, which is managed by Essex Community Foundation (ECF).

He also founded Rochford Rivercare in 2002, to keep the River Roach litter free. 

“Quite a few of us now meet in a local farmyard and set out to collect huge hauls of rubbish,” he explains. “It is a challenge, but keeping rivers clean has become something that more and more people are concerned about.”

Outstanding work

As High Sheriff of Essex, David, who was born and bred in the county, will be raising money for the High Sheriff’s Fund – also run by ECF – with the aim of promoting crime prevention and community safety in Essex. The fund was established 27 years ago to sustain and reward charities helping to tackle crime and improve community safety. The determination of those in the role has inspired the generosity of the people of Essex, enabling over £700,000 to be given in support of the outstanding work of voluntary groups across the county.

David also uses his business background – in publishing, recruitment, and advertising – to bring a professional slant to the voluntary sector, and he is keen to see other professionals become involved in local charities, particularly as trustees.

He says: “I have a great deal of empathy for people running charities and understand the challenges they face. I hope that encouraging links and contacts between various organisations, and signposting people towards the help they need, will be part of my role as High Sheriff.

“It is an unusual role as it only lasts 12 months and I have some marvellous predecessors. I am not landed gentry, as many have been, but I am determined to do my best. I am aiming to attend around 300 events and will enjoy the opportunity of getting out and about in the county.

“I am also planning a sponsored walk to raise awareness of the High Sheriff’s Fund, and on the way, help celebrate the 200th anniversary of the RNLI. It will be a fairly modest distance of 12 miles and will go via Benfleet, Hadleigh Castle, Leigh, Southend and the pier, finishing at Shoebury station.”

During his year of office, David will be supported, as always, by his wife, Jane. The couple have been married for 40 years and have two daughters and three grandchildren.

When he attends events, David will be wearing the traditional velvet outfit associated with High Sheriffs and says: “It really is a privilege to wear such a splendid outfit, tailor-made by a master in the field.”

The value of tradition

Some of the tradition and the mystery of the shrievalty (the office and jurisdiction of sheriff) may seem out of place in the 21st century, but they enhance the role and bring a sense of occasion to it. Life would go on without High Sheriffs, but for all those they come into contact with during their year in office, it would be a lot duller.

Did you know?

  • The King ‘pricks’ the name of the High Sheriff for the ensuing year. Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth I originated the practice of pricking names with a bodkin (a small, pointed instrument for making holes in cloth) when the Roll was brought to her while she was engaged in embroidery. 
  • Across Essex there are around 5,000 charities, but probably more than 10,000 community and voluntary groups. Some of the larger charities employ many staff, but even those rely on volunteers.
  • The High Sheriff’s year culminates in an awards ceremony held at Hylands House, attended by over 200 guests from across the county, where groups receive grants, certificates and trophies recognising their work.

This year’s trophy winners were:

  • The High Sheriff’s Shield was awarded to YMCA Essex in Colchester for their work helping young people aged 16-25, to develop their skills, potential and life chances.
  • The High Sheriff’s Cup, presented to the Aspirations Program for their work supporting women working in the sex industry in Southend.
  • The Essex County Council Bowl was awarded to Sanctus, based in Chelmsford (pictured), who deliver a range of support to homeless and vulnerable people.The historic role that still makes a difference 5
  • The Essex County Fire & Rescue Shield was awarded to Bar’n’Bus, recognising their community-based youth support across Basildon, Castle Point, and Rochford.
  • The Essex Police Cup was given to The Change Project, based in Chelmsford, for their work delivering programmes to both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse, and their families.


Essex Community Foundation works with many businesses in Essex, helping them support local communities, engage with their staff, and embed a long-term approach into their corporate ethos.

T: 01245 355947
Or visit

Main photo taken by Steve Brading and shows Charles Bishop, 843rd High Sheriff of Essex for 2023-24, with trophy winners at the prestigious High Sheriff’s Awards ceremony held annually at Hylands House in Chelmsford.  

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