The office of Sheriff is of greater antiquity than any other in the City of London and is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon laws of the 7th century. Wicreeves, portreeves and sheriffs exercised the king’s authority over the citizens, collecting the royal revenues and as Justiciars enforcing royal justice. London and Middlesex formed one shrievalty before the Conquest, and there are several examples of the same person acting as Sheriff of both.
In 1132, the rare privilege of electing their own Justiciar to hear pleas of the Crown was granted to the citizens by Henry I, together with the right of appointing the Sheriff of Middlesex. The right to choose Sheriffs of both London and Middlesex was granted to the citizens in 1199 (although there was some uncertainty as to how those citizens were defined until 1475 and, in practice, the Lord Mayor continued to appoint one of the Sheriffs until 1694). Thereafter, two Sheriffs were annually elected as joint Sheriffs of London and Middlesex until the passing of the Local Government Act of 1881. This Act deprived the citizens of their right to appoint a Sheriff of Middlesex and, since that date, the two Sheriffs have continued to be elected for the City of London alone.
Who elects the Sheriffs?
The responsibility of electing the Sheriffs has rested with the Livery since 1475. Walpole’s Election Act of 1725 clarified further that Liverymen must be of one year’s standing to be eligible to vote, and that same requirement remains in force today.
By convention at least one of the Sheriffs each year is an Alderman, who will be intending to proceed to become the Lord Mayor in due course (to be eligible to serve as Lord Mayor, one must be an Alderman who has served the office of Sheriff). The other Sheriff is normally a Liveryman from within the wider body of the Livery, and is sometimes referred to as the non-aldermanic sheriff. From time to time, there is a “double” or “twin” Aldermanic Shrievalty, where there is a need to ensure sufficient eligible candidates for the office of Lord Mayor are available for future years (for instance, should an existing candidate have lost their seat as an Alderman).
When are the elections?
The election of the Sheriffs takes place on Midsummer’s Day (24 June) every year at noon (excepting when this falls on a weekend). All Liverymen with one’s year’s standing are eligible to vote and will be admitted to Guildhall by ticket only. All Liverymen are expected to arrive in good time in order to be seated by 11.30am at the latest, prior to the Lord Mayor’s arrival. The Lord Mayor and the Aldermen, as well as the High Officers, process into the Great Hall shortly before 12noon.
The candidates in nomination are set out and the Lord Mayor and Senior Aldermen (i.e. those who have already served the office of Lord Mayor), together with the Town Clerk and Recorder, will leave the Great Hall prior to the voting taking place, only returning upon its conclusion. After the Lord Mayor and Senior Aldermen have departed the Great Hall, the Shrieval candidates will address the assembled Liverymen. Once the addresses have finished, the Common Serjeant will facilitate the casting of votes.
In the event of a contest, the voting takes place via a show of hands and, to aid the counting process, with the use of squares of coloured card. The Common Serjeant will announce each candidate in turn, beginning with the Aldermanic Shrieval candidate, asking for Liverymen to indicate accordingly. Liverymen are permitted to cast up to two votes for their preferred candidates.
Following the casting of votes and a short counting process, the Common Serjeant and Sheriffs share the results with the Shrieval candidates and their agents. There will be a short period of time to consider the results. Candidates may demand a formal poll; however, in recent years, an informal agreement between Shrieval candidates has been established such that if the count shows that one candidate was more than 10% clear of the other, the losing party would not demand a poll. This is in the interests of ensuring a result is known to the Livery on the day itself. However, should the count be close or this agreement not be reached, or any candidate exercise their right to demand a poll, said poll must then take place two weeks after Common Hall, followed by Adjourned Common Hall at which the result of the election is announced. The poll is very much like a “normal” local authority or national election, with poll cards issued and votes cast in polling booths at the Guildhall. Due to the older nature of the relevant legislation, postal ballots are not permitted.
Where no poll is demanded, the results will be announced by the Common Cryer, concluding with, “God Save the King” at which point all Liverymen are expected to reply, “God Save the King”. The Lord Mayor and procession leave in the reverse order that they entered, after which everyone else may leave. The Sheriffs-Elect do not take up their new roles until late September, when they formally take office in the Admission of Sheriffs ceremony.