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The Pricking for High Sheriffs

Source: The Illustrated London News, Nov. 17, p.579

This ancient and interesting ceremony was performed on Monday last on "the morrow of St. Martin," in the Exchequer Chamber, at Westminster. All the Judges, with the exception of Mr. Justice Cresswell, Earle, Crompton, and Mr. Baron Martin, were present ; and the two Chancellors and the President of the Council were for the nonce accompanied by the Home Secretary, who took his seat in order of precedence, fourth from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the top dais, between Lord Campbell and Sir John Jervis. The proceedings commenced with the administration, by the Queen's Remembrances, of an oath in Norman French to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who wore his new robe of office, all stiff and glistening with gold embroidery, but, unlike his versatile predecessor, did not volunteer a remark throughout the entire proceedings. When all had kissed the book, each of the Judges produced a brief with the names of High Sheriffs present and to come on it, and the senior of the two who went the last summer circuit proposed as many names as the Remembrances declared to be requisite, and also submitted to the Council sundry excuses with which they had been intrusted. These latter were hardly so racy as we have known them, and the crowded court was comparatively seldom in a roar. The excuses of "more money when my mother dies;" "educating children myself;" "owing to blood to the head, I am highly nervous, and ordered to avoid all excitement, especially the heat of a crowded court;" " private and domestic matters which occupy a great portion of my time;" and pedantic medical certificates which admitted the auditory, step by step from the patient's "viscera" to his "mucous membrane," were not heard this dear. Many very quaint excuses were propounded, and, as usual, with very partial success. One Sheriff elect was "building a house;" another had "let his house;" a third "lived with ten children in lodgings;" and a fourth alleged that he "had only a forty-acre farm in the county." The embodied militia officers of course escaped pricking, and an eminent contractor, who is conducting railway works in Canada, was put back for a year. There were hardly any painful cases of money troubles. One gentleman simply wrote that he had "pecuniary disabilities," while others were more or less specific, and stated that they "had only 800 a year," or "not enough to keep up the office with due dignity," &c. This class of excuses included "a minor under my father's will till I am thirty;" but as the Lord Chancellor happened to remember that the said gentleman's mother was a bride in 1823, he intimated that, in the course of things, he might be on the verge of thirty, and that it was better to put him back a year than lose him when they had once got him.

The medical excuses rested much more on the statements of the patients themselves; and, in the absence of certificates, even "paralysis, which forces me to use a stick when walking;" "repeated attacks of the gout;" and "paralysis and nervousness," sounded amusing, from the very dry manner in which the Judges announced these symptoms on behalf of the squirearchy. One gentlemen especially spake of "a very irritable nervous system, which compels me to lead a quiet and retired life ;" but got the present Under-Sheriff instead of a doctor to endorse his diagnosis. He, of course, received no pity; and Lord Campbell remarked that he knew from experience such men required rousing, and "always made capital Sheriffs." Sir John Jervis, from old association with the Principalities, was such a proficient at pronouncing the abstruse Welsh residences, that his colleagues jocularly complimented him; and he also stated, as a solution of the difficulty of getting Welsh Sheriffs, that "two or three of the counties belonged to one man apiece." Luckily, these great landowners rather enjoy the honours of the Shrievalty; and one of them who served for Flintshire this year is happy to serve for Montgomeryshire next. The Welsh-Sheriff dearth has been of long standing; and such a poor man was once appointed, that, out of sheer despair, he sent a horse and gig for the Judge; and the latter, finding that he could really afford no more, hired a carriage and pair, and invited him to ride all the assizes.

A large number of the bar attended out of curiosity, as it was expected that Mr. Baron Alderson would raise the Judges' right-of-voting question. It seems that the Council had never gone to the vote on any moot point till the learned Baron chivalrously moved that the Master of Caius College, through whose "gate of honour" he went in procession in old times to take his senior wrangler's degree, should be excused from serving. Some of his colleagues dissented so stoutly from him that Mr. Greville was instructed to take the votes, which he did by simply asking the opinions of the Chancellor, the Lord Chancellor, and Lord Granville, and then declared the vote carried against the claim, without taking the slightest notice of the Judges, who had stood up to be polled. On Baron Alderson demanding the cause of such a slight, with an indignant energy, which raised an involuntary burst of applause in the Court, Mr. Greville answered that only Privy Councillors could vote in a Privy Council, and the Baron rejoined with clenching logic, "How can this be a Privy Council when the President of the Council cannot even claim to preside?" After some further remarks from the learned Baron, to the effect that the form of summons was most objectionable, and that the Judges attended there not as mere assessors to the Privy Council, but on an equality for the time being, the question was postponed till this year. However, seeing the feeling which it had excited, the Lords of the Council did not think it advisable to reopen it, and the learned Master's name was struck out of the list in the interim. This jocose "afternoon with the Judges", occupied nearly two hours.