The office of Sheriff of Oxford has been in existence since the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, Section 61 of which, provided that the City Council should in every year appoint a fit person to execute the office of Sheriff with the same duties and powers as the Sheriff or the person filling the office of Sheriff would have had if the Act had not been passed. Since the Act did not specifically say what the Sheriff’s duties were, it was necessary to consider who previously carried out duties similar to those of a Sheriff. In Oxford these duties seem to have been the responsibility of two individuals known as Bailiffs. At various times prior to 1835 the Bailiff’s duties included the following:-
- To take and enjoy all property of the Courts as waif (‘waif’ seems to have meant primarily goods stolen, but ‘waived’ or thrown away by the thief in his flight. A second meaning was goods, found and not claimed by their rightful owner), stray or stray (namely, valuable animals found wandering, whose owner was not known), felons’ goods, customs, tolls, and all other profits and advantages belonging to the office of Bailiff.
- To have the custody of offenders.
- To maintain order, with the help of sergeants.
- To receive the fines of the City Court Leet (a court of record long fallen into disuse and finally abolished on local government reorganisation).
- To receive the fines at Quarter Sessions and the forfeited recognizances; and
- To receive treasure trove.
- To act as conservators of Port Meadow. As the Town Clerk put it in 1840, the two Bailiffs were ’resorted to in all questions, and they attended to the repairs, drove the Meadow at least once in the year, and pounded the cattle of trespassers’.
The majority of these functions are no longer relevant to the office of Sheriff but they do emphasise that the position of the Sheriff of Oxford is quite different from that of any other sort of Sheriff and that even the Bailiffs in their hey-day had much more limited powers than those of, say, the present Sheriff of Oxfordshire, whose functions include, for example, the enforcement of Orders of the High Court. From the above list the only two functions recent Sheriffs of Oxford have had any responsibility for were:
- For fines and forfeited recognizances at Quarter Sessions, but even these have now disappeared as a result of the coming into operation of the Courts Act 1971 on 1st January, 1972.
- The second surviving function of the Bailiffs with which the modern Sheriff is concerned is that of acting as Conservator of Port Meadow (an area of common land in North Oxford), and drives are carried out, usually once a year, as a continuation of the annual drives of the former Bailiffs.
Arrangements for the Drives are kept as secret as much as possible and at about 6.00am on the morning of the Drive, the Sheriff and his or her assistants, among whom are a number of horse riders or on foot, assemble at one end of the Meadow and begin to drive the cattle and horses to the other end where they are impounded. The Drive usually takes some two or three hours and is followed by breakfast. Throughout the day following the impounding, owners come to claim their cattle and horses and if they are Freemen or Wolvercote Commoners, or others lawfully entitled, the animals are released on payment of a toll of 10p per head, but if they are trespassers they pay a fine of £35 per head, together with the actual cost of keep (£1 a day). In recent years informal drives have also been conducted.
It is also the practice for the Sheriff to administer the oath at admission ceremonies for new Freemen of the City of Oxford.