We asked retiring High Sheriff, Caroline Peel, to look back on her unique year of office as the Island’s High Sheriff.
Many people said, “What a disappointment that Covid has disrupted your year.” Not so. In many ways I have seen a side of the Island that others haven’t. Yes, I missed out on guides and scout jamborees, the 50th Anniversary of the Ventnor Ladies’ Bowls Club and many other cancelled events, but uniquely, I have seen how well this Island has worked in the face of adversity.
My Declaration, planned for the RNLI Inshore Lifeboat Centre, was transferred to Zoom and my kitchen table. Then it was straight into the IW Crisis Committee, an initiative set up by my predecessor, Geoff Underwood and the IW Council. Working with other grant-giving bodies, such as the High Sheriff’s Trust, we swung into action, offering funds to organisations in dire need until the most desperate short-term needs were covered.
The resourcefulness and kindness of young people I have met has been inspiring. Both local newspapers covered the High Sheriff’s Awards, but so many others also gave voluntarily of their time, especially to those shielding and isolated. I know their cards, posies and maybe a bar of chocolate, brought a huge amount of pleasure to the grateful recipients.
There are so many unsung heroes, like the gentleman who spent hours looking for a neighbour’s missing daughter, found her and is now mentoring her through her mental crisis. The fire and lifeboat volunteers, always on call and who don’t think twice about themselves. I cannot speak highly enough of the ambulance crews working extra shifts, the nurses and everyone at the hospital, teachers and ancillary staff in schools. All have been looking out for patients, pupils and families, sometimes risking their own health and safety.
I have only had socially distanced visits to school playgrounds but made a couple of visits to the IW College, which was very encouraging. I am impressed by how pupils have continued studying to the best of their ability through lockdowns.
The role of High Sheriff is attached to the judiciary, but sadly I have not been able to have a ride out in a police car, or visit the magistrates court, with only one visit to the county court. I managed a prison visit – again I was impressed although, thinking the cells were Victorian, I was amazed to find they were built in 1963!
Various events did go to plan, in a reduced fashion. VJ Day was very well organised and the Lord-Lieutenant, Susie Sheldon, and I toured various war memorials in WWII vintage vehicles. For armistice, I did a filmed tour of East Wight war memorials. Without an audience they were much more poignant, especially on Armistice Day itself, when it was just the archdeacon, the Venerable Peter Leonard, and I, in St. Thomas’ Square with a small, very respectful gathering.
There were a huge number of Zoom meetings. It was interesting to hear how organisations such as AgeUK and Citizen’s Advice were adapting to client interaction by telephone. I also contacted many organisations by telephone instead of face-to-face meetings, including Barnardos, Home Start and the probation and young offenders’ teams.
Regular calls with High Sheriffs elsewhere have been incredibly supportive for us all. We are now friends for life.
In between lockdowns I gave out Community Awards, also called Unsung Hero awards. They go to people and organisations who have gone beyond the call of duty to help and safeguard others.
I’ve had lovely outings with the Mayor of Ryde, Michael Lilley, and Councillor Lora Peacey-Wilcox in Cowes. The rejuvenation of Ryde and youth hub plans for St. Thomas’ Church are exciting. I have visited Aspire several times and am so impressed by what they do and the dedication of the team.
Sadly, some organisations involved in mental health, such as SPIIOW (Suicide Prevention and Intervention), will have more calls on their time and resources. I know that James Attrill, my successor, is very aware of this and the strain that mental health agencies are under and is likely to increase.
The end of my year culminated in the High Sheriff’s Awards to young people who have excelled in one form or another. In the past these have been done on one evening, and last year were presented by Zoom. I had 22 winners and managed to do them individually or in small groups, making them far more personal and significant as I had time to talk to winners and their families, and hear their back stories.
Finally, I would like to thank all those whom I have met and who have enriched my year. I am humbled and moved by your actions and achievement.
The role of High Sheriff is an independent non-political Royal appointment for a single year dating back to Saxon times, when the ‘Shire Reeve’ was responsible to the king for the maintenance of law and order within the shire, or county, and for collecting taxes.
Today, there are 55 High Sheriffs in England and Wales. The role has evolved greatly although supporting the Crown and the judiciary remains central. High Sheriffs also support crime prevention agencies, the emergency services and the voluntary sector. Many High Sheriffs also assist organisations supporting vulnerable and other people.
High Sheriffs receive no pay and no there is no cost to the public purse, in fact considerable personal expense falls to the office holders.