Ancient county role is family affair for Fiona

Fiona Sample High Sheriff of Northumberland.
Fiona Sample High Sheriff of Northumberland.

A NORTHUMBERLAND curate is proudly following in family footsteps to take on one of the oldest offices in the country.

The Reverend Fiona Sample has been appointed by the Queen to the role of High Sheriff of Northumberland.

The Scots Gap resident is believed to be the first ordained person in the country to receive the honour and was able to gain a preview of her new duties as curate to her predecessor.

However, she may already have had some knowledge of the role as her husband Charles’ grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Bell, served as the county’s High Sheriff in 1939.

Mrs Sample said: “I feel hugely honoured.

“The family tradition is nice, but I’m not sure how Henry Bell would have felt about his granddaughter-in-law, a woman and a curate, becoming High Sheriff.”

The Reverend learned of her nomination to the post four years ago, but her appointment was only officially confirmed by the Queen in March when Her Majesty used a silver bodkin to prick Mrs Sample’s name in the Sheriff’s Roll, in line with tradition.

It is believed this dates back to the time of Henry VII as the year-long term of office was not always a welcome honour, particularly due to the expense involved, and pricking through vellum was more permanent than using ink.

Mrs Sample’s installation was complete when she took part in a ceremony at St Andrew’s Church in Bolam earlier this month.

The role of High Sheriff is the oldest secular office in the UK after the Crown, dating from Saxon times. Originally, officers collected taxes and carried out law enforcement, but many of their responsibilities have transferred to other bodies.

Now duties centre on encouraging crime reduction and social cohesion initiatives through the probation service, the prison service, the voluntary sector and emergency services, supporting royal visits and offering hospitality to visiting High Court judges.

“I’m a curate and I consider the roles to be very similar,” said Mrs Sample.

“Being a curate involves serving the community and being High Sheriff is the same. They are both people-based roles.

“The High Sheriff is mainly concerned about crime reduction, particularly for young people. It is wonderful to be able to serve the community and particularly those in society with the least opportunities.

“This is the heart of the Church of England as well. I see the roles as quite complimentary.

“People often see the Gilbert and Sullivan side of the role, the dressing up, but the real part of it is the encouragement of crime prevention agencies and the voluntary sector. We are the big society in action.”

The unpaid office, which puts no expense on the public purse, offers small grants through the Community Foundation to support voluntary groups in crime reduction initiatives and Mrs Sample has already handed out two awards. However, she is keen for many more to take advantage of the scheme.

“I have given out a couple of grants, which is wonderful, and I’m hugely looking forward to doing more,” she said.

“It is so important that people realise that if they are running a youth group that is doing a good job in keeping young people out of trouble we are there to help.

“There are lots of people doing wonderful things.

“People often complain to me about what the youth of today are doing, but I say to them, ‘what are you doing for the youth?’. Everybody is very keen to abdicate responsibility, but it is all our responsibilities and young people today have a very difficult time of it.

“People should set some time aside to organise things around them for young people, or join in with the groups already there. Please volunteer.”

Mrs Sample is also keen to promote Northumberland and has used local businesses to create her official outfit, including The Sewing Box in Morpeth.

“Everything I’m trying to do is about Northumberland, with everything made by Northumbrians in Northumberland,” she said.

“I’m hugely proud of the county, it is just the best, from the hills to the rivers, to the forests and the miners’ cottages. I’m equally proud of either side of the A1.

“I feel Northumberland has had a pretty difficult time from the farming communities to the mining communities and this is a huge opportunity to bring together a wide range of folk within the community I serve.”

The curate, who serves the joint benefice of Whalton, Bolam, Netherwitton and Hartburn with Meldon, is being given time to carry out her new duties by the Church.

She also wishes to thank her family for their support.

“I owe my family a huge thank you,” said Mrs Sample. “They are not going to see as much of me as they usually do so they are going to have to be self-sufficient, but my husband Charles is amazing.

“He is a wonderful cook, a wonderful friend and a wonderful support.He laughs with me, and sometimes at me, which is very good to make sure I don’t take myself too seriously.”