‘I am honoured to have the role’

Posted 11th September 2021

What does it take to be High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire? Organisation and a keen community spirit are essential, George Anson told Pulse’s Sammy Jones.

One wonders quite how George Anson would get on should he lose his diary. As High Sheriff, his days are filled with appointments of his own making: “If I wanted to be the laziest High Sheriff in Buckinghamshire, there are only two things I have to do,” he tells me, “The Justice Service at the beginning of the Michaelmas Quarter for all the judiciary, and the declaration ceremony where my successor gets sworn in.”

But George could never be considered lazy. Quite the reverse. In fact it was his appearance at so many events that made us want to know more about the man tasked with the role in 2021.

Born to an English father and Canadian mother, his family swapped life in Canada for America and George spent his formative years in Iowa.

“Iowa is a farming place and I wasn’t a farmer. A lot of my university friends migrated to Chicago, Denver, Kansas City or bigger cities where they could do things in finance and things like that.”

George took flight too: “With my English heritage I had always wanted to come to England to see what it was like. I finished University and got a degree in finance in the US – I really wanted to do something in the investment world,” he says, “I had my own little summertime business and when that finished, I decided to plan a trip to come and see my relatives, most of whom had never met me. I came over for a two week holiday…”

That decision changed the course of his life.

“My father’s best man was working in the city, and amazingly within two days of me landing, he’d got me two months’ work experience. Back then it was probably old boy network connections, to be honest.

“After I’d been there for five or six weeks, I guess I proved my worth and they asked if I could stay.”

George called his folks back home to tell them, ‘I don’t think I’m coming back for a little while.’

“A lot of people find that incredible,” he admits, “But when you are aged 24, unattached and looking for a challenge and adventure, London is not a bad place to be, right?”

Life happened, and he married a colleague, Kirsty. They have now been together for 34 years and share three grown-up children. 

After a hugely successful career with global private equity investment firm HarbourVest, the countdown to retirement saw a much overdue work/life balance rethink.

“The first thing you learn is that you can’t stop overnight,” so he didn’t, instead opting for a three-day working week.

“That was really valuable, and helped me to mentally transition. Looking back, it was the smartest thing I ever did. Part of the game plan was that I wouldn’t stop cold turkey and do nothing except play golf, but that I would start giving something back.”

He certainly did that: George joined the Board of Trustees for Asthma UK, worked as a trustee of the Watts Gallery in Surrey, became the chairman of the Steering Committee for an environmental foundation in Menorca, and the chair of gender diversity organisation, Level 20.

He said: “I transitioned out of ruthless, capitalist money-making into giving back – where you feel good about everything you are doing…”

The role of High Sheriff has changed over time, and so has the way in which people are invited to take on the role.

But George disagrees with the suggestion that it is an exclusive club nowadays.

“I want to take that on, because I think that’s one of the perceptions people have. 

“It used to be,” he agrees, “Without a doubt it was very male dominated and it was a certain sector of society, and John would know Tom and Tom would know Edward and so on…

“Today it is about diversity and inclusion and making sure that whoever is the High Sheriff, is representative of the society in which we live now…”

Home for the Anson family is the village of Weedon, near Aylesbury. He is the fourth High Sheriff’ to come from the village.

And things get stranger still: “Two of the three before me lived in the same house I do!”

It is an exceptional position to hold though, isn’t it?

“Well, of the 800,000 people that live in Buckinghamshire, I am the one that is High Sheriff. What are the chances of that?” he smiles, “I am absolutely honoured to have the role and want to do the best job I can.”

George was asked to take the position, a role that comes with no expenses or reimbursement from the public purse, in 2014. Talk about waiting patiently for your time to come.

“‘This year we will be selecting the HS candidate for 2026/27, but that’s good because it gives people lots of time to plan and to get ready.”

The Office of High Sheriff is an independent non-political Royal appointment lasting for 12 months. 

Pic: Teresa Walton Photography – The ceremonial shoes, gloves and sword worn by the High Sheriff

The origins date back to Saxon times, when the ‘Shire Reeve’ would oversee law and order, and the collection of taxes.

“Before the current jury system was introduced some 200 years ago, the High Sheriff would sit in court every fortnight. It was his job to listen to the cases, declare people innocent or guilty and decide their punishment.

“The High Sheriff would serve writs too,” George explains, “If you defaulted on a debt he would instruct bailiffs to collect. That’s why sheriffs were partly reviled because I don’t think some of them could help but extort a bit of money from landowners!”

Do you still wish you had that power?!

“I think we would have the breakdown of society if that happened!” he laughed.

Things are different today, but there is still lots for The Ceremonial Head of Law and Order in the County to be getting on with.

“Within that broad church you have the judiciary and associated ceremonies, sitting in court, the police, and Thames Valley Police (TVP) is huge, and Buckinghamshire has four prisons. Then there are probation services, the coroner, family law courts, criminal law. There is a lot to cover.

“When we visited the Chief Constable of TVP, for example, we went to see the forensics unit, the digital investigation unit, or cybercrime, those responsible for the drones.

“It’s a case of bringing that knowledge back into the county and, where appropriate, telling people that, actually, the police are doing a darned fine job.”

How do you stay focused?

“You have to be super organised,” he says without hesitation, “If you are chaotic and can’t figure out what you are doing later in the day, don’t be High Sheriff!

“You need to have an outgoing personality and a real community spirit – those things are prerequisites. And you can’t be afraid of standing up and giving a three minute speech, and donning dressing up clothes,” he laughs.

“The other thing is deciding what the balance is between doing a lot of not-for-profit, charitable things where you are a cheerleader or an ambassador, or whether you focus solely on the law and order aspect. I’m doing both, but am always thinking, ‘what is the impact?’”

‘Do you want me to wear my court dress?’ is one of the questions he asks organisers before attending engagements. With just the one tailor made uniform, it has to be cared for properly: “We’ve got a good dry cleaner, but I ask that they are uber careful with it.”

And where do you get a pair of shoes fit for a High Sheriff?

“They look like patent leather, but they are actually like slippers with little buckles on them,” George explains, “Ede & Ravenscroft in London does a lot of judicial court dress.”

And those soles must be getting plenty of wear with that busy diary and charitable receptions of his own to host, including an upcoming dinner to swell the coffers of Milton Keynes Hospital’s Cancer Care Unit.

He has learned lots during his first six months in the position, and been wowed by the army of selfless volunteers among us.

“I didn’t realise how big the voluntary sector was and how many people give freely of their own time to help other people,” he admits, “It is remarkable, and shame on me because I just didn’t know about it.”

George will pass on the High Sheriff baton to his successor next April 1, and then another journey begins.

“I have a much delayed trip around South America, and after that…” he pauses, “I’m not a pipe and slippers guy, but I don’t feel like I need to start filling my diary up.”

There’s a first time for everything!