Tasmania History

The first Sheriff for Tasmania (Van Diemens’ Land) was appointed in 1824, the same year as the first Sheriff for New South Wales.

The following appeared in the Hobart Town Gazette for 14 May, 1824:-

“John Beaumont, Esq., who has so long filled the office Provost Marshal, has been appointed to act as Sheriff of Van Diemen’s Land”.

The appointment was prior to the separation of Van Diemen’s Land from New South Wales and prior to the enactment of the Australian Courts Act of 25 July, 1828 which authorised the consequent Charter of Justice embodied in letters patent of 3 March, 1831.

The Charter of Justice provided for the Governor to appoint a Sheriff on a yearly basis on the first Monday in each January. The appointment was interpreted to have lapsed were the Sheriff to leave the jurisdiction of the island. As with the Sheriff in New South Wales, he had the ability to appoint deputies and was authorised to serve and execute process of the Supreme Court.

The Sheriff’s powers were further extended and defined in two Civil Process Acts of 1839 and 1870. However, these Acts do not provide a complete code of conduct and the common law is of considerable importance to the exercise of the Sheriff’s duties and responsibilities.

It was not until 1873 when the Sheriff’s Act was enacted that the Sheriff was appointed at the Governor’s pleasure and he could leave the island for limited periods with the Governor’s approval, without his office lapsing. The Act provides that the Sheriff cannot carry out his functions until an oath is taken before the Governor. This Act also provided that the Sheriff could be civilly liable, if he allowed an imprisoned debtor to escape, for the damages “sustained by the party at whose suit such prisoner was taken into custody and the costs of any action to recover those sums but not any further sum”.

It is not clear why this provision was later deleted. It appears that prior to its enactment, the Sheriff had been liable for the judgment creditor’s inability to recover the debt as the result of the escape and any other damages and was therefore limiting in its scope. The position is not clear after its deletion, but it is considered that the Sheriff is liable for his negligent acts and for the damage which flows therefrom.

The majority of Sheriffs appointed after 1924 were also Registrars of the Supreme Court. The Registrar of the Court also has under his jurisdiction the files of the court including the probate jurisdiction. The has proved a useful source of information for the Sheriff on occasion. It is of some note that Mr. Brettingham Moore, as he then was, when he resigned his office in 1974 was later to become a judge of the Supreme Court.

The Tasmania office comprises, apart from the Sheriff, seven Sheriff’s Officers, five in Hobart and two in Launceston. The Sheriff and two of his deputies are legally qualified practitioners to accommodate the number of caps they must wear in a small numerical jurisdiction and such legal qualifications prove useful on a day to day basis to the

Sheriff. The incumbents of the Office since its inception are as follows:-

  • John Beaumont (acting) «‹›» 1824
  • Dudley Fereday «‹›» 1825 – 1832
  • Thomas Bannister «‹›» 1833 – 1835
  • John Beaumont «‹›» 1836 – 1839
  • Peter Fraser «‹›» 1840 – 1842
  • John Burnett «‹›» 1843 – 1856
  • William Edward Nairn «‹›» 1857 – 1868
  • John Forster «‹›» 1869 – 1875
  • John Swan «‹›» 1876 – 1886
  • Bernard Shaw «‹›» 1887 – 1899
  • Hector Ross «‹›» 1900 – 1925
  • Walter Ormsby Wise «‹›» 1926
  • Alfred George Brammall «‹›» 1927 – 1935
  • Robert George Binghham «‹›» 1936 – 1946
  • John Richmond Rex «‹›» 1947 – 1951
  • Robert William Foale «‹›» 1952
  • L.C.P. Wilson «‹›» 1953
  • Herbert Richard Dobbie «‹›» 1954 – 1959
  • Cecil George Brettingham Moore «‹›» 1960 – 1974
  • John Dale «‹›» 1975 – 1987
  • Harold Terrence Foulds «‹›» 1987 – 1989
  • Ian Gregory Ritchard «‹›» 1989 – date

The records of the Tasmanian Sheriff contain several references to the use, even up to comparatively recent times, of a rarely adopted jury practice known as “praying a tales”. This practice was common in the operations of the various jury systems. The origin of the provision is in the mists of antiquity and dates to at least 1613 when an English authority provided that if a sufficient number of jurors do not appear, the number can be filled by a panel of “tales de circumstantibus”.

In such cases, the authority adds, the parties were said “to pray” and the judges “to award the tales”.

An example of the application of this practice is contained in the following article which appeared in the Hobart Mercury newspaper of 13 December, 1978.


Construction workers and people in offices cheered as three policemen and the deputy sheriff of Hobart, Mr Bruce Crawford, press-ganged people in the street for jury service yesterday afternoon.

It was a dramatic day in the Criminal Court as the Crown and defence counsel challenged many of the 27 jurors formally called for service. Eventually, the Court ran out of possible jurors and the centuries old facet of old English law of “pray a tales” was sought by the Crown. The origin of the provision is lost in time, but there is a ruling of 1613 that if enough jurors do not appear the number can be made up of a panel of “tales de circumstantibus”.

Tasmania has an area 68,000 square kilometres with a population (June, 1990) of 457,000. (Australia: 7,682,000 square kilometres – population 17,085,000) – Australian Bureau of Statistics 1991


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