Between 1835 and 1851, Deputy Sheriffs were situated in what was to become the colony of Victoria in the Port Phillip district. Appointment of Deputy Sheriffs for the district was made by the Crown and confirmed by the Governor of New South Wales.
The first Sheriff of the colony was Claude Farie, appointed by Queen Victoria in January, 1852. The Office in Victoria therefore had a direct link to the Crown, rather than being appointed from within the colony. This is an element shared with New South Wales, which gave the Sheriff a particular status within the colony that can be traced to its English origins. The actual function performed by the Sheriff was not that performed by the Sheriff of an English county, but it did serve as a model until the particular role of the colonial Sheri9ff could be determined (see discussion of the New South Wales Sheriff).
Victoria pursued a policy of regionalisation of the functions of the sheriff’s office soon after the establishment of the position. The colony was divided into a number of bailiwicks, or districts, each of which possessed a Deputy Sheriff. These Deputy Sheriffs were later given the title of Sheriff, though ultimately responsible to the Sheriff of Victoria.
One such Deputy sheriff was Richard Colles, whose bailiwick from 1856 was Castlemaine, Sandhurst and Maryborough. Colles’ bailiwick encompassed a significant portion of the goldfields that had brought thousands of miners from around the world to find their fortune. Colles served as a licensing inspector on the goldfields. The government’s enforcement of licences was the significant impetus behind the Eureka stockade and other rebellions as the licences were the means by which the government extracted exorbitant fees from miners and reserved likely gold bearing land for its own use.
Colles himself acquired vast portions of Crown land, whether for the prospect of gold or otherwise is unclear. For whatever reason, it is clear that Colles was a man of substantial means, since records show that he owned all of what is now Daylesford, site of the famous Hepburn Spa. It is fair to surmise that Colles would not have made these purchases for the quality of the spring water at Daylesford, but rather through his knowledge of this gold rich area acquired in his position as Deputy Sheriff and licensing inspector.
Colles was evidently a person of some note in the colony of Victoria. He was a close personal friend of O’Hara Burke – of Burke and Wills fame – and Burke stayed with him in his Sheriff’s residence adjacent to the courthouse.
The career of a subsequent Deputy Sheriff at Castlemaine, W.H. Wright (appointed 1871), also bears testament to the pivotal position that the Sheriff held in this bailiwick. Wright was opposed to the infamous licensing system. Wright foresaw the likelihood of a riot at Castlemaine if licences were enforced, and wrote to the Governor to warn him. He also foresaw the possibility of such riots spreading to Ballarat. Both these events foreseen by Wright came to pass. Wright had previous experience in the power of gold over the economy and the minds of men through his capacity as Secretary of the Gold Department from 1855.
Sheriffs would often have been the focus of miners’ discontent at this time, which at its height reached pretensions of Victoria assuming a separate status as a republic. Sheriffs would often also hold the position of police magistrate, thus presenting an appearance to rebellious miners as licence enforcers, inspectors, arresting officers and presiding judicial officers over the trials of miners.
The distinctive characteristic of the modern Sheriff’s Office in Victoria prior to 1984 was its responsibility only for warrant execution in the Supreme Court jurisdiction. Each of the three court jurisdictions possessed a different serving organisation for the execution of warrants. Legislative change in 1984 enabled the Sheriff’s Office to assume control over the bailiffs’ role in the magistrates’ courts. Bailiffs had not been public servants prior to this change.
In 1986 the present Sheriff of Victoria, Peter Duncan, also assumed the role of the county Court Bailiff. The County Court Bailiff had operated as a privately operated organization. The Sheriff’s Office significantly expanded as a result of these last two changes, and its workload vastly increased. Legislative change in 1988 further expanded the role of the Sheriff’s Office with the transfer of the responsibility for some criminal matters from the Police Service. This change is a significant development in the Office of Sheriff in Australia. It has resulted in Sheriff’s officers performing tasks formerly performed by police officers. The functions transferred were not of an investigative nature, but rather relating to the enforcement of fines. Nevertheless, this development represents a unique direction for the Office of Sheriff since its transfer from England.
The transfer of responsibilities from the Victorian Police initially involved warrants for the failure to pay minor fines (traffic etc.) incurred through the issue of infringement notices. Responsibility for failure to pay fines imposed by the court for more severe offences was assumed in October 1990. These changes facilitated the growth of the Office, which increased to 320 staff, with six country regional offices and three metropolitan centres. The workload now amounts to 400,000 warrants per year. Salaries of Sheriff’s Officers in Victoria were upgraded accordingly.
Victoria has an area of 228,000 square kilometres with a population (June 1990) of 4,380,000. (Australia: 7,682,000 square kilometres – population 17,085,000) – Australian Bureau of Statistics 1991