In 1808, when public hangings were still taking place outside the debtors’ door of Newgate, Sir Richard Phillips, of whom this portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery, and Alderman Christopher Smith of the Worshipful Company of Drapers and later Lord Mayor of London, started The Sheriffs’ Fund to help inmates and their families.

The Fund provided grants to enable prisoners and their destitute dependants to buy food, clothing, footwear, coal and candles. Later, emigration grants to begin a new life were added. It was a remarkable philanthropic venture, way ahead of its time.

The first donors were all individuals, led by the Lord Mayor of London and the Bishop of Durham. Poor Boxes at the prisons were the forerunners of Life Governors, 200 Club donors, legators and Livery Company charity committees. All through its existence, the Fund has relied on the generosity of individuals and institutions in the City of London.

The first administrators of the Fund were the London Prison Chaplains. In 1828 trustees and a treasurer were appointed, but there are few solid records until the middle of the nineteenth century when, in 1845, the Duke of Cambridge attended the first official fundraising event, a dinner at the Mansion House. The first donation by a Livery Company, the Cutlers, was recorded in 1846. The most consistent Livery Company supporter is the Armourers and Brasiers, who have been giving since 1876. Today, over 60% of the Fund’s donations come from the Livery Companies.

The first annual report appeared in 1846 when the objectives of the Fund were described as ‘the temporary relief of the distressed families of persons in confinement; a temporary provision for persons who on being discharged from confinement have no means of present subsistence and habitation; the purchase of such tools, implements and materials as may be conducive to habits of industry in debtors and criminals’. Two hundred years on, the Fund’s mission is remarkably similar: training, tools, equipment and clothing to help prison leavers find their feet and a way forward.

From the outset, the Fund recognised the innocence of prisoners’ dependants and the particular problems of women prison leavers whose family responsibilities limited their ability to earn; grants for mangles and sewing machines appeared regularly – the nineteenth century equivalents of washing machines and cheap clothing.

The need for decent clothing was consistently supported. For example, in 1887 the Fund provided 284 hats, 106 skirts, 102 jackets, 120 bodices, 38 chemises, 54 pairs of stockings and 96 petticoats. During the Second World War under rationing second-hand clothing and blankets were available from the Fund’s office in the Old Bailey.

As well as its close relationship with the City, over the past century the Fund has grown closer to the Law. In 1931 the Fund merged with the Recorder’s Fund for ‘assistance of cases on probation’. When the Old Bailey south wing was built in 1970, on the site of Newgate Prison, the City of London Corporation generously provided the Fund the financial life-saver of a small office from which it still operates.

The Fund works mainly through the Probation Service. The two City of London Sheriffs and the Recorder of London are its Presidents and Vice-President, and the individuals and corporate bodies of the City of London its main supporters.

A remarkably consistent City institution, doing good in a fundamental way for over 200 years.
Click on this link to download Turning Lives Around by Penrose Halson, which provides an illustrated history of the Fund from 1808 to the present. This is also available for free in print from the Secretary: srfundsec@yahoo.com.