Image of the Tipstaff that was gifted to Placentia (Source: Christopher Newhook).
One of the numerous artefacts visitors to Placentia can see when visiting the O’Reilly House Museum in Placentia, Newfoundland and Labrador is a Tipstaff. It’s staff-like in appearance and was given to Placentia in 1772 by none other than King George III who was the ruler of Britain at the time. It was an honourable gift, given to recognise the prestige of Placentia in the eyes of the monarchy. But what exactly is a Tipstaff?
What Exactly is a Tipstaff?
A Tipstaff is a feature of the judicial practices of a nation. In modern times, a Tipstaff is an officer of the court. It is also the symbolic rod which is used to represent these officials. No one is certain when it came into being.
Sometimes referred to as tipstave or tipstaff, it derives from various related languages. In Danish, the noun would be stav while in Old English, stæf refers to a “walking stick, strong pole used for carrying, rod uses as a weapon, pastoral staff.”
The idea is for the officer to carry the Tipstaff. Then, he would unscrew the crown and within is a warrant appointing the holder of the Tipstaff to their position of authority.
Steeped in History
The Tipstaff played a role in law enforcement in Britain centuries ago. It still does today. There are two Tipstaffs in England and Wales, one an officer of the Royal Borough of Kingston and the other of the High Court of England and Wales.
Image of Tipstaves, a short club, after which the office was named (Source: Wikipedia).
What likely happened is a Tipstaff most likely began much as its name suggests. It was a stong pole used as a weapon for law enforcement. Then, over time, the person who would customarily carry the Tipstaff came to be known in this manner. While merely supposition, it may very likely have been the progression from an item to a position of authority.
A Gift to Placentia
In the eighteenth century, Placentia had originally been chosen as the central military centre for Britain. This was in 1714, at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. It was largely to settle the balance of power in Europe.
Image of the Treaty of Utrecht that brought the War of the Spanish Succession to a close.
With the Treaty of Utrecht, a peace treaty following the end of the war, Britain was handed Newfoundland. Placentia, formerly known as Plaisance, when in the hands of the French, was also passed over to Britain as a part of this treaty. And it was there, Britain decided to place its primary military defences.
However, throughout the century, Placentia began to be overshadowed by St. John’s. Increasingly, Britain was focussing its attention on fortifying St. John’s in lieu of Placentia (see page 99 of The Placentia Area — A Cultural Mosaic).
So, when Britain gifted the Tipstaff to Placentia in 1772, it was largely a symbolic gift. By that time, St. John’s was being granted more and more official duties. And it would be St. John’s that would become the seat of government, the main British garrison and a growing commercial centre.
Nonetheless, the Tipstaff stands as proof of the esteemed role Placentia played when Britain first laid claim to Newfoundland.
Timms Solicitors 2023 “Who or What is a Tipstaff?” https://www.timms-law.com/family-care-divorce-who-or-what-is-a-tipstaff/
Wikipedia 2023 “Tipstaff” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tipstaff
Online Etymology Dictionary 2023 “Tipstaff” https://www.etymonline.com/word/tipstaff