Hugh Sherwood Cordery was born at Malvern Wells, Worcestershire, England, on 27 March 1880. His orchardist father, William Cordery, had emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand, the previous year, gaining employment as a market gardener. William's wife, Edith Alice Arkwell, and their three sons joined him in 1881; their 14-year-old daughter came in 1887. Two further children were born in New Zealand.
Cordery was educated at the Ferry Road School. In 1892 he went to Christchurch Boys' High School, after gaining a scholarship, and he won a further senior class scholarship in 1893. He matriculated in December 1896 and began the 1897 school year. In April, having passed the civil service examination, he was offered a cadetship in the Department of Trade and Customs; he began his probationary service in Christchurch.
A condition of his employment was three years' service in the Volunteer Force when he reached 18. Cordery joined the Imperial Rifle Volunteers in October 1897, and in 1898 was promoted to corporal, then sergeant. When discharged from the Volunteer Force in 1901 he had been drill instructor for nearly 18 months and held his company's marksman's badge for a year.
Promotion to the Department of Trade and Customs head office in Wellington followed in 1902, and on 26 December Cordery and Mary Gertrude Sprosen were married in Christchurch. In October 1905 Cordery was transferred to Christchurch. In 1913 extensive frauds against the Customs Department were revealed; Cordery was a key witness in the resulting court cases in early 1914. After this stressful experience he was granted six months' sick leave and in June he, his wife and daughter travelled to London. In England at the outbreak of the First World War, Cordery was attached for a month to the New Zealand Customs Inquiry Office in London before his return to New Zealand.
The Customs Department prevented Cordery's release for overseas military service, but in 1916 he enrolled in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force Reserve, becoming a regimental sergeant major the following year. Having now qualified as an accountant he was seconded in 1917 to the newly created wheat controller's office in Christchurch; the office was responsible for controlling the sale, pricing and import and export of wheat. Cordery proved an outstanding appointment, with several prosecutions following.
In June 1920 Cordery was appointed collector of customs and taxes at Apia, Western Samoa. While in Apia he served as the first chairman of the Apia branch of the New Zealand Society of Accountants and as president of the Apia Club, and chaired the local branch of the New Zealand Public Service Association (he also served as chairman of the Canterbury branch of the PSA). He then returned to Wellington in September 1923, where he eventually became inspector of customs, a position requiring him to visit every customs office to inspect the accounts. He gained a bachelor of commerce degree from Victoria University College in 1926.
In 1928 Cordery became the collector of customs at Invercargill. Until his retirement in July 1935 he was well known for his actions against distillers of illicit whisky in the Hokonui district. This was his most concerted, single-minded contribution to the investigative work of the department. Cordery's use of an aircraft to pinpoint the exact location of a still was a new venture in customs work, and he used his own camera to record the results. A teetotaller himself, he publicly disposed of illicit whisky in front of newspaper photographers.
Cordery's work earned him a measure of hostility and few successful prosecutions resulted because of the reluctance of Southland juries to convict the distillers. His main target was the McRae family, the principal distillers, who proved almost impossible to catch red-handed. Cordery did catch some of their 'cat's-paws', and occasionally succeeded in having stiff sentences imposed in spite of public sympathy for the outlaws. At least once, a fine was paid by public subscription. Even when, in February 1934, Cordery found two of the McRaes in possession of a still, a jury found them not guilty. Dedicated to his task and prepared to use unorthodox methods in pursuit of evidence, Cordery felt no personal animosity for his opponents.
After his retirement Sherwood and Gertrude Cordery returned to Christchurch, where his extensive interests included bowls, cricket, hockey and harriers. During the Second World War he was a lieutenant in the Home Guard. He was a diocesan lay reader in the Anglican church and competed successfully in radio quiz shows. He had earlier actively supported his wife's involvement in the Girl Guides movement. He was of average height with a moustache and a round, friendly face. Gertrude Cordery died in 1949 but Sherwood lived for another 24 years, dying at Christchurch on 24 October 1973. He was survived by his three children.