A town crier, or bellman, is an officer of the court who makes public pronouncements as required by the court .
Duties and functions
The town crier can also be used to make public announcements in the streets. Criers often dress elaborately, by a tradition dating to the 18th century, in a red and gold coat, white breeches, black boots and a tricorne hat.
They carry a handbell to attract people’s attention, as they shout the words “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!” before making their announcements. The word “Oyez” means “hear ye,” which is a call for silence and attention. Oyez derives from the Anglo-Norman word for listen. The proclamations book in Chester from the early 19th century records this as” O Yes, O Yes!”
As in England, town criers were the means of communication with the people of the town since many people could not read or write. Proclamations, local bylaws, market days, adverts, were all proclaimed by a bellman or crier.
In Goslar, Germany, a crier was employed to remind the local populace not to urinate or defecate in the river the day before water was drawn for brewing beer.
Criers were not always men, many town criers were women. Bells were not the only attention getting device – in Holland, a gong was the instrument of choice for many, and in France a drum was used, or a hunting horn.
In the observance of Allhallowtide, “it was customary for criers dressed in black to parade the streets, ringing a bell of mournful sound and calling on all good Christians to remember the poor souls.”
In order to gain the attention of the crowd, the crier would yell, “Hear ye” – “Oyez”.
In Medieval England, town criers were the chief means of news communication with the townspeople, since many were illiterate in a period before the moveable type was invented. Royal proclamations, local bylaws, market days, adverts, even selling loaves of sugar were all proclaimed by a bellman or crier throughout the centuries—at Christmas 1798, the Chester Canal Co. sold some sugar damaged in their packet boat and this was to be advertised by the bellman.
The crier also escorted the destitute to the workhouse, installed minor criminals in the stocks and administering floggings. During public hangings he read out why the person was being hung, and helped to cut him or her down..
Chester records of 1540 show fees due to the bellman included ‘of every worshipful gentyllman that goyth onye gounes at ther buryall …one goune [at funerals gowns would be given to mourners]. when he gythe or aneything that is lost …jd [one penny]. for every bote lode with powder mellwylle [salted fish] …one fyshe, for every boute lode with fresh fyshe that he goeth for …jd [one penny].’ In 1556 a record shows ‘To ye belman for p’claimyng ye Founder’s dyryge 27 Januarij …ijd [two pence on Henry VIII’s death, the founder of the King’s School].
In 1620, there was a fight at the Chester cross between the butchers and the bakers where the ‘Cryer brake his Mace in peeces Amonge them’. In 1607, one public notice read by George Tunnall, the bellman, forbade tipping rubbish in the river. In 1715, a local man recorded that the ‘Belman at the Cross … Reads publicly a proclamation in the Mayor’s name, commanding all persons in the City to be of peaceable and civil behaviour, not to walk around the Streets or Rows at unreasonable hours of night’. Chester once had a crier, a day bellman and a night bellman but in 1734, John Posnitt took over as ‘Day and Night Bellman’.
A 1701 will of the vicar at Waverton stated that notice was to be given ‘by the Belman to the People of Chester, of the time when, and the place where my Corpse is to be buried’
Salmon fishing season was also closed by the bellman.
The term “Posting A Notice” comes from the act of the town crier, who having read his message to the townspeople, would attach it to the door post of the local inn. Some newspapers took the name “The Post” for this reason.
Town criers were protected by law, as they sometimes brought bad news such as tax increases. Anything done by the town crier was done in the name of the ruling monarch and harming a town crier was considered to be treason. The phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” was a real command.
There are two organizations representing town criers including the Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers and Loyal Company of Town Criers.
By tradition, a copy of the Royal Proclamation about the dissolution of the Parliament of the United Kingdom is delivered by hand from the Privy Council Office to Mansion House in the City of London. It is then read out by the Common Crier (aka Mace-bearer) of the City on the steps of the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City, having been handed to him by the Common Serjeant of the City, ahead of its being also read out in the London boroughs.
The office of town crier persisted into the early 20th century in some places. At least as recently as 1904, Los Angeles and several adjacent towns had official town criers.
In many parts of India, traditionally the village crier carried a rustic drum to call public attention, following up with the message. The message had a typical flow, starting with “people of xyz village, the headman would like to announce that…” followed by the message.
Modern town criers
When the need for a town crier disappeared, the position passed into local folklore. Informal and later formal town crier competitions were held from the late 20th century. Subsequently some cities and towns reinstated the post purely for ceremonial purposes.
Many local councils in England and Wales reinstated the post of town crier from the mid-1990s onwards (e.g. Chester). Many are honorary appointments or employed part-time by the council. In October 2010 there were 144 towns in England and Wales with town criers registered with the Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers. They mainly perform ceremonial duties at civic functions. Local councils with a paid town crier often make them available for charity events.
In some cases, such as in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, the town crier is also the Tipstaff.
When Prince George of Cambridge was born on 22 July 2013, an unofficial town crier proclaimed the news to the crowd assembled outside St Mary’s Hospital, London.
In Windsor the official Town Crier of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead proclaimed the birth to crowds outside Windsor Castle. In Bridlington The Town Crier,David Hinde delivered a special cry celebrating the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s son on 22 July, and the visit of HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to the Bridlington Priory on 23 July.
There are several town crier guilds in both Canada and the United States. Theses include the Ontario Guild of Town Criers, the Nova Scotia Guild of Town Criers and the American Guild of Town Criers.
In Australia as of October 2010, the City of Sydney, City of Hobart, City of Greater Geelong, City of Portland, City of Ipswich, City of Gosford, City of Salisbury, Gold Coast City and 22 other local councils had an official town crier.