The Society’s October meeting began in unique fashion, when it was called to order by the stentorian tones of Ilminster’s Town Crier, Andrew Fox, accompanied by his escort, Julie, both in their full livery. This appropriately introduced a fully illustrated talk on Town Criers by Janet Seaton.
Janet began by distinguishing between the various forms of crier-like officials in history, such as beadles (the most famous being Mr Bumble from Oliver Twist), bellmen and heralds, as well as criers. The concept of a person making public announcements of important news, governmental or legal proclamations, or public or personal events (such as royal births, deaths and marriages) to the populace was well known in classical times, through Stentor, a Greek herald during the Trojan Wars.
In Britain, the bellman existed in pre-Norman times, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, though the cry ‘Oyez, Oyez’ is often said to denote Norman origins to some extent. Often criers would combine this with other functions, such as nightwatchman or civic, judicial or religious duties. The low level of fatalities during the Great Fire of London in 1666 may have been due in part to London criers spreading the word quickly about the conflagration, and allowing mass civilian evacuation from the danger area.
Janet described the various means criers used around Britain and abroad to attract attention, such as drums, horns, bells, cymbals and gongs. She also showed examples of the great variety of uniforms and regalia worn by them – ‘real’ criers (such as those affiliated to one of the two domestic societies of criers) prefer the term ‘livery’ but not ‘costume’! – such as tricorne hats, greatcoats, breeches and buckled shoes. Civic criers will usually have their livery provided by the local council, reflecting the colours, mottos and ‘logos’ of their towns.
Over time the need for such people to spread the news declined as literacy and new forms of media developed from newspapers to broadcasting to the current online methods. However, the criers have continually found new roles, some becoming veritable ‘Jacks of all trades’. Nowadays they can be used in promoting tourism (as in Salisbury after the 2018 Novichok affair and its aftermath); providing a novel contribution to family and other social functions, and, in some parts of the world where literacy or modern media may not be so prevalent, even to spread important public service messages, such as on vaccination.
Criers were generally, but not exclusively, male, and Janet gave examples of women criers from the 18th century Beetty Dick of Dalkeith to the redoubtable Yvonne Chamberlain MBE, Crier of Axbridge since 1975, who died earlier this year. Langport has a history of town criers from the mid-19th (the first being John Franklyn) to the mid-20th centuries (the last known being Frank Gaylard, noted in the 1939 Kelly’s Directory), some of whom had a colourful history.