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Duties and functions
The town crier was 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.
In English-speaking countries, they carried a handbell to attract people's attention, as they shouted 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 (modern French, oyez, infinitive, ouïr, but has been largely replaced by the verb écouter). The proclamations book in Chester from the early 19th century records this as "O Yes, O Yes!"
Prior to widespread literacy, 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 the Netherlands, 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 Company 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 administered floggings. During public hangings he read out why the person was being hanged, 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 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."
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.
A copy of a royal proclamation announcing 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 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 the proclamation also being read out in the London boroughs.
There have been town criers in North America ever since Europeans have been coming to the continent. There are records throughout the 16th century of town criers in Mexico, Peru, and Panama. During the 1830s and 40s Halifax, Nova Scotia had as many as four in the city. All through the American Colonies and beyond, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico; Boston, Massachusetts and Stamford, Connecticut had criers during the mid 17th century. In some places, the office of town crier persisted into the early 20th century. At least as recently as 1904, Los Angeles and several adjacent towns had official town criers. The town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, has had an active Town Crier from the 1840s up to the present day.
In many parts of India, the village crier traditionally carried a rustic drum to call public attention, following up with the message. The message had a typical flow, starting with "people of (...) village, the headman would like to announce that..." followed by the message.
In Nepal, the town crier is called a katuwal which derives from local Tibetic, kat 'voice' + an Indic suffix -wal 'kind of person'. Similar to the European counterpart, the katuwal is responsible for news and other announcements in some rural villages. The town crier is paid traditionally in grain after each harvest, a portion from each family in the village. The town crier not only makes public announcements, but makes announcements in particular neighborhoods when more labor or help is needed for daily work by other families out in the fields. This ensures that labor demands are met during more intensive work activities such as harvests, weeding, and planting.
In Sri Lanka, traditionally criers would carry a specific drum to call public attention (called tom-tom beating), following up with the message. The practice dates back from ancient times as it was used by Sri Lankan kingdoms through the colonial period up on to the modern times and was known as Ana Bera (Announcement drum beating). The practice was used by municipal or village councils until the late ninetieth century when the practice was replaced by modern communication mediums. The use of a tom-tom beating announcer is still defined in legal statutes for situations for public notification in situations such as partition of lands. It is however not practiced.
Town criers were prominent in the precolonial and colonial eras of Igboland, a West African region in the present-day Nigeria. They served as the major means of information dissemination in their respective communities.
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 early 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 England, town criers still announce the births of royal heirs and occasionally the arrival of the royal family. Tony Appleton, an octogenarian and self-proclaimed “royalist crier,” took it upon himself to announce, as loudly as he can, important news about the royal family. Appleton has served as town crier for the nearby city of Romford, but he does not represent the royal family. Appleton admitted as much in 2013, when news outlets were confused by his presence.
There are several town crier guilds in both Canada and the United States. These include the Ontario Guild of Town Criers, the Nova Scotia Guild of Town Criers and the American Guild of Town Criers. In 2016, the town of Burlingame, California added a town crier.
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, City of Gold Coast and 22 other local councils had an official town crier.
Competitions and records
The Best Dressed Couple were Peter and Maureen Taunton from the county town of Stafford, in Staffordshire, England. Richard Riddell of Anacortes, in the state of Washington in the United States, was the 2008 American Champion and winner of the 2009 Bermuda International Town Crier Competition. He was awarded Best Dressed and tied for First Runner-up at the 2010 World Tournament at Chester in England and Overall Winner at the 2013 World Invitational Town Crier Competition held in Kingston, in Ontario, Canada.
Peter Moore, the London Town Crier, held the position for more than 30 years. He was Town Crier to the Mayor of London,[clarification needed] the City of Westminster, and London boroughs, and was also a freeman and liveryman of the City of London. He died on 20 December 2009.
Alan Myatt holds two Guinness World Records. As well as being the loudest crier (recording a cry of 112.8 decibels), he also set the record for vocal endurance, issuing a one-hundred word proclamation every 15 minutes for a period of 48 hours.
In October 2015, Paddy-Ann Pemberton hosted an International World Town Crier Invitational Tournament over seven days in Central Otago. The three days of competition produced Ken Knowles of Lichfield, England as the winner, Jerry Praver (USA) was second, Daniel Richer Dit La Fleche (Ottawa) was third. Knowles won each of the daily competitions held at three different venues: Alexandra, Roxburgh and Cromwell, all in Central Otago, New Zealand.
In September 2017, Gary Long, with some assistance from Lloyd Smith and Peter Davies, hosted the same International Invitational Competition in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, Canada. Nineteen top town criers came from Australia, New Zealand, California, Maryland, Ontario, Nova Scotia and England to compete in the three round event. The rounds were held in Windsor, Annapolis Royal and Grand Pre. Mark Molnar of St. Catharines Ontario won. Paul Gough of Nuneaton and Bedworth England came second and Daniel Richer dit LaFleche came third.
The 25th Annual National Town Crier Championships was hosted by Redland City Council and Redland Town Crier Maxwell Bissett in Redland City on 3 September 2016. The competition took place as part of the Redland Spring Festival, RedFest. Members of the Ancient and Honourable Guild of Australian Town Criers competed for champion titles. The 2016 theme of the competition is "The History and Diversity of the redlands."
- Dead bell, used to announce deaths and funerals.
- Street cries
- Message stick
- Vic Garth, reputed in 2005 to be the oldest town crier in the world.
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- A few days ago some persons were brought before our magistrates, charged with angling and catching salmon fry in the River Dee, As the law expressly forbids the young salmon to be taken, either with nets or other engines, the bellman had orders to give notice to the inhabitants, that prosecutions would be commenced against any persons offending in the like manner.
- Chronicle, 12 December 1845.
- Illegal Fishing
- On Saturday last, four fishermen, named William Gibson, William Hand, Robert Barlow, and William Banks, appeared at Chester Police Court, to answer an information preferred against them by Buckley, the constable appointed by the River Dee Conservancy, for being out night fishing with illegal nets (less than 2½ inches in the mesh), and also for taking unsizeable fish. The information was laid under the 1st George 1. c. 18, s.4. Immediately upon being placed before the Bench, a somewhat noisy colloquy commenced between the Supt. of Police, the court and the defendants; the latter stoutly denying that to use small nets would be to ensure the escape of all other fish. On being told that at this season of the year they could catch nothing but salmon, Barlow stated that the other night they had caught nine shillings worth of flukes, and we have good authority for saying that this statement was correct. Gibson, striking his fist on the table, solemnly swore that, "he had not killed a salmon since they were cried down" and another affirmed that it would be no use killing them as "they were not fit for pigs, much less Christians." After a long debate between the Court and the defendants, in which the latter seemed strongly disposed to try elsewhere the right of the Magistrates to prevent them fishing with nets of any size, providing they took no salmon, a reluctant promise was wrung from them, that they would not offend in a similar way in the future and they were discharged.
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The book provides lists of current office holders, including town criers, for several local jurisdictions.
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