Town Criers have been a mainstay of English towns since the Medieval period, at least. Employed by the town or city, town criers dispensed various and sundry news and proclamations to the citizens, most of whom were illiterate and so depended upon verbal receipt of the news. This much I knew, though I don’t suppose I gave the position of Town Crier a second thought, assuming that they didn’t do much beyond walk about a town crying “all’s well” upon the hour. However, I was recently reading The Life of Frances Power Cobb as Told By Herself, (1904), who was born in Dublin in 1822, and came upon the following passage: “Two years later, when I was seven years old, I was naughty enough to run away again, this time in the streets of Bath, in company with a hoop, and the Town Crier was engaged to “cry” me, but I found my way home at last alone.”
Intrigued, I found the following excerpt from An Old Town By The Sea by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1894) which was written of the town of Boston, but one assumes that town criers were of a similar description both sides of the Pond:
“The last of the cocked hats had gone out, and the railway had come in, long before my time; but certain bits of color, certain half obsolete customs and scraps of the past, were still left over. I was not too late, for example, to catch the last town crier — one Nicholas Newman, whom I used to contemplate with awe, and now recall with a sort of affection. Nicholas Newman — Nicholas was a sobriquet, his real name being Edward — was a most estimable person, very short, crosseyed, somewhat bow-legged, and with a bell out of all proportion to his stature. I have never since seen a bell of that size disconnected with a church steeple. The only thing about him that matched the instrument of his office was his voice. His “Hear All!” still deafens memory’s ear. I remember that he had a queer way of sidling up to one, as if nature in shaping him had originally intended a crab, but thought better of it, and made a town-crier. Of the crustacean intention only a moist thumb remained, which served Mr. Newman in good stead in the delivery of the Boston evening papers, for he was incidentally newsdealer. His authentic duties were to cry auctions, funerals, mislaid children, traveling theatricals, public meetings, and articles’ lost or found. He was especially strong in announcing the loss of reticules, usually the property of elderly maiden ladies. The unction with which he detailed the several contents, when fully confided to him, would have seemed satirical in another person, but on his part was pure conscientiousness. He would not let so much as a thimble, or a piece of wax, or a portable tooth, or any amiable vanity in the way of tonsorial device, escape him. I have heard Mr. Newman spoken of as “that horrid man.” He was a picturesque figure. Possibly it is because of his bell that I connect the town crier with those dolorous sounds which I used to hear rolling out of the steeple of the Old North every night at nine o’clock — the vocal remains of the colonial curfew.”
And from Printer’s Ink,Volume 28-29 (1899)
“In former days, when local papers were few and far between, the town crier was an important personage. He was appointed by the pariah, and his election generally carried with it offices of beadle, verger and gravedigger, and his emoluments were fairly remunerative. Day after day he was seen, either in the town or surrounding villages, dressed as a parish beadle, and carrying a bell, which, after ringing twice or three times, he began: “Oh, yez. This is to give public notice that Master George will sell by public auction at the Town Hall, by order, the household furniture and other effects.” Then followed details, and the windup, “God save the Queen.”
“As a gossip of the first water, and knowing the goings on and little town scandals, he was a welcome guest everywhere when on his rounds, and there was no local public function, church, chapel, election or any other meeting but what he bad a finger in. When the newspaper stamp duty was abolished, and the local press sprang into existence in all directions, the town crier was gradually elbowed out until he became practically extinct.
“In one place, however, the town crier in all his glory is yet in evidence, and that is in the pretty town of Bedford. Mr. Stock, a well-known local advertising agent and billposter of portly and handsome presence, may be seen, dressed in a grandly laced scarlet coat, knee breeches and cocked hat to match. The old gentleman ambles about the town daily on his rounds, an object of curiosity to visitors and awe to the town boys. Long may he flourish as a survival of the good old custom!”
Surpisingly, further research uncovered the fact that the office of Town Crier is alive and well, on both sides of the pond. As Wikipedia informs us: “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. As of 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.
“There are several town crier guilds in both Canada and the United States. Theses include the Ontario Guild of Town Criers, the Nova Scotia Criers’ Guild and the American Guild of Town Criers. Since 1981, The Rocky Mountain Town Crier, presently based out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, has represented Invermere, British Columbia at Buckingham Palace & the Mansion House & the House of Commons in London England. Nelson Phillips, the Rocky Mountain Town Crier has been Proclaimed the Honourary Town Crier of Banff, Scotland, Calgary, Scotland, & Airdrie, Scotland. He visited these 3 locations and read Proclamations from the Mayors or Government Officials, of the communities with the same name . . . . In competition, Nelson has placed 2nd at Lytham St. Anne, for best shout and 3rd at Kingsbridge Devon, for best dressed. On November 7, 1984, The Rocky Mountain Town Crier was made a member of Calgary’s “Walkway of Fame” when he read Proclamations from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney & Mayor Ralph Klein acknowledging the 100 Anniversary of Calgary Alberta as a Town. Nelson’s footprints and Hand prints were placed in cement.”