David Scott RN (Retd) - Modbury Town Crier
A Short History of Town Criers
Town Criers - or Bellmen as they were sometimes called - were the original newsmen.
The first town criers were the Spartan Runners in the early Greek Empire and in ancient Rome they typically proclaimed public business during the market days that formed a kind of weekend every eight days. As the Roman conquest spread through Europe the position increased in importance until it became a position of the court.
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."
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.
Usually people of standing in the community were chosen as criers, for they had to be able to write and read the official proclamations. Often they were a husband and wife team with the wife ringing the large hand bell and the husband doing the shouting.
The Town crier would read a proclamation, usually at the door of the local inn, then nail it to the doorpost of the inn. The tradition has resulted in the expression "posting a notice" and the naming of newspapers as "The Post".
The Town Crier is officially appointed by the Mayor. The style of the uniform and robe is based on authentic 17th Century examples. The Town crier's robes are similar to the mayor. The Tricorne hat is sometimes adorned with curling feathers, a traditional representation of the quills used by earlier town criers to write their proclamations. Announcements are always announced by the traditional "Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!" (which is "Listen!" in French) and conclude with "God save the Queen".
Modbury's 'The Ceremony of the Glove'
A Charter established in 1329 is celebrated each year with the Town Crier presiding over the crowning of the May Queen, and followed by a reading of the Charter, which permits the right to hold a nine-day Fair. Traditionally this took place for six centuries with the Portreeve reading on May 3rd, the Eve of the old St George’s Day, announcing the commencement of the Fair and traditionally allowed various relaxations of the Country’s Laws. The Fair was re-established in recent times in 1971. The nine-day Fair is officially declared open once the Glove, on a pole garlanded with spring flowers, signifying freedom, is placed in its original position on the Bell Inn in Broad Street.
PROCLAMATION OF ST GEORGE'S FAIR
"Oyez Oyez Oyez... All persons are required to keep silence."
"The Fair called St George's Fair within the Borough of Modbury, is now held in the right of Modbury Parish Council, Lords of the said Borough, and is to continue for 9 days from hence, being St George's Eve. During which time it is the duty of all persons to use their utmost endeavour to preserve the Queen Majesty's peace.
A toll taker is to be appointed to sit from ten of the clock in the forenoon until sunsetting, therefore I do, on behalf of the Lord of the Fair, appoint ….. to be the said toll taker.
All persons are to take notice and are required to pay toll for all horses, cattle and other quick goods that shall be sold or exchanged within this Fair.
By statute of the 31st of Queen Elizabeth - every seller or exchanger of a horse, nag or mare in a fair, who is unknown to the toll taker, is to procure a creditable person known to him to vouch the sale or exchange thereof. All which is now published on behalf of the Lords of this Borough as for the quiet and safety of all persons who shall be concerned in this Fair.
God Save The Queen!"