A town crier, also called a bellman, is an officer of the court who makes public pronouncements as required by the court (cf. Black's Law Dictionary).
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 (modern French, oyez, infinitive, ouïr, but 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 the advent of 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 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 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 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."
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.
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, NM, Boston Mass and Stamford Cn 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.
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' (see TGTM *kat 'voice' in ). 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.
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.
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.
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.
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: Aleaxandra, 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."
The book provides lists of current office holders, including town criers, for several local jurisdictions.
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