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Tribute to the men who had to tell us to 'bring out your dead'

PUBLISHED: 16:08 15 March 2019 | UPDATED: 16:08 15 March 2019

Robert Crook,  town crier and bill-poster of Bury St Edmunds in 1898

Robert Crook, town crier and bill-poster of Bury St Edmunds in 1898

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Was the job of 'town crier' a good one? And do we still need them now? Derek James on a new book exploring the job's fascinating history...

William Childerhouse, Norwich's renowned BellmanWilliam Childerhouse, Norwich's renowned Bellman

Britain preserves the role of the town crier in greater numbers than any other nation. Roughly half the active criers in the world today are to be found within ‘this sceptre isle.’

They have played a leading role in life across Norfolk and Suffolk for hundreds of years...yet historians have never bothered to write much about these quite extraordinary and important characters.

Imagine a world when you heard what was going on from a gentleman ringing a bell and shouting at the top of his voice!

Just who were they and what did they actually do? And is there a role for them in 21st century life?

At full blast! Former Norwich town crier David Bullock deafens a listener on one of his city duties in 1987At full blast! Former Norwich town crier David Bullock deafens a listener on one of his city duties in 1987

All is revealed by a brilliant new book called The Word on the Street: A History of the Town Crier and Bellman by David Mitchell who knows what he is talking about. He is the Town Crier and Bellman of Chester.

David has spent many years researching the history of these men and their duties. There is also a good slice of their activities across Norfolk and Suffolk over the centuries.

“I was frustrated that no book had ever been written documenting the stories behind these roles. Eventually it dawned on me that this oversight was also an opportunity. I could perhaps research and write that history myself. So began what to-date has been 26 years of exploration,” said David.

“For many of us, the history we learnt in school was full of kings and queens, dates and battles. These things are important, of course. But what fascinates many of us is how daily life was experienced by ordinary people,” he adds.

New Norwich city crier Bob Lloyd, right, with former crier David Bullock. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLYNew Norwich city crier Bob Lloyd, right, with former crier David Bullock. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

This fine book sets out to explore how everyday life was impacted by two local officials; the town crier and the bellman.

Of all historic occupations, the town crier is the one which captured the public’s imagination and still does.

We are content to consign the lamplighter, the knocker-upper and the muffin man to history but the criers have been rescued from obsolescence because of their inherent appeal.

Around 200 cities and towns have active criers...but precious little has been written about them in our history books.

“Perhaps this is, in one sense, unsurprising. History is reconstructed from things that survive and endure: buildings and monuments, metalwork and pottery, tools and weapons, teeth and bones, books and manuscripts,” says David.

“The activities of criers were oral; loudly proclaimed into the ears of immediate bystanders, but therefore vanishing into thin air.

“Neither should we overlook the town crier’s associate, the bellman. The latter used the same information technology has the crier – a powerful larynx prefaced by the ringing of a handbell.

“But the bellman was not so well remunerated and was assigned the more disagreeable tasks. It was he who patrolled the midnight streets in all weathers, shouting out the o’clock in the middle of the night, or – in times of 
plague – issued the chilling cry: ‘BRING OUT YOUR DEAD.’”

David can be proud of his book and it is fascinating to read about these proclaimers – especially in these parts – and their activities over so many centuries.

As he says: “As our portable devices permit us to become ever-more remote from our information sources, the inescapably human aspect of town criers maintains its appeal in circumstances where personality is prized.”

OYEZ, OYEZ, OYEZ hear this...the office of town crier is enjoying a renaissance which shows no sign of fading.

To buy copies of the book, costing £11.95, click on www.chestertowncriers.com

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