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Town Crier History

Puddock Wull

Town criers could well be described as “historical newscasters”.

It is known that the tradition was started in ancient Greece, when heralds were used to announce the severing of relationships which would lead to an official proclamation of war. The herald would also be used to bear proposals of truce or armistice.

The origin of the word “stentorian” has been attributed to the Greek warrior Stentor, who played a part in the Trojan war and whose voice was said to be as powerful as the voices of 50 other men.

The first use of criers in the British Isles was said to date back to Norman times, when the cry “oyez, oyez, oyez”, (old French for “hear ye”) was used to draw the attention of the mostly illiterate public to matters of importance.

As town criers enjoyed royal protection, the command “don’t shoot the messenger” had very real significance.

Criers or bellmen were usually people of some standing in the community, as they had to be able to read and write the proclamations. The crier would read a proclamation, usually at the door of the local inn, then nail it to the door post – which is where the expression “posting a notice” comes from, as well as naming newspapers as the post.

Criers were used to issue warnings and acted as conveyors of local news. In Haddington, East Lothian, after a fire which destroyed one side of the High Street in 1598, the “coal and candle” proclamation was introduced. This was an instruction to the burghers to acquaint themselves with every device for fire prevention. The proclamation was announced by the town crier nightly except Sunday from Martinmas to Candlemas.

The doleful rhymes are as follows:

a’ gude men-servants where’er ye be,

keep coal and can’le for charitie,

in bakehouse, brewhouse, barn, and byres,

it’s for your sakes, keep weel your fires:

baith in your kitchen and your ha’,

keep weel your fires, whate’er befa’;

for oftentimes a little spark

brings mony hands to meikle wark;

ye nourices that hae bairns to keep,

tak’ care ye fa’ na o’er sound asleep:

or losing o’ your gude renown,

and banishing o’ this burrow town.

it’s for your sakes that i do cry,

tak’ warning by your neighbours by.

The town crier was rewarded for his services with a pair of shoes and a few trifles.

Women were often employed in spreading the news of items which had been lost, the arrival of fresh food at the market or some piece of local intelligence. One such person was Beetty Dick of Dalkeith in Midlothian (1693-1773).

beetty dickBeetty used a large wooden trencher which she hit with a spoon. The din was just about enough to stir the graveyard. The sound would rattle out at different places in the town, causing crowds to assemble to hear the latest announcement, for which Beetty charged the sum of one penny.

Every night she was employed to bawl out “tripe, piping hot, ready for supper the nicht at 8 o’clock at Jeanie Mcmillan’s, head of North Wynd. Gang hame, bairns, and tell your folks about it.”

Beetty Dick was succeeded by Peggy Haswell and the spoon and trencher gave way to the hand-bell as the means of rousing the townspeople eager for news. After Peggy, the bell went to Jessie Garvald, who was nicknamed “garvald gundy”. This was on account of a delicious sweetmeat known as gundy which she manufactured, and which was popular with children.

Jessie was succeeded by Grizzie Brown, better known as “bell greasy”, who was the last to use a hand bell in the capacity as town crier. The magistrates decided after her duties had ceased that a drum would be more dignified, although much more expensive at 18 pence for announcements.

george pratt last known town crierIn the capital city of Edinburgh, one of the last known town criers was George Pratt – about the year 1784 – who was noted for his pompous delivery in discharging his duties. George had a high opinion of the importance and dignity of his situation as a public officer.

Deeply imbued with this sentiment, George gave forth his intimations to the inhabitants – it might be to announce the arrival of a fresh supply of skate – with an air and manner at once imposing and edifying.

Unfortunately he failed to impress the boys of the town with the same respect for his person and his office that he entertained himself, the irreverent young rogues took every opportunity of annoying him.

They persecuted him with the cry of “quack, quack!” – a monosyllable which was particularly offensive to his ears. This cry was sometimes varied into “swallow’s nest”, a phrase which he also abominated, as it made an allusion to a personal deformity – a large wen that grew beneath his chin.

Although we have access to many different, almost instant, types of communication these days there is still a place for “communication with a human face”. Town criers are used to lead parades, open supermarkets, launch ships, attend official functions and act as ambassadors of good will on any occasion when a flamboyantly dressed character can be deployed to draw attention to what is happening.

 
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