For crying out loud

Newbury Branch meeting 11th April 2018

Speaker: Brian Sylvester, Newbury’s town crier since 1999

Town criers were introduced into this country by the Normans as part of the new civic hierarchy. Their role was to communicate with the illiterate masses, informing them of official announcements as the civic and national authorities required. Their function can be traced back to Classical times: Greek heralds had a similar task of communicating between opposing sides in games and in wartime. (In the latter role they enjoyed a special immunity.) Stentor, one such in the Trojan Wars whose voice was said to be 50 times more powerful than most, gave us the adjective stentorian.

         The civic hierarchy of the Normans was headed by the mayor, all-powerful in past centuries, and included many offices which have now become extinct, from the chamberlain to the fish and flesh tasters. A few survive as ceremonial figures, such as the Constable of Hungerford.

         Town criers were also known as bellmen, the bell being the tool of their trade, and they carried out the additional responsiblities of the beadle: clearing vagabonds from the streets, arresting prostitutes, taking people to gaol or the workhouse (on the mayor’s orders), driving dogs out of church, sometimes administering whippings at the cart tail, and enforcing licensing laws. As such they were figures of authority, with a uniform to match, and they were feared. They appointment was ratified by the mayor each year, although quite often they served for life.

         Criers also acted as the town’s watchmen until the emergence of separate police forces after the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act. The Georgian watchman patrolled the streets day and night, calling out information about time and weather, and watching for fires. (The word curfew comes from the Norman French couvre feu, meaning to damp down a fire.) They were enjoined to stop and search all suspicious persons carrying bundles or sacks. A sentry-style box was provided for night-time shelter, and it became the sport of young men about town to creep up and tip these over.

         Newbury’s charter came from Queen Elizabeth I in 1596, authorising the creation of the corporation, and in turn the office of town crier, bellman and beadle. Not many of their details are on record, but one Wallin was a long-serving crier who retired to an almshouse in 1837, succeeded by Henry Beck. When Beck died in 1872, aged 70, he received an obituary in the Newbury Weekly News crediting him with a good memory and strict adherence to punctuality. Henry Beck’s successor was presumably the target of a letter to the NWN in 1874 deploring incessant use of the crier’s bell at an unreasonable hour. In 1898 the town crier was F R Andrews.

         By this time police forces had taken over the watchman’s role and the town crier became the mayor’s master of ceremonies. In the course of the twentieth century Newbury allowed the role to lapse, until Brian Sylvester approached the council in 1999 suggesting that there should be a town crier to call in the millennium. He was accepted, and on the night of 31st December stood with the mayor on the town hall balcony in the rain, wearing a uniform borrowed from his town-crier cousin. He has been Newbury’s town crier ever since, nowadays in a uniform of his own devising, consisting of a Chelsea Pensioner red frock coat over a long waistcoat of luxuriant red and gold cloth (tailored to order on holiday in Thailand), white stockings and a feathered tricorn hat.

         It was in search of Henry Beck that Brian Sylvester visited Newtown Road Cemetery, and thus joined the Friends of the cemtery. He has since become their chairman.

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