History of Town Criers
Town Criers were the original and the essential News Media in biblical and Greek/Roman times - there are several references to the “Crier,” in both Old and New Testaments, and for many centuries, the Town Crier delivered key communication messages to the general populace.
Proclamations, local bylaws, market days, ads, and tax increases were all proclaimed by a Town Crier.
Their importance diminished after the invention of the printing press in 1440s and the later emergence of newspapers (first was in Germany in 1605, first in North America was 1704, in Boston), with its consequent improved literacy.
Since then, radio, TV, the internet and most recently, social media have evolved as the prevalent mass communications media.
Where and By What Name?
Town Criers have existed in many nations, with a recorded history throughout Europe, England, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, India, Nepal, Africa, South America, and North America, among others. Today, there are an estimated 500, of whom about half belong to a Facebook communication called “Town Criers of the World.”
Over time, Town Criers have been known by several different names. The Greeks and Romans first called them “Runners,” then “Heralds;” the Bible often called them simply "Criers," the English sometimes referred to them as “Bellmen;” and North American Natives (as well as in Greek mythology) called them “Messengers.”
Ancient Greece and Rome
The first Town Criers likely were the Spartan Runners in the early Greek Empire (4th to 5th Century BC). Then, as the Roman Conquest spread through Europe, the position of Herald increased in importance (EG they conducted negotiations) until it became a position of the court. Town Criers were also integral to their mythology (EG Hermes is the Messenger of Zeus, and the Herald of the Gods).
Spartan runners (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. This was a dangerous occupation - if news recipients didn't like the message, the herald might be beheaded!
Europe – E.G. France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium
In Europe the post of Town Crier enjoyed its heyday in the Middle Ages. It seems to have been resurrected in the 1960s in Switzerland. In France, the "crieur publique" was revived in 2003. Today there are about ten professional criers in France, adding to the quality of life. (French news online)
A Town Crier’s opening shout of “Oyez” derives from the Anglo-Norman word for listen (modern French, oyez, infinitive, ouïr, but largely replaced by the verb écouter).
European Town Criers are organized as "Orde Van de Belleman" or "Guild Of Town Criers European Continent."
The importance of Town Criers to Germany is perhaps best evidenced by a prominent statue of four town criers in Bremen, Germany.
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.
In Medieval England, Town Criers were the chief means of news communication with the towns-people, since many were illiterate in a period before the printing press was invented (1440's) and newspapers were introduced (1600's).
Royal proclamations, local bylaws, market days, advertisements, even selling loaves of sugar were all proclaimed by a bellman or crier throughout the centuries. The job of Town Crier in Britain can be traced back as far as 1066, with the news of Britain’s invasion by King William I after the Battle of Hastings.
Proclaiming the news was not however their only role: indeed, their original role was to patrol the streets after dark, acting as peace keepers, arresting miscreants and taking them to the stocks for punishment and posting their crimes to show why they were there. It was also his job to make sure fires were damped down for the night after the curfew bell.
Most often, traditional Town Criers had official status of the local, regional or national government (often an officer of the court), because, amongst other duties, they brought news of new policies and taxes. The term “Don’t Shoot the Messenger!” became entrenched as law (at least in England), since the public may have shown their displeasure at new taxes by attacking the Town Crier. Even today, in the British Commonwealth, Town Criers are protected by an old English law that they are “not to be hindered or heckled while performing their duties,” since that can be seen as an act of treason against the monarchy.
The Town Crier was often required to act as a law enforcement officer in an era before the invention of the regular police force. As well, the Crier 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 later.
Odd fact: Only a Town Crier may precede British royalty into a room.
Australia and New Zealand
Town Criers have been in these two countries for over 150 years. The first Australian Town Crier was a convict who arrived via First Fleet. The profession is governed by The Honourable Guild of (add Australian or New Zealand) Town Criers. The Australian Guild was formed in 1989, and has 36 members, by internet report.
In areas such as the Andes Mountains of South America, a town crier with rope drum beats a long roll to announce the latest gold prices acquired daily from London by Telstar (satellite). Old and new, blended in perfect harmony!
In many parts of India, traditionally the village crier carried a rustic drum to call public attention, following up with the message. The message had a typical flow, starting with "people of xyz village, the headman would like to announce that..." followed by the message.
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.
Did you know, when a group of town criers get together, for example for a competition,
it is known as ‘a bellow of criers’?
There are two known Town Crier Guilds in Canada – Nova Scotia (membership quantity unknown, but have hosted World Championships, as recently as September 2017), and Ontario, with approximately 50 members. Alberta has at least one Crier (in Olds). There are five known Town Criers in BC (Victoria/Esquimalt, Sydney/Oak Bay, Qualicum Beach, Duncan, and one in the Okanagan), although there have been more in the past (eight on Vancouver Island, for example, and one in Summerland around 2006).
Significance of Town Criers in the Okanagan
Before the Okanagan Town Crier became known, he visited the Westbank First Nations Museum in West Kelowna. The museum staff, unprompted, told us the following story:
When the white fur traders first arrived in this area, they met the natives, and wanted to ask who they were (ie what tribe); their command of the language was imperfect, and they instead asked “What are you?” The person being asked answered that he was the Messenger, which sounded much like “Okanagan,” and thus the name Okanagan came into being. In a sense, all of us in the Valley are Town Criers.
History Lives On!
Some traditional aspects of the Town Criers have been carried forward to today. Many a newspaper is called the Herald (Greek/Roman Town Crier) or the Post (derived from posting a notice), or even Town Crier. Today’s bellhop title originates from Bellman. Even today, only a Town Crier may precede British royalty into a room.
A little known fact is that the term "Posting A Notice" actually 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 or Tavern, so that it could be read by anyone who could read it for themselves (likely a cleric or scholar). Some newspapers took the name "The Post" for this reason.
Evolution of Town Criers' Role
The essential historic communications role of Town Criers has been supplanted by an evolving array of media - from newspapers, radio, TV, the internet, social media, etc.
When the need for Town Criers as essential media became obsolete, a different role for them emerged and has evolved. Today, a Town Crier’s role is more ceremonial, adding pageantry, colour, context and mirth, using the tools of a Toastmaster, to help make events extraordinary.
In all but rare cases, the Crier is appointed by a “Town” (City, District, County, etc.) or “recognized” by an Historical Society for his/her role. Women often are Town Criers, or may complement a male version as Mrs. Town Crier
The basic civic role typically involves performing CRYs at Town-sponsored events (150 to 200 words, read from a scroll, introducing an event or the Emcee for that event), including formal recognition of citizens, tourist attractions, local celebrations, non-profit fund-raisers, leading a parade, being an ambassador-at-large, etc. Traditionally, the sponsoring body pays for the livery (uniform) of the Town Crier, in return for no-charge CRYs.
As well, the modern Town Crier may perform any civic or private role that requires gaining audience attention and delivering a message. EG be an Emcee, introduce or be a Speaker, CRY and lead the head table, welcome guests, announce events, relate upcoming events, tell stories or historical vignettes, & promote event participation.
The business world and service clubs sector may use a Town Crier for business openings, award presentations, receptions, or any special events they may be holding or promoting.
Citizens may use a Town Crier to help celebrate special events, such a birthdays or anniversaries, retirements, job promotions, etc.