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History of Town Criers

Town Criers can be traced back to biblical times as they are mentioned in both the old and new testament. Their more recent origins are found in early Greek Mythology. Stentor, a Herald of the Greek Forces during the Trojan War, was said to have the voice of 50 men. Town Criers in Britain are thought to have come to the fore in 1066 when news of William of Normandy’s invasion was known. Men employed to remind everybody of Harold’s authority passed information from town to town. These individuals were specifically employed to call out the King’s proclamation. 

The most recognizable Town Criers are the British Town Criers. However, Town Criers were used in many other parts of the world. For instance, North America ever since Europeans came to the continent and brought their customs with them. India also had village criers who used a drum to call public attention. In Nepal, the crier is called a katuwal. Africa had criers in the pre-colonial and colonial times. 

The First News Reporters:

European Town Criers or Bellmen were essentially the very first media source at a time when most people were illiterate. They often wore elaborate clothing to signify the importance of their duties and carried a large bell.  Usually, people of standing in the community were chosen as Criers, as they had to be able to read and write the official proclamations. Sometimes, they were a husband and wife team with the wife ringing the large hand bell and the husband doing the shouting.

Posting a Notice:

Town Criers began their Cry by shouting in the street and ringing a loud bell to gain attention. They started with the phrase “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez” which roughly translated from French means “hark” or “listen”. The Crier delivered announcements, news, proclamations, and other information by reading out loudly for all to hear. After they were finished, they attached the announcement to the doorpost of the local inn. This is where the term “posting a notice” comes from and is also the reason many newspapers include the word post in their title.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger:

As Town Criers often brought bad news, they were protected by the ruling monarch and any harm that was incurred upon them was considered an act of Treason. This spawned the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger”. 

Town Criers also had other duties. They patrolled the streets after dark, acted as peacekeepers, arrested miscreants and took them to the stocks for punishment posting their crimes to show why they were there, cut down people who had been hanged, and damped the fires for the night after the curfew bell.

With the invention of the printing press, newspapers, and improved education amongst the general population, the role of the Town Crier gradually emerged and has evolved. Today, a Town Crier’s role is more ceremonial, adding pageantry, colour, context and entertainment to help make events extraordinary.