Eighteen months ago, a community group took the decision to revive a centuries-old tradition by reinstating a town crier in their area. Laura Drysdale explores why.
It may have been more commonplace in medieval England, but even today, the shout of “oyez, oyez, oyez” is unmistakable as the call of a town crier.
Derived from Old French, it loosely means “hear me” - and, usually accompanied by the ringing of a bell, it still has people stopping in their tracks to await the ritual announcement that follows.
“[A town crier] is a visual presence and a verbal presence,” says John Robinson, the president of the Loyal Company of Town Criers.
“You watch a town crier in any town, watch them ring their bell, you will see people actually physically stop what they are doing and come and listen - and they get the message. They may act on it, or they may go about their business, but the word has been put out there.”
It is this ability to capture attention, helped, no doubt, by their distinctive livery, that inspired the revival of a town crier in the West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract. In June 2017, Pontefract Heritage Group held trials for the role, as they set about reinstating the centuries-old tradition.
“It was partly to try and give people another reason to use the town centre,” explains Jayne Poppleton, the group’s chairwoman. “What the group is about is trying to get people to identify and feel part of their local town.”
The ongoing multi-million pound conservation project at Pontefract Castle was another spur, and the revival was also about generating local interest and spreading the word about what the town has to offer.
Though the group, Wakefield Council and other community organisations hold several events throughout each year, Jayne and her team would hear people say that they did not know about what was going on. “So we thought, we will shout [details of events] at them instead.”
It is more than a gimmick or novelty, she tells me; there has been more takers for events and the crier has helped to direct people to different parts of the town. “It is surprising what sort of an impact he has had.”
The ‘he’ she is referring to is retired maths teacher John Turner. He took over the town crier role from the summer 2017 trial champion in March last year.
“I always had a feeling that John might be an ideal town crier,” Jayne says. “He has got the engaging personality. He can talk to anybody and is a very warm and engaging guy. He’s also put a lot into Pontefract.”
Originally from West London, John has lived in the town for 12 years and has spent much of his retirement volunteering at the town’s castle. It was there where he met Jayne, who encouraged him to join the heritage group.
When the idea of reinstating a bellman, as they are also known, was first raised, John set about researching their history in Pontefract.
It is proving difficult to determine exactly when the town last had a crier for an extended period though. The role certainly existed in the late 1800s and according to material kept at Pontefract Museum, a new crier was appointed in the year immediately before the turn of the 20th century.
There is no mention then for almost 100 years, until, in the mid 1990s, when Pontefract Heritage Group helped to reintroduce the position for a brief stint. An undated photograph of a crier in mining uniform does suggest though that the tradition may have continued into the 1900s.
In his voluntary role, John, dressed in striking purple attire with black riding boots and a tricorn hat, makes announcements for the heritage group and the town.
“The town crier was seen as an obvious mouthpiece of the heritage group, saying this is what we are doing, please come and join us and support us. But the town crier is doing more than that,” he says.
The 65-year-old sees it as an opportunity to engage people with Pontefract’s heritage, speak to members of the community around the town and promote events and offerings in the hope of attracting footfall.
His engagements to date have included the town’s Yorkshire Day celebrations in August and welcoming York Civic Society for a visit.
“I make sure I am promoting Pontefract and all the good things that you see in Pontefract. Whether it is a fish and chip shop getting an award to the next meeting of the Pontefract Civic Society,” he tells me.
Celebrating the town and its offerings has come naturally following his volunteer work.
“I always promote what is going on at the castle and had started naturally to promote what’s on in Pontefract and also around locally in Yorkshire as well.”
His approach is to marry traditional methods with those of modern day Britain. As well as having a presence on the high street, he also uses social media accounts, “saying oyez to the world” and sharing news, information and events.
“It’s all about seeing what’s out there, getting the information and telling it in whatever way I can, whether that is me shouting out in purple or whether it is putting information out online.”
Though Jayne is uncertain whether the town crier’s introduction has had a direct impact on footfall in Pontefract centre, at a challenging time, nationwide for the High Street, she hopes that it is part of a momentum to attract residents and visitors to the area.
“There’s an interest in town criers and I think as well that it kind of makes people think that the town is of some significance if it has got its own town crier.
“When you have got something like that, it is obviously family friendly, and it encourages people into the town, not just to do their shopping or go to the bank, but to perhaps spend a bit more time here.”
Today, there are around 150 UK members of the Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers, which keeps a note of those appointed by a ‘Lord of the Manor’ or local councils.
But taking into account those not a member of the Guild or Loyal Company, the total number is thought to be around the 200 mark, John Robinson, president of the latter, tells me, with community groups, charities and commercial ventures also appointing criers of their own.
Though the figure has remained relatively stable, he believes it is up slightly on five years ago. “Companies and organisations have realised the value of having a town crier there,” John, the crier of Biddulph in Staffordshire, says. “It’s not only history and pageantry but it’s also a visual and verbal attraction.”
“They can help encourage visitors and tourism,” Owen Collier, chairman of the Guild and town crier of Royal Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, claims.
“[They are] part of the history, tradition and fabric of towns - and that would be sadly missed if there were none.”