With contributions from Cirencester Archaeological & Historical Society, members & friends
Cirencester’s ‘new’ and colourful Town Crier
Historic towns such as Cirencester are usually on the alert for past traditions, whether surviving or long neglected and which if nothing else are often good for promotion to visitors. But behind many lies a dedicated function once relevant at some stage in town life; so it is with the role of Town Crier, albeit largely repurposed for modern times.
There are a good many such Criers up and down the land, and their national organisation, the Ancient & Honourable Guild of Town Criers, publishes a list. They appear making announcements at local civic and charity functions and also have a role in national events such as the recent Proclamation of our new King Charles III. They can pop up too promoting local businesses, organisations and popular events, and have been described as the Facebook and Twitter equivalents of their day!
So, as a new initiative to re-create a Town Crier for Cirencester it was entirely appropriate that a competition was held at the third Fleece Fayre in the Market Place on 06 May 2019. The Fayre was itself a revival, which enjoyed three annual May Holiday events in 2017-19 before pandemic restrictions took their toll. Perhaps a revival of this revival might be on the cards once again now?
Responding to the Town Council’s invitation for applications, two well-known local characters stepped forward to make their bids. By popular vote the winner was John Lawrence, long-standing Cirencester resident and Parish Church Verger, and John has enjoyed the role ever since. His first Cry is published on the Town Council’s website along with a short history of three of his most prominent Victorian predecessors in this role. It’s worth a look.
Town criers need to stand out in a crowd so a strong voice is essential to make announcements. So too, a prominent and colourful uniform, a big part of the tradition. There is no fixed style or period of dress but most common is the tricorn hat and great coat of the 18th & 19th centuries or perhaps a Victorian top hat. But always the voice is the thing!
Duly kitted out and in good voice representing Cirencester, John’s first official appearance was to welcome people to the free Phoenix Community Music Festival in the Abbey Grounds. He’s since been out and about ringing his trusty bell at all sorts of events despite the restrictions and can be contacted via the Town Council in Bingham House.
So much for today; what about earlier times? Criers were also known as Bellmen, and have a long history. There’s a 17th century Cirencester reference but a lot more can be gleaned from 19th century newspaper accounts. Here are just a couple of good examples, showing some of the other responsibilities of the role.
William Markins was a prominent character of his day as both Town Crier and Serjeant of the Court of Requests, and also a court bailiff. In 1845 for example we find him ‘crying’ (as the phrase goes) about arrears to the Poor Rate (‘further proceedings would be taken’). In 1847 he is crying or promoting a Promenade Concert of German musicians in the Market Place, and five years later in 1852 announcing an election and its candidates.
Markins was obviously a strong character, described at his death in 1861 at the age of 85 as ‘unsurpassed’ in his job, supplying ‘a conspicuous link connecting the present generation with the beadledom and feudalism of days long past.’ Tradition again.
The other stand-out individual was John Kittow, in post between 1870-84. From his shop in Castle Street he was both hairdresser and umbrella maker. One of his roles was as the town’s bill poster and a member of the national Bill Posting Agency renting all the official ‘posting stations’ in the town – today’s advertisement hoardings of course. One of these was sprawled across the end-gable wall of the Red Lion Inn at the corner of Spitalgate and Dollar Street.
Kittow reported to the Court Leet meeting in 1881 that he felt the need for some emblem of distinction to promote his role; a cap with a gold band and ‘Town Crier’ was suggested (but possibly never implemented?). Either way, he was a well-known local character carrying out various public duties in the town, as did his successors well into the 20th century.
David & Linda Viner
With many thanks to Cirencester Town Council’s LIC (Local Information Centre) in Bingham House. See: https://cirencester.gov.uk/town-crier
Support Cirencester’s principal heritage societies and their event programmes: Archaeological & Historical Society (www.cirenhistory.org.uk) and Civic Society (www.ccsoc.org.uk), which runs a programme of Town Walks in the season plus pre-booked for small groups. See the Society’s website or phone William Cooper on 01285 88 55 90.
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