A town crier is a person who is employed by a town council to make public announcements in the streets. The crier can also be used in court or official announcements. Criers often dress elaborately, by a tradition dating to the 18th century, in a red and gold robe, white breeches, black boots and a tricorne hat.
They carry a handbell to attract people's attention, as they shout the words "Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!" before making their announcements. The word "Oyez" means "hear ye," which is a call for silence and attention. Oyez derives from the Anglo-Norman word for listen. The proclamations book in Chester from the early 19th century records this as O Yes, O Yes!
In Medieval England, town criers were the chief means of news communication with the people of the town since many could not read or write. Royal proclamations, local bylaws, market days, adverts, even selling loaves of sugar were all proclaimed by a bellman or crier throughout the centuries -- at Christmas 1798, the Chester Canal Co. sold some sugar damaged in their packet boat and this was to be advertised by the bellman.
Chester's first recorded 'belman' was in 1540. His fees included one (old) penny for 'going for anything that is lost' and 4d for leading the funeral procession. In 1681, a fire safety order by the city assembly that all houses should be tiled, not thatched, was to 'be published throughout the city by the day bellman. In 1553, the crier was paid 13d for 'ridunge the banes' (reading the banns or adverts) for the Chester Mystery Plays. In 1598, bellman Richard Woodcock must have been dressed in a similar way to the London bellman, for he had 'a tymber mast typt at both endes and embellished in the middest with silver.
In 1620, there was a fight at the cross between the butchers and the bakers where the 'Cryer brake his Mace in peeces Amonge them'. In 1607, one public notice read by George Tunnall, the bellman, forbade tipping rubbish in the river. In 1715, a local man recorded that the 'Belman at the Cross ... Reads publicly a proclamation in the Mayor's name, commanding all persons in the City to bee of peaceable and civil behaviour, not to walk around the Streets or Rows at unreasonable hours of night'. In 1743, John Posnitt took over as 'Day and Night Bellman'.
In 1792, Chester had a day and night bellman, John Yarwood and a crier, William Ratcliffe, but by 1835 there seems to have been only one position. It was not until 1998 that Chester had a crier and a bellman again.
Town criers were protected by the ruling monarch, as they sometimes brought bad news such as tax increases. To this day, any town crier in the British Commonwealth is protected under old English law that they are not to be hindered or heckled while performing their duties. To injure or harm a town crier was seen as an act of treason against the ruling monarchy. The term "Posting A Notice" 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.
Criers were not always men, many town criers were women. Bells were not the only attention getting device - in Holland, a gong was the instrument of choice for many, and in France a drum was used, or a hunting horn.
Peter Moore The London Town Crier has held the position for over 30 years. He is Town Crier to The Mayor of London, The City of Westminster, and London Boroughs, also Freeman and Liveryman of The City of London.
Alan Myatt holds the world record for town cryers at 112.8 decibels.
As the practical use of the town crier has disappeared, the function became part of the local folklore. European and World Championships of town crying are organized. The World Champion town crier is the town crier of Ninove, Hans Van Laethem.