The Word on the Street is the new book by Chester’s long serving Town Crier David Mitchell. The book is a study of Town Criers and Bellmen and their changing role in society, from Shakespeare’s era up to the present day.
“I wrote the book because when I first became a Town Crier, 27 years ago, my natural inclination was to read up on the role of what I was going to be part of” says David. “I went to the library and they didn’t have anything so I contacted the British library and they didn’t have anything either. They told me that they didn’t think anything had ever been written. It took me a while to realise that there was an opportunity there!” David enrolled at the University of Chester and completed a Masters, with this dissertation on the topic awarded a distinction. ” That was the end of it unless I decided to do something with it. So I decided to write the book.”
David’s extensive research uncovered much about the roles in society played by bellmen and criers. A lot of research was done using online resource Early English Books . “It’s searchable so you can find out anything ever printed in the 16th-17th centuries that mentions bellmen.
“I discovered that the Bellmen , wasn’t as prestigious at the town crier, for example before there were mortuaries people had to be buried within 3 days for health reasons. So how would you find out, before there was any newspapers, if somebody had died ? The funeral bellman would go round the parish announcing the time and place of funerals. The Canon of Chester left in his will, that he wanted his funeral to be announced by the Bellman. We have a copy of his will in the record office.
” Nobody will ever know when the traditions started. Besides the funeral bellman there was a guy who rang his bell at night, every hour, announcing what time it was, and remind you before you went to bed that it was your job to cover our fire and put our your candles. In the daytime if there was a new regulation from the City Assembly, they would announce it. One example is after the Great Fire of London(1666) the Assembly in Chester ruled that there would be no thatched roofs within the city walls. They couldn’t write to you as there was no postal service and there were no local newspapers. The bellman announced it, but it took the council until 1671 to come up with the regulations!”
The book concludes with a look at modern Town Criers, with 200 still being in service across the UK. David told me that in High Wycombe for example, the incoming Mayor is publicly weighed and the Town Crier says how heavy he or she is. ” A year later he gets weighed again and the Town Crier will shout out his/her new weight!”
The book, published by Widespread Press is available from the tourist information centre £11.95