The Life and Voice of a Town Crier

Christmas jollity came early for Civic Society members when our very own City Council Town Crier, Ken Knowles visited the November meeting with his consort, Marilyn, to give what can only be described as an amusing and colourful presentation on the role of town criers and his own experiences after eight years in the role. Firstly, here's a little history. Town Criers have existed since at least since the Norman Conquest and, probably in a different form, even before then. The call "oyez, oyez, oyez" was based on Norman French, corrupted in modern French to écouter, the verb to listen. With a largely illiterate population, news passed by word of mouth in small towns and cities; listening to the town crier for the news was therefore essential. Gradually, the town crier, as one of a few paid officers, was bestowed with additional responsibilities. Some, like our own, became sword bearers; others were responsible for the stocks and prison cells. Whilst the role was superseded by the emergence of other media, principally the press and the population's increasing literacy, town criers have clung on as part of our cultural heritage, performing on special occasions. Most choose to wear the traditional eighteenth century dress of tricorne hat, red coat, black breeches and gaiters. Ken's coat has the added embellishment on the back of a large circular badge with representations of Lichfield Cathedral and the Worshipful Company of Smiths, as well as the City Council motto "Salve, magna parens" - meaning "Hail great mother", Dr Johnson's greeting to Lichfield in his dictionary. Ken's traditional handbell has been handed down through the line of Lichfield Town Criers and probably dates back to the eighteenth century, although in a much modified form. Ken's responsibilities extend to a maximum of 13 days per year as sword bearer and less as Town Crier. The City Council ceremonial sword, incidentally, which is carried in all civic processions, is five feet in length and, Ken says, heavy! It dates back to 1686.

Although Ken's responsibilities seem somewhat light, nationally he is actively involved with other town criers. Most years will find him at the National Town Criers competition, held this year in Colchester. His travels have taken him to competitions in Canada (three times), New Zealand and to both our twin towns. These attendances are, of course, a splendid way of introducing the City to a wider audience; and Ken's skills as an amateur actor ensure that public awareness of Lichfield is heightened. Competitions run to strict rules: part one requires a carefully crafted 125-word declamation on your own town or city; part two requires a similar declamation on a theme chosen by the judges. Ken read out some of his declamations, all carefully penned and wittily crafted to draw the judges' attention. The highlight of Ken's career so far must, however, be his award this year of first prize in the national town crier competition.

We are fortunate have have Ken as our town crier. The role covers much more than just dressing up in a fancy cloak and ringing a bell. Your need the skill to pen witty and informative prose within the constraints of 125 words, support your local council at ceremonial events, act as an ambassador for your town at national and international events and then willingly attend evening meetings such as ours!

Roger Hockney
November 2017