The search for a Hexham Town Crier by Steve Ball, Hexham Town Council
Town Criers appear to be the essence of Englishness yet their origins date back to Egyptian times. In the days before newspapers, television and mobile phones, a Town Crier was the cutting edge of news information. There is something slightly eccentric and joyous about their physical appearance and their demonstrative abilities.
I fell in love with Hexham over 10 years ago when visiting my daughter who had recently settled in the town. Brought up and working in urban surrounds, Hexham was like Narnia. A market town, quaint old buildings, surrounded by green spaces and a largely unpolluted river. There were social activities surrounding an Abbey, a racecourse and a bandstand. We should let the world know what a great place Hexham is to live and inform them of all the great outdoor activities.
I am not one that considers myself a keyboard warrior and am more traditional, even slightly offline. I believe life is a theatre with us all playing a part. Let’s tell everybody what’s going on so their involvement becomes longer than 15 minutes.
How could we shout about the merits of living in such a great town? The obvious answer was to dig into the town’s history and folklore and spotlight the past. A Bellman had existed in Hexham from medieval times. Indeed, there is a Bellman’s Cottage within the town’s boundaries.
There were no Town Criers in Northumberland and relatively few in the whole of the North East. There is a myriad of Town Criers around the market towns of the Home Counties. There is even a Guild of Town Criers offering advice, competitions and costume rivalry amongst likeminded eccentrics. Have I missed something! My exuberance was short-lived on exchanging my enthusiasm for such an excursion into the past. I was met by a number of raised eyebrows. It was even suggested to me that it would be a better idea if the Town Crier was dressed in black and white stripes! Gradually, my circle of supporters expanded although I must admit a disproportionate number of advocates were from the Morris dancing community!
A random phone call to the head honcho of the Town Criers exhilarated me like a university student discovering politics for the first time. Let’s do it came my cry! I had to examine whether I wanted to be the Town Crier. All that dressing up and shouting out has its merits. Perhaps this was a step too far although some of my rugby league friends had always questioned my dubious pronouncements on being tackled. Was the stage to be set? Much debate took place as to whether a Bellman, a Town Crier or a Bellperson. A Bellperson just didn’t have the right ring… Perhaps one male and one female would be the answer.
A dedicated Town Council budget was agreed. Outfits would be produced in the traditional Bellman’s outfit of dark blue. Frills, stockings, hats and a staff would be their accessories. My over exuberance was at fever pitch. On reflection, the support of some of my fellow Councillors was relatively passive. But nothing was going to stop progress now. Yet there was a global conspiracy to stop this adventure in its tracks. A Town Crier competition where contestants audibly shouted in the Market Place was not the best idea as Covid-19 consumed the country. Covid tempered everybody’s enthusiasm for outdoor meetings and gatherings. I had to console myself with YouTube cries of Town Criers of the past. Was such an expedition to be consigned to the past?
Eventually, in April 2022, the Covid fog had lifted enough to have our competition but who would enter? Was I to be the promoter of the loneliest Town Crier competition in the whole of the world? Had my ambitions to become the Simon Cowell of medieval performers come to an abrupt end and be a complete failure? Was that buzzer about to be pressed? Had my green judge’s rosette been to no avail? The Hexham Courant and the Beaumont Hotel offered encouraging support. However, the nagging feeling of the little boy who Father Christmas forgot lingered on. First, there was one applicant, then another and eventually another. We would have a gold, silver and bronze.
The Market Place was booked. The chief Town Crier came up from Hereford and Jane the Town Clerk found a town twinning bell in the back office. Clare, Projects Officer, arranged for us all to meet an hour before the competition. Much nervousness ensued. As anticipated, three eccentrics turned up for the competition. A script was produced, announcing the 800-hundred-year anniversary of the Market Place. It was the perfect scene for the competition to take place.
A large crowd had gathered in anticipation of something very different, although I did see a small group of Morris dancers in natural disguise! Oyez, oyez, oyez! The contestants were individually brilliant. Rapturous applause greeted each of them on their conclusion. It was now guaranteed to be a success. I felt it was like a modern-day Eurovision Song Contest, the winner giving a celebration proclaim in acknowledgement of their victory. The contrasting styles of the contestants were all complementary. Joe Mills, with his booming theatrical performance, contrasted sharply with the smooth storytelling lyricism of Helen Wearmouth. John Doherty was close in bronze position.
Nearly three years in the making, we now have two spectacular Town Criers. It became increasingly reassuring that Hexham had found a new home for eccentric, enthusiastic townsfolk. My initial costings were just slightly out as Joe, being 6ft 7in, and Helen, being just over 5ft, we cut our cloth accordingly! The Town Criers have now become part of the tradition of Hexham, celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, special events and proclamations of note. Trips into the local schools will make history lessons more exciting. If you are lucky enough to be around one of their performances, take note, smile and remember Hexham is the happiest place to live in Great Britain. Let’s all enjoy living here.