Monday, October 8, 2012

Town Criers

Do you have an ancestor who was a town crier?  Did you know that some towns still have town criers?  We have seen quite a few, and after bumping into town criers in places as far away as St. George, Bermuda and La Conner, Washington, I decided to look into this phenomenon.  What were all these folks doing dressed up as town criers in the year 2012?

A town crier is the person who makes public announcements ordered by a court or by the government.  Usually they carry a bell, or shout “Hear ye!” or “Oyez!”   In some countries they carry a drum or a gong.  There were town criers in medieval England, and in colonial America.  Some towns continued the tradition into the 20th century.  There is still an official town crier in Mariemont, Cincinnati, Ohio and in St. George, Bermuda.  You can look for town criers in New England town records, and in old newspaper archives. 

The St. George, Bermuda Town Crier welcoming a cruise ship from Gates Fort

The town crier in St. George has to be my favorite town crier.  When the NCL cruise ship Majesty used to sail from Boston to St. George, he would greet the ship from the Gates Fort as it squeezed through the cut into the harbor.  St. George is the third oldest English town in the New World, after St. John’s Newfoundland and Jamestown, Virginia.  It was founded by settlers shipwrecked on their way to Jamestown.  The town retains many colonial features familiar to New Englanders, such as a town square complete with stocks and a dunking chair.  It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The St. George town crier greeted the Majesty passengers with Red Sox Scores and news from Boston every day the ship was in port.  

Gates Fort seen from the deck of the
Norwegian Cruise ship Majesty

Unfortunately, the NCL cruise line retired the Majesty and the new ships are too big to fit through the cut into St. George harbor.  Boston passengers miss the town crier welcome to Bermuda very much!

There are still town crier guilds around the world.  Most of these participants are re-enactors or employees at living history museums.  They hold competitions for the best shout or the best costume.  We ran into the 2005 Town Crier competition while we were visiting La Conner, Washington in 2005, and we were amazed at how seriously these folks take their town crier business.  The costumes were stunning, and the shouts were both historic and often amusing!

Participants in the 2005 Town Crier Competition
seen in La Conner, Washington

More participants in the 2005 Town Crier Competition

A search of my personal genealogy files found a few men who had been appointed or elected to be town criers.  One is Thomas Driver, born 1687, who was paid 40 shillings to be the bell ringer in Lynn, Massachusetts.  He was my first cousin, 9 generations removed, son of William Driver and Mary Glover.  Not only is he my cousin in the GLOVER lineage, but he married Mary Ingalls, daughter of Stephen Ingalls and Dinah Elson, my 2nd cousin, 8 generations removed on my INGALLS lineage.

The tradition of the town crier is carried on by many newspapers with the name “Town Crier” or by pubs with the name “Bell in Hand” (aren’t pubs the best place to learn the local news and gossip?)   In Boston the Bell in Hand Tavern on 45 Union Street touts itself as America’s oldest tavern, established in 1795. It was owned by Jimmy Wilson, who was Boston’s town crier for fifty years. 

Click here for a page about Thomas Driver, from page 88 of the Driver Family compiled genealogy by Harriet Ruth Waters Cooke:

The American Guild of Town Criers

The North American Town Crier Championships

The Ancient and Honourable Guild to Town Criers

The Bell in Hand Tavern, Boston

Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. I love this! It's like the historical equivalent of today's "Flash Mob" scenes, only more newsy than artsy or political. It makes a real statement about the definition of public space. It's why people like cities -- rather than being (safely, I suppose) walled off in gated communities or suburbs. Great costumes, too.

  2. Great post. Thank you for taking the time to publish this information very useful! I’m still waiting for some interesting thoughts from your side in your next post thanks!
    Town Crier