By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Volunteers are needed throughout Northumberland County for an amazing variety of jobs. But one of the most amazing is in Alnwick-Haldimand Township where, by year’s end, a new town crier will be needed.
Liam Cragg, who volunteered for the job in 2016, recently announced his retirement later this year – probably not long after he’s taken part in a couple of early-summer competitions, one of which is in Petrolia to celebrate the town’s 150th anniversary (it’s home to the first oil well in North America, even earlier than the ones in Texas).
This would not be his first town crier competition. There was even one in Northumberland in 2019, thanks largely to the efforts of Cragg and Cobourg town crier Mandy Robinson.
The judging at these events is excruciating, with everything from your appearance to your enunciation under the microscope. There is even a penalty judge, who gets an advance copy of your cry and dings you points for every departure from the script.
But on the flip side of the coin, it’s a great opportunity not only to travel, but to network with colleagues.
And like so much about the craft, this is typically done on your own dime. Your municipality may or may not chip in, organizers may or may not offer breaks on accommodations (as Cobourg’s Best Western did in 2019). But sometimes it’s all out of pocket.
Even so, Cragg said, the Ontario Guild of Town Criers (towncrier.on.ca) can boast at least three member with international titles, as well as at least three who have been town criers for 40 years (Chris Whyman of Kingston, Daniel Richer of Ottawa and Allan Freeman of Hamilton).
Cragg’s interest in the field dates back to when he was living in Bracebridge and his Rotary Club colleague (former Ontario premier Frank Miller) imposed upon him to ring the bell in their Santa Claus parade. The gusto of his performance inspired the town’s mayor to select a town crier. A competition was held, and Cragg came in second – in a field of two.
Then he moved to Grafton, heard of the great work of the late Cobourg town crier Tom MacMillan, and decided to try again.
He approached the township’s heritage committee, which approached council to start the process – hold an open competition, find a proper panel to judge entrants, make a selection.
They weren’t interested in that process, he reported. Instead, it was decided that Cragg could go ahead and, if anyone challenged the appointment, cross that bridge at that time. He set to work with the deputy clerk to write up a job description (because they vary from one municipality to another).
The pay was less than peanuts – nothing for the first year, eventually rising to its current rate of an annual $300 honourarium. This also varies from town to town, he said, in some cases up to $150 an hour. And there are the occasional invitations to non-municipal events where there is the prospect of being paid – though sometimes the reward is just that somebody buys you a drink.
Freeman, the town crier with the 40-year-record, recently appeared on a podcast where he shared a brief history of the revival of town crying in the 1980s. At 80 members, he said, the Ontario Guild is the largest except for the “ancient and honourable” one in England, where town crying began.
A more complete history is found in the book by David Mitchell, town crier for Chester, England – The Word On The Street: A History of the Town Crier and Bellman.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, these people were vital to the life of any town. Newspapers were unknown – but the population was essentially illiterate anyway, and communication was primarily oral. A loyal subject would be tapped for the job to share news of significance, everything from an out-of-control fire to a new tax levy to a straying wife.
Then the printing press came along, but there was no immediate threat to the town crier’s job – it would be many years before literacy became widespread and, in the case of urgent news (like a missing child or an approaching fire), a crier could be dispatched faster than a newspaper could be printed and distributed.
The balance shifted by the 20th century, however, and the nature of a town crier’s work evolved to what we know today as a ceremonial function.
Though Britain’s new king seems to disdain excessive pomp, Cragg pointed out, criers were part of his mother’s reign, present at all Royal events under the auspices of Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Pageant Master Bruno Peak.
Mindful of the tradition, Cragg set out to emulate the classic appearance of the town crier, growing mutton chops (which hearken back to the time of Charles Dickens) and assembling a livery – again, on his own dime.
He added a fashionable flap to a pair of motorcycle boots, and he already owned an appropriate shirt. From there, things got tricky.
Town criers are often asked why they dress like pirates, so Cragg turned it around and wondered why pirates dress like town criers. A gentleman named Tiger Lee of Pirate Fashions in Tampa was most helpful (not surprising, since Tampa is home to the annual Gasparilla Pirate Fest). He also got a helping hand from his friends in the theatre (he’s a member of VOS, soon to take the role of the Tin Woodsman in the spring production of The Wizard of Oz). And the crier community was also enormously supportive – the Nova Scotia Guild of Town Criers helped him secure his clangourous six-pound bell.
Though the role is ceremonial, Cragg insists, it is not without importance.
“You are an ambassador for your town and your mayor,” he pointed out.
“A crier should be part of formal announcements made by the town, like funding by upper levels of government or introducing visiting dignitaries.”
And a cry at the beginning of a big event (like a New Year’s Day levee) functions as a call to order to get everyone listening. Cragg’s bell and ringing voice have ushered in events like Grafton’s Canada Day festivities, the Grafton Christmas Market and the Roseneath Fair. Most recently, he cried at Cobourg and District Hall of Fame inductee Dick Raymond’s 80th birthday party. And he once cried at a combination 65th-wedding-anniversary-and-90th-birthday party.
“Birthdays are always a blast,” he said.
One poignant memory is being present at special graduations at Grafton Public School and St. Mary Elementary School during the COVID-19 pandemic. He got to announce Grafton Public School graduates, who were driven by in cars, and to announce St. Mary students at their clap-out.
Cragg takes pride in cries that are custom-written for each occasion, but there are no hard-and-fast rules on that. AI programs have been used in some cases, and sometimes a crier might even get a friend to help with the writing.
In looking at who might be a good candidate as the township’s second town crier, he has a list of ideal characteristics.
“It should be someone who loves the township – first and foremost, you have to love where you’re from, because you are going to be an ambassador for them,” he said.
A good command of the English language and a strong stage presence are other important qualities. And having a flexible enough schedule to handle the duties is a must.
Finally, to put it bluntly, the aspirant must not be in a position where he or she has to rely on the honourariums. Only a handful of town criers can make a living out of it and, even then, it’s not big bucks. There is always the potential for paid free-lance work – or not. While Cobourg’s current town crier charges a fee for these extracurricular appearances, her predecessor Tom MacMillan loved popping up at weddings, reunions and similar events free of charge (and if you insisted on paying him, he donated the fee to Northumberland Hills Hospital).
Inspired by colleagues with 30 and 40 years of service, Cragg would like to see someone young enough to enjoy that length of service in the calling, which means candidates in their 20s and 30s – “young enough that this will be something they can grow with.”
Anyone interested can e-mail email@example.com or contact him in Facebook