Crying for Chester: English Town Crier

You won't find David Mitchell working a  desk job. This Englishman has a unique career that goes back 500 years.
You won't find David Mitchell working a desk job. This Englishman has a unique career that goes back 500 years.

David Mitchell is dressing for work. But there isn’t a pinstriped suit in sight as he pulls on his knee-length boots and dons his ruffle-necked white shirt, red frock coat and black, tricorn hat. His job doesn’t involve balance sheets or peering at a computer screen. He shouts for a living.

He is maintaining a tradition that has existed in the English City of Chester for 500 years, which rests on the northwestern border of Wales.

Mitchell is the Town Crier.

Five days a week he can be found, at noon, standing at The Cross — the center of this ancient town. He tolls a hand bell and shouts: “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” a crowd of visitors gathers. Although “Oyez” is medieval French for “Hearken” or “Listen Up,” people soon get the idea.

Centuries ago, Mitchell’s predecessors would proclaim the news of the day to the townspeople. Today, he entertains his audience with a mixture of history and banter. Mitchell may tell a famous historical story related to the day, but the emphasis is on interaction with the gathering crowd. He asks where they are from, and overseas’ visitors are often greeted in their own language. Amusing stories rather than hard news is the order of the day.

For 16 years Mitchell worked as a primary school teacher before becoming the Town Crier. He sees this move as a logical progression: “I used to shout at children for a living, but now I shout at grown-ups instead,” he says with a grin.

His town has a lot to shout about, too. The Romans established Chester in 74 AD. It lies near the mouth of the River Dee and has everything you could wish for in a quintessential English town: a complete circuit of black and white walls, timber-fronted buildings, a medieval cathedral and grand public buildings standing cheek by jowl, with centuries-old shops and pubs.

The city is also renowned for its Rows. These open-fronted ‘streets above streets,’ probably date back to the 13th century. Shops, cafes and restaurants are situated above and below each other. This two-tiered arrangement provides a good viewing platform as well as protection from the rain.

A jovial, articulate man with a ready smile, Mitchell first became involved with Town Crying in 1989, when he booked the Crier at that time to wake his bride-to-be, Julie, on the morning of their wedding.

“About a week before our wedding, the Crier called to tell me that he was double booked and that he would have to let me down,” says Mitchell. But he would not be put off.

“I had my heart set on the idea, so I asked if I could hire the Crier’s spare outfit and do the job myself. So on the morning of our wedding, I found myself standing beneath my bride’s bedroom window shouting, ‘rise, fair maiden, cast off thy slumbers!’” Mitchell is clearly a romantic.

Mitchell continues, “After I had awakened Julie, I thought, ‘This is fun.’” A seed was sown, and Mitchell believes that if it weren’t for this impromptu serenading, the idea of becoming a Town Crier wouldn’t have occurred to him. “It was providence working in my favor,” he says.

A couple of years later the position became vacant and Mitchell seized his chance. He applied for the post and was initially appointed as deputy, taking over as the main Town Crier position six years later.

Mitchell was ready for a change from teaching, and the job appealed to him because, “It’s a role where doing the unusual was actually an advantage, whereas in a conventional job, such a thing can cause problems.”

Mitchell has entered a number of World Town Crier Championships — he came third in the Vancouver Island Competition of 1999. This led Julie to joining him as joint Crier for Chester. She would accompany him to the competitions as a costumed escort.

“Julie could see that I was having more fun than she as a teacher, and so she was persuaded to become a Crier herself. She has a naturally powerful voice,” Mitchell adds, his eyes smiling behind his gold-framed spectacles.

A strong voice is obviously a requirement of the job, and Mitchell traveled to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Voice Department in England’s Stratford-upon-Avon for some help. Other than that, he learned his new trade on the job.

Apart from noon proclamations, Mitchell acts as master of ceremonies at weddings, takes part in Chester Civic events and does promotional work — opening supermarkets and the like. He has also appeared on the small and large screen. His favorite additional activity, though, is after-dinner and luncheon club speaking.

“I appear in costume, in role, and utilize anecdotes and funny things that have happened to me over the years as a Town Crier,” says Mitchell.

There are between 300 and 400 Criers working in Britain, and about 500 in the rest of the world. Because the tradition has been maintained strongly in Britain, it is often wrongly assumed that the profession originated here.

“If you look in the Bible, in the Old Testament, you’ll find Criers mentioned. Prior to newspapers, wherever you had a city or a town, there would be a public announcer,” explains Mitchell.

Mitchell is enthusiastic about his work, as he declares, “The best part of the job is that you are not stuck in a routine. It’s varied, people are usually appreciative of what you do, and you are meeting new people all the time in different situations. The down side is the problem of generating enough income. I’m hired for many special occasions, which by their very nature are not repeated often.”

Yet, as I watch Mitchell entertaining at the Chester Cross, surrounded by tourists, his voice booming above the sound of camera shutters clicking, he seems a man content with his lot in life. A man who cries — but with a smile on his face.

If You Go:

Town of Chester