Town crier gives council a history lesson

By Cecilia Nasmith

Cobourg Town Crier Mandy Robinson chose the first regular meeting of the new council to offer a presentation on the history and evolution of the town crier through the present day.

“I have never heard anyone, except for myself, explain the true role of the town crier throughout history,” Robinson said Monday night, wearing her civilian attire instead of the ornate red-velvet gown in which she performs that duty.

The job goes beyond entertainment, she pointed out.

“Part of my job description is ambassador for the Town of Cobourg, and I am so pleased to be the bearer of good news for 2019,” she said - particularly since the earliest town criers who brought bad news risked being put to death (hence the phrase “don't shoot the messenger”).

The practitioners were also known as bellmen or heralds, and the earliest ones she could find were Spartan runners in the Greek empire. One of the outstanding ones is said to have had a voice like 50 men crying out – his name was Stentor, and this is the origin of the term “stentorian.”

The term “post a message” grew from town criers posting their scrolls on exteriors of taverns or public buildings after a cry, so citizens could review them at their leisure – post offices, as these locations might have been called.

Their role expanded to include announcements of judicial verdicts, newly enacted laws, impending dangers, market openings, tax levies, even lost dogs – virtually all matters of local and national importance. Much like Robinson's predecessor Tom MacMillan on prom nights, town criers made ringing announcements of arrivals at grand balls and celebrations.

Just as she represents the town, monarchs realized that town criers represented their interests as well. As such, any assault on them was potentially punishable by death. Robinson admitted that this has afforded her some feeling of safety as she goes about her duties.

There are perhaps 500 town criers around the world, she added, and she looks forward to participating in the Ontario championships in June.

“On behalf of council, we are pleased to have you as our town crier,” Mayor John Henderson said.

“You serve us exceptionally well, and we look forward to more good news in 2019.”