Order from chaos
Henry VIII’s actions in closing Abingdon Abbey in 1538 left the town in lawless disarray, which remained the state of affairs until 1556 when the town was granted a new charter by Queen Mary. The charter dictated a local democracy with a mayor and council, with powers to raise funds from the populace for the restoration of order in the town. There would have been no police force, as such, but commonly in those days a watch was appointed who would turn out to deal with nuisances, fires and suchlike within the bounds of the town, and a man with a big coat and a bell would be appointed to run it.
The first mention of such a man is of Roger Covington. He and his wife Elizabeth moved to Abingdon from London in the 1750’s and started a family. He traded as a tailor. They had 4 boys, and in 1780 Roger was promoted to the role of Bellman and Beadle, in which role he was responsible for the town’s watch. Sadly, his youngest son, Giles fell in with an older man, Charles Shurey, who became landlord of The Chequer Inn in East St Helen’s Street, with whom he and others (including a number of Thames bargees) entered into a clandestine life of crime, varying from stealing poultry and horses to the silver in St Nicolas’ church. Their villainy reached a climax when they robbed and murdered David Chartres, a Scots traveller on his way home from Abingdon Fair in October 1787. Shurey, Covington and others were executed for their crimes in Oxford, and we can imagine that questions were asked in Abingdon about why the watch seemed to be somewhere else when most of these crimes were committed. Could it be that the criminals had inside knowledge, and had the Bellman’s son been providing it?
So in 1798 Abingdon Borough Council put on record the outcome of their discussions regarding the Bellman’s duties, privileges and advantages, as follows:
- To attend the Mayor on Sundays and to fetch and carry the robes of members of the Corporation
- To attend the Borough Court
- To attend and act as a peace officer at the quarter sessions
- To attend Council meetings and to help at all Corporation events
- To Cry all Corporation or police matters and to distribute their proclamations
- To attend Cumnor court, “with a Man to assist”
- To Cry for townspeople for sixpence (or 1 shilling if he has to go further than the “pitching”)
- To Cry for countrypeople for 1 shilling
- To turn vagrants out of town and see that they stay out
- To clean and light the Corporation lights and to inform on people breaking them
- To go a nightly watch “with an able bodied man” from all saints to candlemas
- To clean the Corporation’s knives and forks
- To clean and oil the (fire) engine and to take care that the pipes and buckets are kept in good condition
- To stick up Assizes of Bread and continuances to each baker in Abingdon (thus the government ensured that price of bread was controlled countrywide)
- To take care of the markethouse and keep it clean
- To sweep the Bury (marketplace) every Tuesday morning (Monday was marketday) around the markethouse and cage, and to “see that the Scavenger do take the filth away”
- To clear away the snow when it lodges on ye markethouse leads to prevent any damage to the building (no mention of health and safety here!)
The advantages to the bellman included:
- The last Corporation seat in St Helen’s church be appropriated to the use of Corporation servants, and that the Chamberlain do see that the same are cleared of persons commonly using the same
- The bellman and his assistant who keeps the nightly watch be allowed a “Great Coat” at the expense of the corporation
- The tolls of corn brought to Abingdon (with the exception of Mondays and Fridays) be let to the Bellman for one year at three guineas’ rent (evidently he needed an entrepreneurial streak!)
In this last paragraph, the bellman is named as Richard Gilkes. These resolutions are from 1789’s corporation records, and we can see that poor old Roger Covington is no longer in the job!
More detail, from a Liversedge essay entitled “Mayors and Masters”, has it that by order of the Corporation in June 1783 the Bellman’s uniform was to be blue in colour. Later, the same essay talks of uniforms for Sergeants at Mace, which Arthur Preston, mayor in 1909 described in detail as being of claret cloth with cocked hat. Bromley Challenor, the then Town Clerk, also cites a minute from 1836 describing provision of claret cloaks “as heretofore”. So it seems that claret was the colour of officials’ cloaks for many years. Preston’s description goes into some detail, specifying 12 yards of gold lace, the silver badge of the Borough Arms on the right sleeve, with the hat of Black Beaver trimmed with rich gold lace 1 ¼ inches wide.
No examples of uniform or regalia in question have survived, but numerous black and white film clips of it in the 1930’s have, and are held in the centre for Oxfordshire studies, thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of mayor Charles Gostling, who was a keen home movie buff. They show the Abingdon town crier who for many years from the 1930’s to 1974 who was a gentleman called Bert Edwards. He wore the cloak with a side-to-side bicorn hat and the bell he seems to have used is a straightforward victorian school bell which is still in use today. The bell bears no distinguishing marks.
The 1974 local government reorganisation had profound consequences for local government both for elected members and for officers and servants of council bodies. Many, including Bert Edwards (and his brother Fred) retired in the knowledge that the newly constituted councils represented communities other than the ones they had worked amongst for most of their lives.
So Bert retired, his regalia and effects disappeared and Town Crying in Abingdon died out. The Town managed to advertise events for years using banners across Stert Street and on the railings on the corner of the Market Place announcing town events, dates and times. Until, that is, the growing benefit and watchful eye of the Health and Safety Executive persuaded the Council to desist from hanging potentially dangerous obstacles across the street. There followed consternation abour how to advertise town events in future. Abingdon Town Council decided a Town Crier was the best way forward and one was found and sworn in, resurrecting a four hundred year tradition. The appointee was a tall and fine figure of a man with a very strong voice who had impressed the council members at his audition.
Bert Edwards’ claret regalia was unearthed from its cardboard box in the Town Council office, and the Council approached Mrs Jean Anns, a local needlewoman who was very active in the community to make a new cloak. The unearthed cloak, now faded from Claret to to a muddy brown colour was produced and Jean set to to use it as a pattern for a new one. In her words “it just fell apart”. The colours chosen for her work were Abingdon’s town colours, brought into use sometime around the 1956 visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – green and yellow – “green for the growing corn and yellow for the ripe”. The new regalia was splendid, and Bert’s bicorn hat went into storage, to be replaced by a relatively new tricorn, donated by Ada Dyson, the lady mayor who in the 1960’s had refused to wear a bicorn, and who had purchased the tricorn at her own expense, which she donated to the town after her year in office. Things never go smoothly, though, and just as Jean completed work on his cloak, the newly appointed Crier resigned without ever having Cried, and moved away, citing personal reasons.
A new start
The Town Council now had a uniform but no Town Crier and one day in the spring of the year 2000 the Mayor. and Town Clerk decided that the event they had organised for that day was attracting too few people. Since they had a bell and a Uniform they should seek a volunteer to wear it and Cry round the town persuading the populace to come to their event on the marketplace. The Lady Mayor’s unsuspecting but dutiful husband appeared at that moment and was dragooned into the role for the day, the event being the launch of Abingdon in Bloom 2000.
The dutiful husband turned out to be insufficiently dutiful to go along with any suggestion that he should be full time Town Crier, and so the idea of forming a group to cover all events was formed to strengthen the town’s heritage. The outcome was to form an Abingdon Guild of Honorary Town Criers, which seemed appropriate for an ancient town. After all, was not a Town Crier the traditional way for alerting the townspeople to events happening in the Town and would this not provide colourful figures to carry on the role?
An inaugural meeting to find volunteer Criers was publicised on town notice boards, by word of mouth and in the Abingdon Herald. The Meeting was held on Tuesday 27th February 2001 in Old Abbey House, with the Mayor, Cllr Lesley Legge, the Town Clerk, Nigel Warner, Tony Legge, Peter Green, Jim Humphreys and Dave Spiers as volunteers who had already been found. A Freeman of the Town, Ewart Hemmings, had been approached and invited to be the first Master of the Guild . A voluntary co-ordinator, Tony Legge, was appointed and continued in that role till October 2010 when Lesley Legge took over the duties and remained in the post until March 2022.The cry went out for more men and women to volunteer. Two of the original volunteers – Tony Legge and Jim Humphreys are still Crying with Peter Green recently retired, and since the Guild was formed there have been many volunteers and colourful characters over the years, including Dave Spiers, Angela Lawrence, Eileen Bagshaw, Margaret Pinsent, Jake Smith, Bill Johnstone, Herman Cole and Steve Wilson. The Guild also began with a volunteer wardrobe adviser, accessories provider and original dressmaker, Jean Anns, and a leather accessory provider Harry Downey, the well loved cobbler in Bath Street (Both no longer with us and sadly missed as is the original Master, Freeman Ewart Hemmings who died in November 2021). Currently there are 8 volunteer Criers, 2 of whom are women. The Guild meets twice a year where the Master of the Guild presides,and the volunteers share out the requests between them as their commitments allows. As we Cry on behalf of the Mayor, The Mayor is invited to these Meetings.
As already mentioned, the seamstress, Mrs Jean Anns, had modelled the new uniform on the old uniform worn by Bert, one of the Edward twins,so the present uniform of green with gold trimmings is enhanced with white washable lace collar and cuffs and a white jabot round the neck and complemented with it all with tricorn hat and bell. Harry Downey, Abingdon Cobbler, provided the buckles and leather fixings and a bag to keep the bell safe. Some aspects of our activity were still puzzling to us, and so we entered a competetive town crying festival in Bromyard, Herefordshire to pick the brains of other criers about a few practicel issues, and as a result we equipped ourselves with white gloves and tights to complete the outfit. In fact we competed in Bromyard more than once, and thoroughly enjoyed these events, but became more than ever convinced that forming our own guild was the way forward for Abingdon.
For 12 years there was only one uniform to fit all and be used on all Crying occasions! Two waistcoats were acquired for very hot weather and in 2012 we were very grateful to the Town Council for giving a grant for a lighter weight uniform enhanced with a beautifully embroidered town crest and a new tricorn hat.
Up to date
The number of requests have grown and grown over the years and the Town Crier is a very familiar figure at all Town Events, Mayor Making, Remembrance Day as well as for Charitable, Clubs, Society and businesses events. A Town Crier will accompany the Mayor if requested to other commitments, such as school visits
Occasionally our Town Criers help out in neighbouring towns and sometimes even further afield!
The years of the covid pandemic and the lockdowns meant that events were cancelled or taken online. As normal life has returned, the Town Criers can once again be heard Crying to advertise events around the town.
Article written by Jackie Smith, Honorary Town Archivist and Lesley Legge, Master of the Abingdon Guild of Town Criers, 6 April 2022
The Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder, Mark Davies, Oxford Towpath Press
Historian Mayors and Masters, WJH Liversedge
Selections from Abingdon Corporation records, assisted by Jacquie Smith, hon Town Archivist