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A town crier was an officer of the court who made public pronouncements as required by the court. They would also make other public announcements in the streets. They were an important means of communication as a large number of the occupants and visitors to the town could not read or write. Proclamations, local bylaws, market days, adverts and any other notices which needed to be addressed to the general populous were part of the town crier’s responsibilities.
Also known as a bellman, they carried a hand bell to attract peoples’ attention. They also shouted the words “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez” before beginning their actual pronouncements. This is a traditional exclamation introducing the opening of the courts, especially in Great Britain. It comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word for listen and is a call for silence and attention. The town criers used this phrase to emphasize that they were officers of the court.
The term “posting a notice” comes from the actions of a town crier who, having read the message, would attach it to a post in the market square or sometimes the door post of a local inn. This is also why a lot of newspapers took the name “The Post”.
Town Criers had the full protection of the law, being appointees of the court and, therefore, agents of the ruling monarch. Harming a town crier was deemed an act of treason. The phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” in this case was more than just a saying – it was a real command punishable by death.
Colonial Williamsburg uses a town crier in exactly the same way as in the eighteen century. Flamboyantly dressed, as they often were, and using a hand bell to attract the attention of all those around him, the town crier makes the announcement of what is taking place in the Historic Area.
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