J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Glimpses of Boston’s Town Criers

There are only sparse records about Boston’s town criers, even though they were licensed by the selectmen, as I described yesterday. I think that’s because they were essentially private businessmen, making announcements for whoever would pay them, rather than public officials.

John Tucker was Boston’s crier from before 1688 to his death in 1695. Historian Annie Haven Thwing reported that he applied for the job with two qualifications:

  • “having been educated unto letters,” so he could keep records as the law demanded. (Though Charles Prosser, the New York crier in 1766, was unable to sign his name.)
  • “being weake in Body,” so he needed a job with no heavy lifting, or else he might become a charity case for the town.
I suspect that being a town crier was usually a way to supplement income from another job, such as keeping an inn with one’s family.

On 13 Nov 1753, the Boston selectmen made the following appointment:
Voted, that Mr. John Jenkins be and here by is appointed public Cryer within the Town of all money Goods & Things lost, & he is ordered to keep an exact account of all such Money Goods & Things he shall Cry the time when and the person that shall employ him to cry the same and return such account to the Town Clerk once in three months.
Alas, there were at least two men named John Jenkins active in Boston at this time. One was baptized at Christ Church on 11 June 1727, the son of Robert and Elizabeth Jenkins, which would make him twenty-six when the selectmen made their appointment.

On 25 July 1748, one John Jenkins married a widow named Prudence (Marion) Taylor at Christ Church. They had a growing family: Elizabeth (1750), John (1753), Jeremiah (1755), Lewis (1757), and Prudence (1759).

Another John Jenkins and his wife Sarah had children Benjemin (1759) and Mary (1762) baptized at Christ Church. And there were also couples named John and Mary Jenkins in Boston slightly before and after this period, attending other churches.

In addition, in 1746 the selectmen refused John Jenkins of Paddy’s Alley from having a license to sell liquor. In May 1763 a John Jenkins was one of the “Town House Watch.” And in 1765 and 1766 a John Jenkins was elected one of Boston’s official “Cullers of Staves.”

So I’m not sure which John Jenkins was the town crier. But he filled the job for over a decade, until 7 May 1767. Then, as the Boston Gazette reported:
Thursday Morning Mr. Jenkins the Town-Cryer fell down just as he was going out to cry Fish, and died instantly.
The young printer John Boyle recorded that Jenkins was still “in his yard” at the time.

The selectmen had already appointed another crier, back on 20 Feb 1765:
Thomas Webber apply’d to the Selectmen for their approbation of him as a public Cryer in this Town, and he was accordingly approbated.
The next town crier appointment that Thwing noted came in 1782, so Webber may thus have held the job through the turbulent Revolutionary years. However, I haven’t found his name in connection with the many political events of the period. As a “common cryer,” he may well have acted as a “common carrier” today, staying neutral about the content of his announcements.

(The photo above shows Bill Turberfield, town crier of Ledbury in England, and was taken this past April by Pigsaw.)

3 comments:

Marc said...

Most interesting, John. I love the topic. Years ago I wrote a book of unconventional activities for kids and one of them was "Be a Town Crier." Has there, to your knowledge, been any picture books about town criers?

And is the photo above to indicate that Ledbury STILL has an active (and compensated) town crier?

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t know of books for kids specifically about town criers. But from the regular inquiries for homework help at EarlyAmerica.com’s Town Crier Forums, it was obvious that a lot of students have the assignment of finding out what a town crier did.

For the photo above, I went on Flickr and searched for town criers, and found a bevy of older men dressed in outlandish mélanges of 17th, 18th, and 19th century uniforms. Almost all were from Britain. So I’m guessing that many towns in Britain still do have town criers, either volunteer or with small compensation, for the sake of either tourism or eccentricity.

Anonymous said...

There are still over 450 town criers in the world. Most are in England, but also USA, Canada, many European countries, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. - Gary Long, Town Crier for Middleton and Berwick, Nova Scotia, Canada