In memory of Robin Burfoot 1936-2017. Rochester Town Crier from 2004.
I originally posted the piece below on another forum of which we were both members.
John Akhurst. Sheerness Town Crier.
Born Headcorn 1823. Died ? (after January 1909.)
John's father died when he was just two years old.
"Mr Akhurst's father was bit by a ferocious mad dog. The bite had sensational effects upon the victim, for he, too, lost his senses, and became so mad that he tore bars from the windows, and ultimately died in a frenzy."
John's mother then married a Sheerness tailor and John was apprenticed to the business. As well as tailoring he also became a landlord and a general shopkeeper. He married twice, outliving both his wives.
"Passing on to another phase of Mr. Akhurst's career, it will surprise some readers to know that he has been a CRIER FOR FIFTY YEARS, and to hear him speak of his wonderful bell is to make you think instinctively of a captain eulogising his ship, or a mother her child. This bell, which has been the immediate forerunner of Heaven alone knows how many important notices, has been in existence for a span of well over one hundred and fifty years. "It is a fine bell," said the ringer of it proudly," and, oh such a heavy one. It has gold in it I believe. They used to put gold in bells, I think, to improve their ringing qualities." He went on to tell me how he had tended the bell with loving care; how he had fastened the rivets in it, and how he had tried to make the wooden handle less inclined to rock, when this civic instrument is being utilised.
My impression. early in the interview, that Mr. Akhurst was a civic institution, would have been rendered more vivid could I have seen him as he used to be, in all the bedazzling glories of a uniform. This consisted of a drab coat with red cuffs, a red cape, and a tall hat with gold lace binding around the rim. Imagine him then, as he went though the streets, followed by an admiring and envious crowd, admired for his importance and envied for his uniform. For in those days the town-crier was almost as important as the clerk of the parish. His duties were multitudinous, and included something which was a very near approach to hawking. Whenever a fresh consignment of coal reached Sheerness, it was Mr. Akhurst's duty to go around the town, and, in his official capacity of crier, announce the arrival. He often had as many as three announcements per day to make public, and the fee he received was one shilling per town. Of late years, however, he has never been sent to Blue Town to announce sales of any kind, the reason being given that the people who reside there are not good purchasers.
In addition to Sheerness, he has frequently been to Queenborough to ply his business. Again, when the local fishmongers obtained a stock of fresh fish, they would communicate with Mr. Akhurst, who would sally forth with his bell, HOLDING UP THE MACKEREL, or whatever the fish might be, as a specimen, and he would announce the arrival of the fishmonger's consignment, crying out, "Just arrived; all fresh," etc. To enumerate all the various "cries" which have been made by Mr. Akhurst would be too long and comprehensive a task. Besides, as he has kept no records of all the announcements handed to him by patrons, I doubt if it would be possible. His stepfather, who was town crier before Mr. Akhurst was sworn in, had kept such a record, of which the late Mr. D. Prosser, a chemist, made it his hobby to collect.
The swearing-in-ceremony that the would-be crier would serve to the best of his ability, was supposed to be undergone at regular intervals, but not for forty years at a stretch did Mr. Akhurst undergo this experience. Had Mr. Akhurst kept a record of his various tasks, it would have made most interesting reading. It would tell us many a tale of lost children, lost property, and other happenings too numerous to mention. The venerable inhabitant was somewhat proud of the success he achieved when his right to cry in the streets was, for a time, disputed as a result of comparatively recent byelaws. It was with evident relief that he outlined to me the statement that Mr. Copland had made, viz., that he was at liberty to cry how he liked, where he liked, and what he liked."
From Sheerness Times and General Advertiser, January 23rd 1909. Edited from a much longer piece.