Answering the Call... With a Mighty Cry!
By Blair Matthews
When Markham resident John Webster dons his bright red uniform, rings his bell, and opens his mouth to speak, everyone listens.
Afterall, in modern times, the last thing you expect to hear at an event is someone giving a mighty proclamation using proper english and deliberate pronunciation without the aid of a microphone.
And make no mistake about it - Webster needs no help projecting his voice.
This is the life of a town crier. And once Webster starts off on his verbal assignment, he grabs the attention of everyone around him. His voice bellows proudly the message he’s been given the responsibility to announce.
Webster’s career as a town crier started in the most innocent of ways. He was on the publicity and concessions committee at the Markham Fair in the late 1980s. The committee had always struggled with how to tell fair-goers about the events that were going on. They tried brochures, then white boards (that was a failure since once the events were written up and the boards left alone, hooligans would bring their own markers and deface them). Someone suggested a P.A. system, but at the time, Webster felt that would ruin the ambiance of an agricultural fair.
But a town crier, on the otherhand, hollaring out upcoming events, might be just what the fair needed.
On a whim, Webster went out and rented a town crier costume from a local shop the afternoon that the fair was opening. He stepped out of the washroom, rang his bell, shouted out, and scared the bejesus out of a woman standing close by.
That woman was Carole Bell, Markham’s mayor at the time.
After she collected her wits, she was impressed with Webster’s performance. When the fair’s run was over and the town crier suit was returned to the costume shop, someone from the mayor’s office called him asking if he would lead a ParticipACTION Parade.
He was happy to do it, and after the parade concluded, the local paper featured him on the front page and suddenly he was getting calls from all over the place to come and be the town crier for events.
So what does a town crier actually do? At the time, even Webster wasn’t entirely sure. He had started it out of necessity, but when the calls started coming in to book him, he decided he should investigate further.
The use of town criers dates back to Greek and Roman times. They played a vital role in everyday life - sometimes giving the news, or announcements, and other times it was to relay the declaration of war in unsettling times.
Usually people of ‘standing’ in the community were chosen as criers because they had to be able to write and read the official proclamations. In those days, most people were illiterate, and relied on the town crier for spoken communication.
After the town crier had finished his (or her) cry, he or she would nail the paper it was written on to a post in front of an inn - or another popular gathering place - so those who were able to read could read it for themselves. This is how the phrase “posting a notice” was born.
As he dug deeper into the history of the town crier, Webster discovered there was an ‘Ontario Guild of Town Criers’ organization with 11 members (not including himself). To join, you had to be officially appointed by a municipality as their town crier.
Webster went back to Mayor Bell and suggested they appoint him as the official town crier of Markham. Council agreed.
And just like that, the demand for Webster’s services exploded. “I was doing about 200-225 cries per year at different events,” he says.
His popularity at local events brought him to East Gwillimbury, and they, in turn, hired Webster to be town crier for their turn-of-the-century activities.
“If you want to do this officially,” he told town representatives, “you ought to appoint me as the official town crier (of East Gwillimbury).”
He fit the role perfectly, and to this day, it’s still a title he holds here.
Webster scaled down his town crier duties for a while when he was elected and served two terms as a councillor in Markham. But with his political aspirations now behind him, Webster is enjoying his town crier work again.
And obviously, this isn’t a gig that just anyone can do.
It requires hours of dedication, a love of people, good memory skills, and without question, a commanding voice.
“The ‘cry’ is not just shouting - it’s got to come from the diaphragm. It’s like a singer, you’ve got to be warmed up. I usually do that in the car on the way there with the windows up. And thank goodness for hands-free cell phones because it used to be I’d be driving along, shouting like crazy and anybody beside me would look in and see the veins sticking out the side of my neck and think ‘that guy’s crazy’. Now they just figure I’m really mad at somebody on the phone, and they drive on...”
Webster admits he’s surprised at how much demand there has been for his town crier services over the years. “When I first started I thought there’d be one every 2 or 3 months. It really caught on. I enjoy doing it and it has brought me to a lot of different places,” he says. “I’ve ‘cried’ in England, France, Germany, Belgium, Australia, United States. When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip came to Ontario, I had the chance to introduce them. Prince Philip came up and had a little chat with me and shook my hand.”
Every other year, town criers from all over the world converge for a national competition. Webster has competed in so many competitions over the years that he’s lost track of the exact number he’s participated in.
In 1993, he hosted the World Competition for the Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers in Markham; 107 town criers competed.
Going head to head with other criers, he’s faced intense competition and brought home his fair share of trophies.
Some criers take these competitions very seriously, Webster says.
At each level, there are very specific rules and regulations. Sometimes, he says, you have to submit the ‘cry’ in advance and the judges follow along to make sure that you’re accurate.
“If the King told the town crier to go out and declare that there will not be a war, and you left the word ‘not’ out, it could make quite a difference,” Webster points out.
“When you’re doing it, you have to do the cry with the pomp and ceremony that your uniform would command. If East Gwillimbury were a military town, my uniform would probably be more militaristic. I would wear all my medals.”
East Gwillimbury was, of course, a commercial centre in a rural area. “My interpretation would be that the town crier would have been one of the local people and would probably know many of the people in the audience.”
The costume that Webster wears is every bit as important as the way he delivers his message. For a while he was renting it from Malabar, a high-end costume shop in Toronto. But when he started needing it more often than not, he bought it outright from the shop.
One look at the town crier costume and it’s obvious there is much work and craftmanship needed to design and maintain it. And it’s not necessarily meant for the wear and tear of everyday use.
“It’s meant to be hanging on a rack most of the time, go on stage for half an hour, come back and hang on a rack again. Because I was out working in it on the streets with the dirt and the grime it got worn out very quickly.”
Webster decided to get a costume made after it was time to replace the original rental that he’d been wearing. He consulted with area historical societies to come up with what they thought a town crier in the area would have worn to keep it as authentic as possible.
Unfortunately, the new costume didn’t last long because it had been made by costume designers. The stitching wasn’t durable enough, and it wasn’t made to weather the elements.
Webster was left with a unique dilemma.
He turned to a world-renowned organization, known for their impeccable uniforms and polished look: the RCMP.
“They do military stuff and they know how to make uniforms, and they know how to make them last. I’m getting about 10 years out of each uniform. I try to be a little careful with it, but if you’re leading a parade and it starts to rain, you get wet.”
So what’s the biggest problem a town crier has with this elaborate outfit?
“No pockets,” Webster says. “So you lock up your car and what do you do with your keys?”
Apparently, the original town crier tailors didn’t envision car keys. And who wants to be spotted in a historical outfit carrying... a cell phone.
East Gwillimbury is, and always has been, near and dear to Webster’s heart.
Back in the day, his dad, advancing in his career, took a job as principal at a two-room school in Holland Landing.
He met a girl - the other teacher there - and they eventually married.
Webster says he’s pleased that things have come full circle. With family history rooted so deeply in the area, being town crier in a place that was so important to his parents means a lot to him.
“Doing heritage things... that little bit of history is important,” he says. “I’m really honoured to be a part of it.”