Robin Longbottom on how the role of bellman was not without its controversy

IN September, 1884, the Court Leet – an ancient manorial court dating back to the Middle Ages – met in Keighley.

The Duke of Devonshire was the lord of the manor, but court was presided over by his steward who summoned the leading freeholders of the town to attend and dealt with proceedings on behalf of the duke.

One of the last remaining functions of the court was to appoint a town crier, known as ‘the bellman’. His job was to go throughout the town and make public announcements. He normally rang a handbell and cried out “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez” (from old French for listen) or “Hear Ye, Hear Ye” to attract the public’s attention. His role was an important one in the days prior to general literacy, newspapers and mass media. Although the bellman was appointed to make official announcements, he could also be engaged by private individuals to advise the public of such things as a sale of goods, local events or general news.

At the Court Leet in September, 1884, William Aked, a 52-year-old shoemaker, was appointed to be the town's bellman.

Filled with pride by his new appointment, he felt that he deserved a suit of clothes compatible with his new position. He therefore wrote to the town’s mayor and asked if the corporation would provide him with a brand-new outfit. However, the council and ratepayers of Keighley were soon in uproar at the prospect of this being paid for out of the public purse.

The Keighley dialect poet, Bill o’th’Hoylus End, further stirred matters up with a penny broadsheet suggesting that if the corporation submitted to the request, the town's pinder should also be provided with a new suit:

"And I propose, if t’bellman gets

"A bran’ new scarlet coit,

"At Pinder gets a suit o’ green

"At buttons up t’throit."

Not surprisingly the finance committee swiftly rebuffed the idea, followed by a suggestion that “as the lord of the manor had the honour of the appointment, he should not be deprived of the honour of ordering his protege a suitable insignia of his office.”

This was not the first time that the bellman had been embroiled in controversy. Back in 1839 William Holmes, who then held the position, was requested by Thomas Knowles, a local chartist, to announce that a meeting of radicals was to be held on Monday, October 7, at the Working Men’s Hall. When Frederick Greenwood and his brother, Edwin, both leading landowners, mill owners and magistrates, got wind of this they tracked down the bellman and advised him that if he continued with the announcement, he would have to face the consequences. Fearing that he would lose his job, he advised Knowles that he could not continue with the announcements.

Incensed by the Greenwoods' underhand threat, Knowles went and bought a large rattle, normally used for scaring crows, and employed a chartist sympathiser to proclaim the meeting. The consequence of the Greenwoods stopping the crier backfired on them and it was reported that “the meeting was far more numerous and spirited than usual”.

After William Aked resigned in 1896, the Court Leet appointed its last bellman, Thomas Wilson. By this time the role had been largely reduced to putting up billposters. However, perhaps his last important job as town crier was during the drought of 1906. The council instructed him to go throughout the town to announce that consumers should restrict their use of water and advise that supply would be cut off during the night.

Thomas Wilson died in 1914 after 18 years’ service. More recently the role of town crier was resurrected by the town council.