Bob Smytherman Cleaning his Town Crier Bell
Tieran Meets the World,  UK

The Man who Cries for a Town

The Man who Cries for a Town | Worthing’s Town Crier Keeps an Age-Old British Tradition Alive

VIDEO [Article Below]

Summary: Worthing is home to one of 144 official Town Criers in the UK. Bob Smytherman has been preserving the ancient tradition of Town Crier in the West Sussex town for 7 years, and has become a living part of Worthing’s identity. But what does a Town Crier do, how do you become one, and how do Town Criers fit into the modern world? I spoke with Bob on Worthing pier about what Town Crying means to him to find out more.


Salty sea air funnels through a shopping arcade, waves crash over a pebbled shore, and seaweed clings stubbornly to the rusting frame of a long pier stretching out over the water. Despite its rickety appearance, it’s weathered the elements for over 150 years and is still standing. As I make my way towards Worthing’s town hall, I keep my eyes peeled. The cry of a seagull echoes overhead. But that’s not the cry I’m here for. The one I’m in search of, is bigger, boomier, and a little more British.

If you spend enough time here, with a bit of luck you might notice a flash of royal blue in the throngs of passers-by, or an ostrich feather protruding from a three-pointed hat above a crowd. Or perhaps you’ll hear the ring of a bell, bouncing along the streets. If you do, chances are you’ve stumbled across Bob Smytherman. He fulfils a role that’s almost a millennium old, because Worthing is one of a dwindling list of towns and cities in England with an official town crier.


Worthing Pier on Worthing SeafrontJutting out into the water, Worthing pier is one of the most recognisable parts of the West Sussex town’s seafront.


Meet Worthing’s Town Crier: Bob Smytherman


Bob is hard to miss when he’s in town-crier-mode; his traditional regalia, or “livery” – the clothing that makes the role so aesthetically iconic – stands out from a mile away. Gold threads line the seams of a blue tunic emblazoned with the Worthing coat of arms and the crest for the “Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers”, buckled shoes thud against the pavement, and his decorated waistcoat disappears behind white frills that tumble from his collared shirt. The local paper has come to know him as the “The Blue Pirate”, and I spot the resemblance immediately.

Backed by a row of enormous stone columns on the steps of the town hall, and gripping a heavy, bronze bell with a pristine white gloved hand, he raises an arm. With that, the infamous ringing reverberates around us, as though it’s coming from every direction. The setting is fitting; if it weren’t for the rush of traffic behind me, I’d have thought I’d stepped back 200 years.


Bob Smytherman - Worthing's Town Crier

Bob introduces himself to me with a cry on the steps of Worthing’s town hall.


Reveal Full Chapter

“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” he proclaims in a thunderous voice powerful enough to shatter eardrums, “I’m Bob Smytherman, and I’m Worthing’s official town crier!”.

Well, that was quite the introduction. His opening phrase is Anglo-Norman; a language that spread through England following William the Conqueror’s, you guessed it, conquest of England in 1066. It translates into something like “Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye!”, or, basically, “Listen up!” It seems to have worked, because a few people have already stopped and started to gather round.  So, together we decide to stroll to the seafront and make our way back to that rusty pier, his bell jangling with each step, for an interview.


Town Crier Bob Smytherman in Full Regalia

Bob posing in full town crier regalia on Worthing Pier.


It’s hard to go anywhere with Bob without stopping countless times to speak to locals. He seems to have developed a bit of a fanbase here and, on a couple of occasions, was even called over for selfies with shoppers.

“Bob! How you doin’?” a voice from outside a café called over.

“When’s the new regalia coming in, Bob?”

“Any announcements today?” It seemed that by the time he was waving goodbye to one person, another was already saying hello.

“It’s just incredible as a way of connecting with people…. The best job in the world!” I can sense Bob beaming underneath his facemask, custom-made and emblazoned with the words “Worthing Town Crier”, as we wander through the royal arcade and he salutes a shop owner. People are still waving at him, and I notice a few take out their phones to film, just as I was doing. He seemed to be embracing life as a local celebrity.


Town Crier Bob Smytherman is Instantly Recognisable in Worthing

A local shop owner recognises Bob as the Town Crier and calls him over.


What is a Town Crier?


Picture the scene: cars are not even an idea yet. Instead, horses drag carts through the mud outside your home. There’s no internet, no phones, no electricity, and no newspapers. Most information spreads by word of mouth. You and your friends are illiterate, and you have no way of knowing what’s happening elsewhere in the nation. Apart from, that is, when the town crier makes a proclamation. It might be a notable death, it could be a war. Whatever it is, they are your only constant and reliable source of information from outside your community. Or, as Bob put it:

All I am, is a [less] modern means of the mobile phone in your hand, or the newspaper that comes through your door in the morning. 

The town Crier is an ancient role, in a world long before newspapers and televisions… they were very prominent in the 17th and 18th century. Town criers were the original newsmen. They were appointed by the court to represent the monarch, and to represent the government. If you can imagine a world in which you didn’t have all these cars going by, or any newspapers, and you didn’t have your smartphone, town criers were the only way the population at the time were able to get the news.


Bob Smytherman Explains his Role as Town Crier

Bob sitting on Worthing Pier, explaining his role as town crier.


Reveal Full Chapter

But just how loud can a cry get? Bob has never measured his voice, but the world record for the loudest cry is 112.8 decibels; to put that in perspective, that’s somewhere between the volume of a power saw and a clap of thunder. Prolonged exposure to 80 decibels can leave you with permanent hearing damage, and a person can be exposed to 112 decibels of noise without hearing protection for 56 seconds before it becomes unsafe. So, yeah, they get pretty loud.

You might think a town crier is a long-extinct relic of the past. But there are actually still 200-or-so official town criers in the UK today. If you ever visit the UK and fly into Heathrow Airport, you’ll be greeted by a 30 foot version of one of them – Alan Myatt – welcoming you on a poster. They may not serve exactly the same purpose as they used to, but Bob tells me there’s still a place for them in 2020.

You may also be interested in:  Ramadan & Religion in Turkey

One of the things that I do a lot as town crier, certainly pre-Covid, is I do talks about the role. I talk to women’s institutes, scouts and cubs, and for me that’s a really important legacy, long after this body has gone “up there” somewhere, or “down there”, it’s really important that we promote the role of town crier for the next generation.

One of our local journalists writes the Worthing Journal, and there I’m renowned as “the blue pirate”, because that’s what young people see me as. They just think I’m this silly old man wearing this silly old hat, and quite often they might call me a pirate! But for me, it’s about getting under the skin of that. Yeah, I might look a bit like a pirate, but actually there’s a serious reason why I dress like this, why I have a hand bell… we need to know where we come from to know where we’re going.


The Town Crier's Bell

You often hear Bob before you see him; that’s because he carries a large bell that he rings to attract attention before a proclamation. It’s engraved with the words “Worthing Town Crier, Bob Smytherman, Appointed 2014”.


I think the role for town criers in 2020 and going forward is very much as an ambassador for their towns and their communities, to bring people together and make them smile and, as you’ve seen today, being instantly recognisable as a constant figure in people’s lives. Obviously, many towns like Worthing have a mayor, and they’re the queen’s representative – and a very important role that is – but that individual changes.


The Town Crier’s Outfit: Regalia


Whilst elected officials change, the town crier is able to stick around, sometimes for decades. Residents get to know them, and since they attend so many local events, be they festivals, marches, or even the opening of a new shop or business, they become a very recognisable part of the community, something that was eminently clear as passers-by continued to interrupt our interview to say hello. That recognition is made easy by their outfits, which has remained more or less unchanged for a few hundred years. The look, combined with Bob’s jovial enthusiasm, made him approachable, and I was especially surprised by the number of young kids that recognised him and came over to say hi. Pointing first to his shorts, he broke down his getup:

It’s traditional 17th/18th century dress. These are called breeches, which are long short-trousers I guess. There’s obviously the white long socks, the buckled shoes, the white gloves, and the blue tunic. The hat is called “the tricorne”, because it’s got three corners. Because this regalia has been made especially for me, we opted for blue and gold to complement the mayor, who has 100-year-old robes that are blue and gold. I have blue and gold, real ostrich feathers, and they symbolise the quill. In the 17th/18th century, town criers were some of the few people that could write, and they’d do that with a quill. So that’s why town criers wear the feathers!

Reveal Full Chapter

Whilst elected officials change, the town crier is able to stick around, sometimes for decades. Residents get to know them, and since they attend so many local events, be they festivals, marches, or even the opening of a new shop or business, they become a very recognisable part of the community, something that was eminently clear as passers-by continued to interrupt our interview to say hello. That recognition is made easy by their outfits, which has remained more or less unchanged for a few hundred years. The look, combined with Bob’s jovial enthusiasm, made him approachable, and I was especially surprised by the number of young kids that recognised him and came over to say hi. Pointing first to his shorts, he broke down his getup:

It’s traditional 17th/18th century dress. These are called breeches, which are long short-trousers I guess. There’s obviously the white long socks, the buckled shoes, the white gloves, and the blue tunic. The hat is called “the tricorne”, because it’s got three corners. Because this regalia has been made especially for me, we opted for blue and gold to complement the mayor, who has 100-year-old robes that are blue and gold. I have blue and gold, real ostrich feathers, and they symbolise the quill. In the 17th/18th century, town criers were some of the few people that could write, and they’d do that with a quill. So that’s why town criers wear the feathers!


The Tricorne is the Town Crier's Hat, often adorned with Ostrich Feathers

A town crier’s hat is called “the tricorne”, because it has three points. Protruding from the back are some ostrich feathers, which represent the quill – an old writing tool used before pens were commonplace – since town criers were some of the few people who were able to write in their heyday.


Leaning forward, the tips of his blue and gold feathers fluttering up and down as he does so, he points to the insignias on his shoulders.

This is our Worthing coat of arms; in Latin it’s “Ex Terra Copiam E Mari Salutem”, which means “from the land fulness, to the sea health”! Prince George actually sent his daughter Amelia here when she was ill, because it was thought that the sea air was much healthier than the stuffy parts of cities like London. This other one, which I am particularly proud of, is the “Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers”, which I’m a member of, and has town criers from all over the world. There are two groups in England. The other is the “Loyal Company of Town Criers”.


The Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers' Insignia

The Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers’ insignia, on the right shoulder of Bob’s tunic. 

Bob's Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers (AHGTC) MedallionA medallion around Bob’s neck. “AHGTC” stands for Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers, one of two large town crier associations in the UK.

Bob's Town Crier Regalia

Frills emerge at the base of Bob’s pristine, white gloves. Much of his clothing is lined with gold thread at the seams.

Town Crier's Buckled Shoes

Bob’s buckled shoes and long, white socks: hallmarks of the Town Crier’s outfit.


How do you Become a Town Crier?


Can anyone get out there with a bell and regalia and start making proclamations? First things first: it turns out that you need to be legally registered as a town crier before you can hit the streets. If you try to skip that part, you might well be arrested and charged for “breaching the peace”. To become registered, you’ll have to be officially appointed as town crier by a council or Lord of the Manor; yes, we still have those in the 21st century here in the UK. Bob had to go through that same process when he became town crier six years ago, in 2014:

I was officially, legally appointed by the mayor as the town crier, so it’s an official role. The mayor of the town is the civic leader; they’re the queen’s representative, and the town crier is the messenger!

“Town crier” is a pretty rogue job description, and I wondered if Bob had any plans of becoming one when he was younger. So, how did Bob Smytherman, a former councillor and mayor, fall into the role?

You may also be interested in:  The Kindness of Strangers

Certainly it’s something that I never dreamed of. I was approached by a local historian and his wife – it was a chance meeting in the Worthing museum – who were doing a play. They said “it’d be great to cast you as Henry Richardson”, who was the Victorian town crier in Worthing. I never had any other ambitions to become town crier, and of course I thought that was only going to be three performances in June 2014.

During that process, there was publicity around the town, and the local business community thought, “wouldn’t it be great to have a town crier again?” The last town crier sadly died quite young, some years ago; lovely man – Phillip Holiday. Nobody came forward to replace him, and the council didn’t really advertise for it. But the local business community had some funding, and asked if I’d be willing to continue as town crier; they’d fit me out with the regalia and a website. There’s no salary for that sort of thing, it’s just about being positive about – and talking up – Worthing. That’s what I did the year that I was mayor anyway, so I thought “what a wonderful opportunity!” And, as they say, the rest is history!  

The reason why I was approached to do it by the business community… that was all about promoting Worthing today, as a great place to live, work and visit, and having a town crier to talk about how great Worthing is. Certainly, as I’ve gotten into the role, I’ve gone to meet other town criers and actually found towns and villages that haven’t got a town crier…  I think the history of actually knowing where we’ve come from is really important.

While the role might be a little alternative, it definitely required a certain skill set. The way that Bob carries himself as he walks around town in his regalia and interacts with his community is a rare thing to see. It’s the product of a cocktail of personality traits that makes him, and only him, suit the position. That doesn’t necessarily strike me as something that can be taught. You either are a Bob Smytherman or you aren’t. I asked him what he thinks it takes to make it in the world of town criers.

I think you’ve gotta have a big smile, a big personality, and a big set of lungs. You don’t necessarily have to be a singer, although a lot of town criers are. I’m completely tone deaf, but I have a big set of lungs as you heard earlier. And I think the most important thing, I would say, is a passion for your community. I don’t think you can do the role justice if you haven’t got a passion for where you live. I’ve got five generations of my family that have lived in Worthing, that are buried in Worthing, and youngsters being born in Worthing. So, I’ve got a long history of my family in this beautiful seaside town, and I think you have to have a passion for Worthing. That’s all you need to be an amazing town crier and an ambassador for your community.


Town Crier Bob Smytherman Performs a Cry on Worthing SeafrontBob performing a cry about Worthing’s beauty before we part ways. He reads the cry from a scroll.


Once you do make it as a town crier, according to Bob, there’s a certain set of rules to follow when making a proclamation:

It’s always three Oyez. You ring the bell, it gets people’s attention. You do it again, and another clear oyez, and then for a third time just in case people haven’t realised there’s some important news to listen to. And of course you always finish every proclamation with “God Save the Queen”, or, in years gone by, “God save the King”.


Crying for Covid


The role of town crier, like everything else, has taken a hit from Covid-19. Events that Bob would usually be attending are cancelled, and the cry is spoken with such force that, ever since the pandemic, he’s had to wear a face mask while performing it, even when he’s several metres away from the nearest person.


Bob Smytherman Cleaning his Town Crier Bell

Bob brushes off his town crier bell to give me a closer look.


Bob tells me that town crying competitions are also off the cards these days:

…we haven’t been able to get together. If you’re proclaiming loudly as a town crier, you need to wear your mask, and the only town crier competition we’ve had this summer has been on Zoom! So, it’s almost full-circle, going from the days before any of this technology, to all the town criers dressed in their full regalia on Zoom. There were probably about 25-30 town criers that all performed their hometown cry on Zoom.

But during all this uncertainty, Bob has used his position to provide messages of support for his community. I actually only came up with the idea for this interview when I stumbled across a recording he’d taken from his home online, where, in full regalia, he proclaimed a cry urging residents to stay at home and offering encouraging messages; with a ring of his bell and a few ‘oyez’, he announced that “home is your battlefield”. The comments on all his videos are overwhelmingly grateful, with many people saying they’ve appreciated his commitment to putting a smile on people’s faces during a difficult time.

One of the things that struck me about Bob is how much he’s done to leave a positive impact on his community; he’s a trustee of West Sussex Mind, a mental health charity which has been struggling with donations during lockdown. Utilising his talents as a town crier, he’s helped raise awareness and money for the charity, providing personalised videos of proclamations for things like birthdays and anniversaries, in exchange for a donation to the organisation.


Worthing Town Crier Bob Smytherman on Worthing Pier

Bob’s personalised facemask, that he wears whenever he makes a proclamation in public, is emblazoned with “Worthing Town Crier”. The flag behind him is the Sussex county flag.


Final Thoughts


There is a lot more to Bob than meets the eye, although admittedly with all the regalia there’s a lot that meets the eye, too. Whether it’s his charitable work, his use of his position to raise awareness for social issues, or his experience as a local politician, he’s about as active in the community as you can possibly get, and I admire the stamina that must require. Before he heads off, he leaves me with the proclamation of a cry about Worthing’s beauty that attracts a small crowd beneath swirling seagulls in moments. I thank him for his time, and the ostrich feathers dance in the wind as he turns away. The ringing gets fainter and fainter with each step as he disappears behind the coats of passers-by. And with that, I bid farewell to a living part of Worthing’s identity, one that you might be fortunate enough to stumble across if you keep your eyes and ears peeled for a flash of blue and the echoes of a bell.

Town Crier Bob Smytherman Bids me Farewell in Worthing

I say goodbye to Bob before he strolls away along the seafront, admiring his hometown as he goes.


Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!


Check out our new interactive map, displaying the locations of each of our interviews!

Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with our blog. If you want to see more of the cycle touring side of our adventure, you can also have a gander at our YouTube channel! If you want to see how we’re doing on our journey, check out our Live Updates page.

Lockdown in my Hometown | Steyning

Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments