Les Ellis - Town Crier
Dartmouth Town Crier Les Ellis with his wife Liz
Les Ellis - Dartmouth Town Crier
‘No-one really knows how town crying started but proclamations have always been given by people, even before Christ’ he said. ‘Town criers are found all over the world in Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, France, Germany, Canada, USA and China.
‘In Scotland they use a horn and a drum to summon people but down here we use the traditional bell’.
A detective with the Metropolitan Police for 30 years, it’s perhaps no surprise Les became a town crier after he retired from Scotland Yard.
He explained: ‘The Metropolitan Police formed in 1892 but prior to that, part of the town crier’s job was to go around and make sure fires were out in bakeries and other businesses.
‘He would announce that all was well, night and day. He would go around with a lantern at night and apprehend people that were pilfering – burglars and robbers.
‘Town criers were feared and protected by the monarch of the day, who appointed them.
‘They would make proclamations and nail them to the doors of local taverns so they could be read by people who could read’.
With his burly frame Les also looks the part of a town crier, which is how he fell into the role seven years ago.
Les, originally from Plymouth, and his wife Liz moved to Galmpton in 2002 after falling in love with the area many years earlier while holidaying in the village.
He said: ‘When we moved to Galmpton we wanted to get involved in village life so we joined the local Gooseberry Pie committee.
‘I went into the post office one day and the post master told me they didn’t have a town crier that year as he wasn’t very well. He asked me if I knew anything about town crying and although I didn’t I told him I had heard them cry out ‘Oyez, Oyez, Oyez’.
‘The post master said that’s all a town crier had to do, so I volunteered and became the town crier for the Gooseberry Pie Fair for four years.
‘I think he recognised, as I am a retired policeman and being a biggish fella, that I was probably capable of doing the job. To be honest with you it did come a little bit naturally to me because town criers were the policemen of their day’.
Six years ago Les successfully applied to become Dartmouth’s Town Crier after hearing the town needed one from local builder Brian Woodgate over a pint or two in Dittisham’s Ferry Boat Inn.
He bought the uniform of Dartmouth’s popular late town crier Peter Randall, who had held the position for 21 years. The uniform is in the traditional Dartmouth town colours of red, blue and gold.
Like many town criers, Les’ uniform is based on 18th century clothing consisting of a tricorn, ostrich feathers, tunic and waistcoat plus breeches, white stockings and buckled shoes.
He said: ‘No-one seems to know why the 18th century is the most popular era but I think that’s when whoever the monarch was decided they were going to have these town criers in every town because they needed people to know what they were doing and thinking.
‘In those days there was no other way of communicating to the people other than through town criers’.
Les has now decided to donate his uniform to the Dartmouth Museum where it will be displayed on a mannequin alongside information Les is in the process of gathering about past town criers in Dartmouth.
As well as using the internet for his research Les also gleaned some useful information from his pal, local solicitor Owen Hill, who alerted Les to a gravestone at St Saviour’s Church of William Drake, who died aged 73 in 1824 who was, according to his inscription, town crier and town sergeant for 40 years.
First published May/June 2013 By The Dart
Les also managed to speak to former Dartmouth resident 90-year-old Cyril King, who now lives in Falmouth. Cyril told him he remembered a local fish merchant, Mr Sanders, who used to ring his bell in the town in the 1930s. When the bell chimed everyone would stop what they were doing and gather round to listen to what Mr Sanders had to say, Les said.
‘I have eight or nine different names of past Dartmouth town criers and I am desperate to find out more information and maybe even photographs,’ he added. ‘All of the town criers I have discovered are all just little people –one was a market gardener and one lived in Clarence Street.
‘There must be people in the town old enough to remember some of our past town criers, especially Mr Sanders, and they may even have photographs of them which I would love to see’.
He rings the bell for Dartmouth on some 60 occasions each year including the annual music festival, food festival, regatta, gallery nights, Christmas light switch on, Farmers’ markets, continental markets, gig racing, Armistice Day, Shakespeare Week and the Mayor’s Parade. He also publicises events at Britannia Royal Naval College, Flavel Community Centre and various other talks and events around the town.
Another of his jobs is to greet guests on visiting cruise liners, alongside Dartmouth Players’ members dressed as the Pilgrim Fathers. He also runs the annual Armada Cup Town Criers Competition held in both Kingsbridge and Dartmouth which attracts entrants from as far afield as Bermuda and across the South West.
Les received enough to cover his expenses by the former Dartmouth Chamber of Trade but has not been paid since the chamber folded in 2011, although he hopes an agreement will soon be reached between Dartmouth’s town council, business forum, tourist information centre and harbour authority.
‘I love being Dartmouth’s town crier because I meet and greet people and get to go places,’ he said.
‘It’s nice and I love Dartmouth, I’ve got so many friends here. I’m doing it for Dartmouth and the traders and the people. I think people want to see it, it’s a tradition that shouldn’t fade. I will do it even if I don’t get any money but it is nice to be recompensed.’
When Les the town crier disappears from Dartmouth he returns like a rabbit plucked from a top hat in the new guises of Lez the Fez the magician and Lez the Clown children’s entertainer.
He is also available to cry at any local event, or further afield, and can be booked as Master of Ceremonies at corporate events, weddings, banquets, toasting occasions, private parties and special events.
For more information visit www.lezthefez.co.uk
First published May/June 2013 By The Dart