Town Criers: pomp and pageant in a digital age

Marcel Bossi, Town Crier, with Mersiha Gadzo and Maryam Shah at Centennial College March 2011

by Maryam Shah

“Excuse my dangling participle,” apologized town crier Marcel Bossi, explaining his unusally precise way of speaking. He’s just finished delivering a loud proclamation to a room full of wide-eyed Centennial College journalism students, finishing with “And may God save Elizabeth, our gracious Queen!” and a grand flourish of his black and gold pointed hat.

Not many people have a by-law passed specifically regarding them. But Marcel Bossi was appointed the official town crier of Whitchurch-Stouffville, Ont. nearly two decades ago in precisely this way. It means he officially represents the mayor and the town at processions, building openings and important events.

Town criers are found in small numbers in most former British colonies. There are approximately 55 in Ontario, ranging from age 19 to 70, men and women, judges, dentists, even a television personality.

Still, town criers are a rare breed, encompassing a cultural space somewhere between an official town mascot and a soldier in a battle re-enactment. Their entertainment factor has gone up as their utility has gone down.

“In Ontario it’s pretty much a dead art rather than dying,” Bossi  said, with a hint of disappointment in his voice.

When asked what he thinks town crying’s role is in this age of television, online journalism and new media, he replies with a simultaneously grave and mocking response.

“Pomp and pageant.”

Still, he takes his role seriously, as official town-crier for Whitchurch-Stouffville: he delivers messages on behalf of the public to the mayor and council on the eve of each new civic administration’s inauguration, he delivers proclamations at building openings and represents the mayor at processions such as the Santa Claus parade and the Whitchurch-Stouffville annual strawberry festival. He usually selects parts of the Magna Carta to use in his message to politicians.

Bossi was part of the Ontario Guild of Town Criers when it emerged as an official group in 1984. The guild is responsible for having written the world town crying rules and regulations for competition, which were adopted by town crying associations in Britain.

As he’s travelled the world to compete, Bossi has finished in the top five several times. He’s nearly lost his voice at one of those events, and changed a word or two by mistake in his proclamation, which also cost him some points.

But the best time he had as a town crier, was on a trip to Sydney in British Columbia for a world town crying competition. One afternoon, he’d crossed the border to the United States with a group of contestants, who’d been promised free ale at a certain pub if they’d do a proclamation. Upon arrival, they found the pub closed, the supply of ale dried out for four days.

“This is not too bad for Canadians but when you have Aussies and when you have Brits and you deprive them of their ale, it becomes an international incident,” he explained.

To get their revenge, they declared a proclamation outside the pub owner’s front door at 3 o’ clock in the morning, as any beer-thirsty group of irate town criers would do.

“He didn’t open his door and throw anything at us but I think we woke up most of his neighbours,” Bossi laughed.