He’s ‘cried’ on Glastonbury’s pyramid stage … Robbie Wiliams is a fan … Tracie Beardsley talks to Chris Brown, the voice of Wimborne
When moving to a new area, advice tends to be “join a sports or social club” to make friends. Not for Chris Brown, a newcomer who soon made himself the most recognised person in town by becoming town crier the same year he moved to Wimborne Minster.
That was in 1998 – Now, 25 years later, Chris still opens businesses and attends civic engagements with flourish and flair. He’s been crowned The Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers Champion and is the current Dorset County Champion Crier – a title he has held five times. He’s appeared on postcards and even the back of buses promoting Wimborne Town.
Also hailed the ‘Rock and Roll Town Crier’ because of his love of music and DJ-ing (as DJ Dapper Dan), he hosts the Town Centre Stage at Boomtown Festival in Winchester, sitting on a throne to introduce acts, and he has even appeared on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.
‘That was definitely the craziest thing I’ve done,’ says Chris. ‘In town, I’m lucky if there’s 50 people listening to me. There were about 70,000 that day – I’d been adopted as mascot for Texan indie-pop band The Polyphonic Spree. I’ve opened loads of their tours around the UK, but Glastonbury was definitely my biggest gig!’
He even impressed singing star Robbie Williams, who was captivated by his booming voice and flamboyant costume. ‘He told me he loved what I do as he shook me by the hand!’ recalls Chris.
Being Town Crier is voluntary and Chris gives it his all, writing amusing poems or personalising messages, whether it’s opening a telephone box converted into a library in Sturminster Marshall or surprising an elderly couple celebrating their 70th anniversary. The former social worker says: ‘It’s about engaging with people, making announcements, attention-grabbing.’
However, this can lead to the occasional faux pas. ‘A few years before the Queen died, I was showing Prince Edward around the Physic Garden in Wimborne. I announced the garden was dedicated to the memory of his mother. He looked at me in alarm. “She was alright this morning,” he said. “Is there something I should know?” ‘
Chris has spent time researching the origins of town criers. ‘They were the newsreaders of their time, communicating information and collecting taxes. Greek runners would run from town to town telling the news. Romans had town criers.
I visited a remote village in Africa and they had someone to tell the news. We exist all over the world in slightly different forms.’
As well as herding people, the town crier was paid to be keeper of cattle pens. He would impound strays and be paid a penny for each turn of the key that released them. In Wimborne, the crier also used to collect market pitch fees, deal with disputes, check quality and the price of goods. Beer adulterated by molasses? Veg too cheap? Even today all criers have royal protection and it’s illegal to lay hands on them or hinder their work.
The search for hose
Such bygone concepts of policing captivated Chris, who is keen on 17th century history.
‘I’ve been re-enacting civil wars longer than they actually took to fight! I investigated the role of the Town Mayor’s Serjant, whose job it was to raise the local militia, to keep order in the town – he was the forerunner of the modern police force.’
Chris took the idea of ‘men with muskets’ to Wimborne Town Council and, thanks to him, the famous Wimborne Militia now celebrates 25 years, with Chris as its Serjant figurehead. They recreate historical events such as the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion, and Chris’ resplendent red and gold uniform with jaunty tricorn hat reflects these military roots. It was designed by two Arts University Bournemouth students studying Costume for Stage and Screen. ‘My only problem in this day and age is finding woollen hose,’ laughs Chris ‘but I’ve got a costumier in Blandford on the case for me.’
His most important accessory is his bell. ‘It was my first ever purchase on eBay. By accident I forgot the decimal point and offered $5,000! Luckily, the American buyer checked the amount with me, and I got it for £50. It’s a British first world war trench gas attack warning bell – it had found its way back to the USA as a GI’s stolen souvenir!’
Chris’s greatest plaudit is being made honorary freeman of the town. ‘I can now drive my sheep through the town free of charge! To celebrate, I walked one sheep through the town – Wimborne Model Town!’
Chris is now 67, but do town criers ever retire? ‘Until I disgrace myself or fall over, no! I had polio when I was a baby which left me with deformed feet – hence my need to use crutches or a mobility scooter at times. The doctors told my mother I would never walk but she was a determined lady.
‘I love this role, though it takes me two hours popping to the shops. I know so many people.’
Quick fire questions:
Top dinner party guests?
Sven Berlin – an amazing artist and sculptor who lived in Wimborne
Tony Benn – my dad worked with him and weirdly, both died on the same morning within minutes of each other.
My mum – it would be nice to see her again. She died in 1983.
Book by your bedside?
‘I am Lazarus’ by Sven Berlin. I met him a couple of times and bought his artwork in auctions. He’s painted beautiful pictures of Wimborne.