ONE of Chester’s most well-known voices will graduate in a subject exploring his vocal craft at a ceremony next week at Chester Cathedral.
The city’s town crier, David Mitchell, has been awarded an MRes (Master’s by Research) with a distinction following his dissertation on ‘The Word on the Streets to Shakespeare and Pepys: The Town Crier and Bellman in Early Modern Britain’.
David researched how news and proclamations were spread and publicised by criers, bellmen and the like in early modern England.
David, 64, who is originally from Newhall in South Derbyshire, had previously researched and published a book on the history of the roles of criers and bellmen. He said: “It was the first time anyone had ever written a history of these functionaries, who played an indispensable role in many aspects of daily life before the advent of print, and especially of newspapers.
“That experience was rewarding, but I had the sense that professional historians would know how to carry out this kind of research far more efficiently than I did.
“So my aim in embarking on the Master’s by Research course was to learn the ways of academic historians. The outcome exceeded my expectations. The input from the course opened my eyes to various avenues of research, several of which I previously had no idea existed.”
Students on the Master’s by Research in History course are required to identify a gap in current knowledge and to begin to fill that gap by their own original research.
David added: “The research for my dissertation entailed a combination of work in specialist libraries, online research on specialist historical websites (especially ‘Early English Books Online’), and days spent in various archives around the country, as far afield as Beverley, London, Manchester, Northampton and Reading, as well as in Cheshire Archives and Local Studies here in Duke Street, Chester.
“The original archival research was the most challenging because it meant learning how to decipher 17th-century handwriting. This was initially exceedingly difficult, but ultimately proved to be the most satisfying part of the research. The thrill of being able to handle original documents is hard to describe, but it happened every time.
“To give just one example, I was able to read how, in response to the dreadful destruction caused by the Great Fire of London, Chester Assembly resolved, at a meeting on January 17, 1671, that ‘all houses now erected or hereafter to bee erected in the Foregatestreet, Northgatestreet, Eastgatestreet, Watergatestreet and Bridgestreet of this Citty shall be covered with slate or tyle and not thatched’.
“Having made this decision, they had to communicate it to the inhabitants who were now required to comply. How could they do this without newspapers or a postal service? The same City Assembly Records reveal how the local bellman was pressed into service for this purpose: ‘It is further ordered that this order shall bee published throughe the City by the Citty Bellman within one fortnight next comeing.’”
David said he was motivated to study to find out how academic historians carry out research rather than for the qualification itself. However, he said being awarded a Distinction was an “immensely fulfilling experience” especially after being put off history as a child following “uninspired teaching”.
He said: “My interest in history was rekindled later in life and especially when I became a town crier. My first instinct was to read up on this historic tradition of which I had now become part of and I was astonished to discover nothing had been written about it.
“At first this was a frustration but eventually I saw it as an opportunity. It has set me on a journey of one rewarding discovery after another. I am very grateful to the History Department of the University of Chester, and especially to my supervisor, Professor Peter Gaunt, for the brilliant contribution they have made to this exciting adventure.”
David is using his new knowledge in his role as an After Dinner Speaker where he has developed a new presentation called ‘The Word on the Streets’ which explores oral announcements in history.
He added: “These include interesting local announcements, such as husbands of over-spending wives having the bellman ‘cry down’ their wives so they would no longer be responsible for their extravagant purchases.
“I imagine this must have been much more satisfying than simply cutting up their credit cards!
“This new talk is now up-and-running. Ultimately I would like to be involved in the making of a television documentary on the roles played by these neglected public servants.”
Professor Peter Gaunt, from the university’s history and archaeology department, said: “David was a joy to supervise and work with. From the outset, his research and writing was of a very high standard but he also sought, took and acted upon advice on ways to sharpen his research, presentation, referencing and the like. He undertook a great deal of research, covering both printed sources of the period and archival source material, and he travelled around Britain to access archives offices and collections and to immerse himself in the surviving records of the early modern period.
“The resulting dissertation was of a very high standard and broke new academic ground in extending our knowledge of the hitherto neglected and often misunderstood role of the day and night bellmen, in the process making a very strong and convincing case for the continuing importance of oral announcements in early modern Britain, despite the greater availability and circulation of printed matter.
“The internal and external examiners both praised the depth, range and originality of David’s research and the way in which he had found and drawn together often fleeting notices or glimpses of the bellman in surviving printed, literary and archival sources – including those in contemporary illustrations and images – in order to build up a more detailed and convincing picture of these figures and of what exactly their ‘word on the streets’ was in this age.
“David was rightly and deservedly awarded a ‘Distinction’ for this dissertation.”