Historic Harwich’s new town crier has got stuck into his role bedecked in a bespoke, locally-made livery.
Richard Bench has taken over the ceremonial position from previous crier James Cole, who has retired after decades of service to the town.
“The history of town crying goes back centuries, and was a role normally carried out by an ex-soldier – a sergeant-major type with a loud, shouty voice – who would go around announcing the news,” explains Richard.
“Now crying is done at ceremonial events, visits by schools, tourist groups and others; tourists love it, they think it’s a wonderful, quirky, British tradition, unique to this country, and kids always want to be photographed.”
The former actor fell into the officially-recognised but unpaid role after acting as an information point at Harwich International Port and working alongside James.
“In more recent times James used to welcome cruise ship passengers, and when he found out I used to be an actor he told me he was looking to retire and asked if I would consider it. I was a bit reluctant at first, having not performed for a long time, and we started by sharing the role – but I really love it.
“James did such a fantastic job for so many years, I’m really keen to make sure I live up to the task.”
But though James left big shoes to fill metaphorically, Richard will be delivering his proclamations in a brand new livery of his own thanks to the support of Harwich Town Council and Parkeston-based bespoke tailoring firm Samuel Brothers, which provides dress uniforms to the Royal Family and the military.
Richard contacted the firm after seeing an article about them in a local newspaper (the Harwich and Manningtree Standard), and the tailors were delighted to get involved.
“It has been a great, fantastic project and we are really pleased that we in Harwich can make something in the town for our crier; I am passionate about giving something back, and it has been an honour to do this,” said Lee Dawson, Managing Director of Samuel Brothers.
“It has been a really enjoyable project. I don’t recall ever making a town crier livery before, but as a bespoke tailors we can make pretty much anything.
“All of the people in our workshop are from Harwich and feel a sense of pride, which is what makes this project even more special.”
Donna Jewell, manager of Samuel Brothers’ Parkeston, workshop, agreed: “It makes you quite proud to do something for your town.
“It’s also nice to see the finished garment fitted here – it’s usually done elsewhere, so we don’t get many customers coming here for that.”
Designing the livery was not an easy task as Lee explained, trying to find the balance between finery and practicality and treading a fine line between pageantry and pantomime.
“Richard came to us with a picture of what he wanted, we looked at different styles, and looked to make him a coat that was traditional, nothing too ‘costumey’ – and what is really important is that it not only looks good but is practical and fit-for-purpose too,” Lee said.
Richard added: “We spent a long time talking about it. I had an idea but I didn’t want it looking like a pantomime costume, and Lee’s team has given expert guidance on what goes where and what is traditional.”
The coat is made of Scarlet Melton cloth, used in full dress uniform by the military and Royal household, with added details on the buttons and the Harwich crest badge made specially, while the tricorn hat was also created specifically for Richard by another supplier – with the design the same as that worn by the Lord Mayor of London.
Accompanying the cape – deliberately heavy to protect Richard from the elements in the winter, with a hidden pocket for him to stash his proclamation scroll, and capable of being pinned back to allow freedom of arm movement – is a full-length waistcoat which can be a worn as a standalone in the warmer months. The sleeves are designed to allow for arm movement as Richard rings a bell at the start of cries.
The final garment, which took around 14 hours to make not including fittings, adjustments and planning, was unveiled to Richard at the tailor’s Parkeston workshop with staff gathered to watch.
“I hadn’t seen it before like this, the whole ensemble, because I was usually wearing one element for fitting and measuring,” Richard said.
“It’s fantastic, better than I imagined it would ever be, and my thanks go to the whole team here as I know it really is a team effort from these talented craftsmen.”
The striking ensemble has already had a public airing, with Richard performing a cry proclaiming the upcoming Illuminate Festival in Historic Harwich. Taking place on 25 March, the event will see a twilight flight, torch-lit procession and illuminated entertainments from 6pm.
The cost of the new livery has been met jointly by Harwich Town Council, Samuel Brothers, and Richard himself.