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Oyez! Town Crier's Tale

Ring that bell ... Town Crier Chris Brown in action. Photo: Lydia Aisenberg

Town Crier tells intriguing tale of his mother's friendship with a survivor of Bergen-Belsen

Looking for new topics to write about, if possible with a Jewish or Israeli interest, I certainly did not expect a visit to Wimborne Minster, an olde worlde market town in Dorset situated at the confluence of the rivers Stour and Allen and surrounded by incredibly lush English countryside, to have me pulling out pen and pad quite so fast.

However, after just a few minutes chatting with Wimborne's veteran Town Crier, Chris Brown, I was scribbling away like fury. I heard him long before I spotted him in the town square energetically pumping iron, or rather a brass bell, as he called out "Oyez, Oyez, Oyez" at the top of his powerful lungs. He sported an impressive long bushy beard and moustache and was dressed in full regalia - a black 3-cornered hat and long red coat, carrying a large wooden staff with a mini-crier carving on the top. Town Crier is a voluntary position which usually sees Chris out and about in costume one day a week; his full title is Town Mayor's Sergeant and Crier. A retired social worker, Wimborne's Town Crier is also a D.J. at a local radio station. That day the Town Crier was actually inviting passers-by to pop in to the storefront of a building society on the main square, where tea, coffee and cupcakes were being offered as part of a nationwide bid to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity providing specialist health care to people affected by cancer.

Intrigued to know more about the town's history, breathtakingly beautiful 15th, 16th and 17th century buildings and the art of town crying, I accepted Chris Brown's invitation and, as he was due for a break, joined him inside for a cup of tea, a chat and an opportunity to donate to such a worthwhile cause as the Macmillan nurses.

After telling Chris I was originally British but have lived in Israel for most of my life I wondered if there was anything of Jewish interest he could tell me about Wimborne. Instead he told me an intriguing story about his parents, his childhood, and being taken by his mother to visit Bergen-Belsen when he was just 12 years old and of a friendship that had developed between his mother and a Holocaust survivor she had befriended during her time serving in the British Army:

Chris's mother Marie was from Lancashire, but after meeting his father, an employee of the Ministry of Defense, they moved to Aldermaston, Berkshire, where the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment was situated. This was much in the focus, during the 1960's, of Aldermaston marches when thousands of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) supporters marched in support of the nuclear disarmament campaign - what became known as the 'Ban the Bomb' marches.

During the Second World War Chris's mother served in the British Army and also worked for the Ministry of Defense, specializing in radar. A few days after D-Day her all-women unit of the Royal Artillery radar operators, guarded by one lone armed soldier, pushed too far forward in their quest to assess the German radar equipment. They ended up in some woods, surrounded by Germans and had to stay hidden in the undergrowth for three days until the Germans retreated as the British forces pushed forward. Women serving in the army at that time were not allowed to carry arms and one wonders how the poor man with them must have felt being the lone protector of a group of women!

Following this experience Chris's mother became part of an Army administrative team; once a town was secured they moved in to register and organize the local population, and she was one of the first British Army personnel to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Like all those who had such experiences it left an indelible mark, especially as she was one of the soldiers given the task of registering those who had survived that horrendous place.

During the time she was at Bergen-Belsen Marie befriended a number of the survivors and remained in touch with them, some of whom eventually settled in Norway.

One of the survivors his mother befriended came to stay with them a few times when he was a boy. She was named Eva, and had settled in Norway, whilst some of the others eventually settled in Colombia. Chris had no idea what her family name was but he did know that Eva was a linguist by profession and that she also worked in translations. Eva has probably passed away by now but maybe she has family in Norway. "Just think what it would be to somehow connect with them after all these years and what a wonderful memorial that would be to both my mother and to Eva," Chris added thoughtfully.

Chris has been walking the streets of Wimborne crying out civic announcements at the top of his lungs for over 16 years, and as we chat everybody passing by says "Hi" to the Wimborne wailer who looks most impressive in his black 3-cornered hat, long red coat, large wooden staff with a mini-crier carving on the top. Most of Chris's announcements are charity-related but on New Year's Eve he stands on a balcony alongside the mayor of Wimborne and local municipal leaders, counts down the old year, cries out and rings in the new.

British tradition that dates back to Norman times

The Town Crier's legacy can be traced back as far as the Civil War in England and, like many English towns, Wimborne boasts a large civil war musket-carrying re-enactment society in which Chris Brown plays a leading role. "Officially my part in this is known as being commissioned to raise the militia of the town," explains Chris. "Basically we have here a group of people interested in historical re-enactment who portray the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion, also known as the West Country rebellion, when there was an attempt to overthrow James II, and their activities generate a great deal of support from the local community." Throughout Britain 200 Town Criers carry on a tradition that began in Norman times. Many of these very colorful civic criers compete against each other in the annual Town Criers' National Championships. Chris has won the county championships many times, and in 2007 also took the national championships. As we exchange business cards before parting company, I glance down and read:

Chris Brown, The Rock 'n' Roll Town Crier!

Oyez, oyez, oyez – yeah, yeah, yeah! 

 

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Wednesday, 23 September 2020

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