In 2008, not long after starting Marlborough Town and Country, I went along to meet Alf Johnson, Marlborough’s Beadle and Town Crier. Alf has recently died, and with the permission of his daughter Di, I am re-publishing the interview here as a tribute to a lovely man, and so you can read about him in his own words.
At the time of writing Alf was 77 years young, and lived with his wife Ann (who died in 2014) on London Rd.
You’ve lived in Marlborough all your life; tell us about when you were growing up.
When I was born there was no National Health Service, so unless you had money most babies were born at home. I was born in my mother’s house on Kingsbury St. My father died when I was 4 years old, and again there was no government help, so my mother had to take in washing to make ends meet. After a while we moved in with my Aunt, and during the war there were always evacuees staying with us. It was an interesting childhood, people keep telling me I should write my autobiography!
Before you retired what did you do for a living?
When I was 14 I was a shoe repairer’s apprentice (there were shoe repair shops on every High St back then), for R. Mundy and Sons, whose shop was where Costa Coffee is now. Afterwards I worked for Chandlers the saddlers at No 1 London Rd for about 10 years. Following that I was a postman, and my last job was with Hayden’s the Bakers, where I worked as a van driver. I retired in 1995.
So you’ve always lived in Marlborough?
Yes, and I’ve always been able to walk to work, except when I did National Service.
What was that like?
To be truthful, I enjoyed it. There were no major wars going on then, and I was a bandsman in the Military Band, playing clarinet. They were wonderful times, and doing National Service was great for character. It taught discipline and respect, and I learnt a lot about how to get on with others. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring it back.
After National Service I was with the TA, in the 4th Battalion Wiltshire Regiment. Again I was in the military band and during the 2 weeks Summer Camp every year I travelled all over from Cornwall up to Cumberland. It was wonderful playing in the band on the parade ground, I loved it.
So, how did you come to be Beadle and Town Crier?
My predecessor retired in 1994, and several people suggested that I would be good for the job, but I wasn’t sure. One day I was “summoned” to the council offices to see the then Mayor, and he and the Town Clerk persuaded me that I should take on the job. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my wife, Ann; we’re a team.
What exactly is a Beadle?
Lots of people are confused by that one! The Beadle is one of the Mayor’s Officers, whose role is to act as the leader of processions. It’s a ceremonial role – as well as the Beadle there are two Mace Bearers. We attend services such as Remembrance Sunday, and make official visits to each of the churches once a year. The Beadle also officiates at the Mayor Making ceremony when a new Mayor is sworn in. That was one of the first jobs I had to do when I became Beadle – and probably the most complicated!
How did you know what to do?
The Mace Bearers were quite experienced, so they gave me tips, and you just pick it up as you go along. As I’ve been doing it so long now, I tend to be able to help and advise people new to the roles, and steer them along in the right direction during ceremonies.
How does Town Crier differ?
The Town Crier makes announcements on behalf of the council in the town. The Beadle carries a staff, and the Town Crier carries a bell to attract attention before making announcements. If I’m carrying out both roles in one day I have to make sure I’ve got the right piece of equipment at the right time! You definitely can’t be a shrinking violet if you’re Town Crier.
Does it take up much time?
I do the Town Crying roughly 12 times a year, but with the other duties I’ve worked out I’ve probably put on the uniform about 40 times this year.
What do you enjoy most about the role?
I love the job, and think it’s a real honour to do it. It’s lovely to meet so many different people, and it’s great that so many of them come up and talk to you. Sometimes, if there’s a coach trip, a whole coach load of tourists (often Japanese) will want their picture taken with the Town Crier individually! It’s a bit like being famous, except it’s the uniform rather than me they are interested in in that case.
I also get the chance to visit schools and do talks, often with the mayor. The children all have lots of questions.
One little known fact is that I am also Official Ale Taster to the Borough of Marlborough, I enjoy that part of the job!
What do you enjoy doing when you are not fulfilling your official role?
I do some voluntary work at the day centre. I tend to go along to have a chat with people and serve lunch. I enjoy talking to people, everyone has an interesting story to tell, as long as you take the time to listen.
At Christmas I help out Father Christmas by representing him at some playgroups and schools. The children get very excited, as I really throw myself into the role with lots of Ho, Ho, Hos. On Christmas morning I’m Santa at Coombe End Court old people’s home, and afterwards stay for Christmas dinner.
I’ve always loved the Mop Fairs, and used to write about them for The World’s Fair, the magazine for fairground showpeople. I also used to make models of the fairground rides, some of which took years to make. They were exhibited in shop windows during the fair.
I have a rather large collection of brass and military band music which I still enjoy listening to, and I’ve been known to take part in the Line Dancing classes at St John’s school from time to time!
Basically, I like to keep busy, and I’m not very good at sitting still (I just fall asleep!)
What do you like most about living in Marlborough?
It’s a lovely market town that has retained its character. It is friendly and has a real sense of community. As Beadle and Town Crier you get to know lots of people, which means sometimes it can take me hours just to walk down the High St! It’s good that we still have the market, where many people do their weekly shopping.
What do you think are the downsides?
I do think that we need to ensure that Marlborough maintains a balance, and doesn’t become too affluent. Everyone knows that house prices are unaffordable for young people, so a lot of them have to move away or rent. I also think the town is missing a more budget priced supermarket – I know some people who will travel all the way into Hungerford to go to the supermarket there, but it’s difficult to carry a weekly shop back on the bus!
(First published October 2008)