Old occupations: the bellman

If you see ‘bellman’ on a census entry or certificate as a person’s occupation, what did it mean? Being Cumbrian Characters, this post includes an example with a story to tell.

Bellman and bill-poster

In the 1860s and 1870s, one William Howson, of Penrith, advertised his services as ‘bellman, bill-poster, and bill distributor’.

So, who was this Cumbrian Character, and how did he earn a living?

‘Bill poster’ seems clear enough. We’ve all seen signs on things urging: ‘stick no bills’. Or: ‘Bill stickers will be prosecuted’.

And we all get leaflets advertising all sorts of local goods and services pushed through our letterboxes.

‘Bellman,’ however, is an occupation that has not survived the centuries… except perhaps in a way, it has.

A definition

One concise definition of what a bellman did is:

BELLMAN Employed as a watchman or town crier or who worked for the post office and collected letters for the mail coach by walking the streets and ringing a bell.

It seems it was a role that wasn’t exclusive – and could be fiercely contested. Certainly in the case of William Howson.

It also seems the official pay was just a token, and the actual money was made based on private commissions.

And it appears, from the case, that there is a reason that ‘bellman’ and ‘bill poster’ go together. Namely, that a bellman (for a fee) would also go round town shouting out about special offers, or sales to be held.

So his modern equivalent would be someone wearing a sandwich board or dressed up as pirate or a bear.

 William Howson

William Howson was born in Skelton parish, circa 1813.

He had a wife called Elizabeth, née Stockdale, born Blencow circa 1815.

In 1841, on the Skelton census, they had the first two of their children (Jabob, 5, and Pearson, 2, who grew up to be a mason and saddler respectively. Pearson Howson was on the fringes of the Jane Boak case). 

At least five other children followed and survived to be recorded on subsequent censuses.

In 1851, William Howson is recorded on the Penrith census as a master shoemaker, changing his trade by 1861 to ‘tea and coffee dealer’. 

The strongest pair of lungs

In November 1863, the Cumberland and Westmorland Advertiser, and Penrith Literary Chronicle reported that there were two applicants fo the post of bellman: John Stalker of Townhead, and William Howson, of Castlegate. Both applications had the support of ratepayers.

John Stalker had already had a trial, and William Howson was to use the bell for the next fortnight, so the Board could judge who had the strongest pair of lungs.

The Board would also fix the district, and the rate of charge.

I will come back to why it was within the Penrith Local Board of Health’s remit later.

A few weeks later, the Penrith Observer reported that William Bewley the Middlegate fishmonger thought William Howson the better man for the job. And Mr Bewley spoke as the tradesman who most used the bellman’s services.

Curious factors

However, some members of the Board seem to have forgotten the primary qualification.

Mr Nevison wanted to appoint John Stalker (at 6d a year), as this would perhaps keep from parochial relief.

Mr Goodrun said John Stalker, in the event of distress, would become chargeable to the parish, whereas William Howson would only become chargeable to the Union. (For more on parish relief, see last week’s post).

Others brought things back to the candidates’ suitability. 

Mr Graham, who had had custody of the bell since the vacancy, said John Stalker had ‘broken down’ during his trial and they should be giving the role to someone who could actually perform it. 

It was a split decision (four votes to three), but William Howson got the job, on a basis of ‘six months, subject to good behaviour and a week’s notice’.

Bellman for hire

William Howson immediately started advertising his services in the local press (moving from Castlegate to 12 Little Dockray).

Was the parish relief debate hypothetical in his case? Or was he taking the role in need because he couldn’t make a go of tea and coffee/shoemaking?

For sure, 6d a year was a very nominal payment: and he was paying the newspaper for a weekly advertisement. The ‘real money’ had to be made from the trade he, er, drummed up with his bell (!).

The rival bellman

The six-month contract must have been renewed. But John Stalker had not given up!

And in October 1866, it becomes a little clearer as to why Penrith Local Board of Health had anything to do with it at all.

The answer to that being that the bell belonged to the Duke of Devonshire (William Cavendish, the 7th Duke) and the Board just handled things for him: they appointed the town crier or bellman. 

Carlisle Journal, October 2, 1866

Gentlemen, —Allow me to call your attention to the protection of the town’s belman, as John Vartey and companey has bought new bell, and employed John Stalker to make youse of it, and deprive me of the benefit that arises from it, as well being injurious to my carracter from various stories that Stalker makes youse of when asked what as hapned the o’d belman that he has taken his place.

Spelling wasn’t something William Howson had picked up from the bills he posted and distributed.

Gentlemen, I have lost 3s. 4d. for calls that John Stalker has got last week. Those calls is my according to old accustomed times when Robert Railton was belman. Whoever employed fresh belman paid Robert Railton the dews. Mr. Hudson was the last that paid Robert Railton when he was in town for six weeks, which I can prove by his son, William Railton. 

Your obedient servant, Wm. Howson, Belman.” 

The Board weren’t sure they had the power to stop someone else ringing a bell in Penrith. But were concerned that if they didn’t, they may as well not bother setting tolls either. Their concern seems to have been the interests of the Duke, and the authority of the Board, rather than William Howson being deprived of his ‘dews’.

 The Duke’s agent, when he replied, didn’t seem too sure on the point, and the Board couldn’t agree.

A tragic end

William Howson died in the summer of 1877, aged 65 – as the result of a terrible accident. In short, he was run over by a cart belonging to Mr Armstrong, of the George Hotel, and driven by Joseph Campbell, who ‘thought he was 17’. 

The inquest jury recorded a verdict of Accidental Death – and ‘very kindly handed their fees over to the deceased’s widow’.

There was further grief in store for Elizabeth a few weeks later, when daughter Jane (Rowley) died, in Liverpool, aged 27. 

By February 1878, a T Atkinson of Burrowgate was advertising his services as a bellman and bill poster. The official bellman, appointed in May 1878, was Thomas Barker.

Robert Railton

The 1866 dispute does give us the name of the previous bellman. Robert Railton, in 1861, was a widowed ‘yeoman and parish bellman’, living in Old Crown Yard. Born circa 1795, he’d held the post of bellman for around 30 years when he decided to retire in 1863.  

Robert Railton was paid one shilling a year (so the Board halved the fee when giving the job to William Howson).

No colourful costume

And if you are picturing a town crier in costume, as they wear today, forget it.

The Board thought the bellman should wear livery – a cocked hat and scarlet coat – but the suggestions were reported as ‘loud laughter’, so they were clearly just joking.

John Varty and Company

Possibly this was John Varty, auctioneer, who had set up as such in Penrith a few months before William Howson’s complaint. He’d have wanted someone to publicise auction sales.

A Carlisle bellman

In 1866, John Cameron, bellman and bill poster, Carlisle, called ‘the attention of advertisers to his new perambulating van, as the best and cheapest mode of obtaining publicity’.

An 1866 joke:

Who is the most tender-hearted man in any small town?

The bellman, because he will cry if you give him a shilling.

  • The image shows a modern-day equivalent of part of the bellman’s role