How Dorking’s town crier spends his weekends

Mark Elphick in costume

Mark Elphick in costume - Credit: Archant

Mark Elphick is the first town crier in his hometown for over a century. Funded by the Friends of Dorking, he can be seen (and heard) in the town on the second Saturday of the month but on his weekends off enjoys supporting the local rugby club and exploring the surrounding hills

I was born in Dorking in the winter of 1962. My grandfather on my mother’s side was the last working miller of Castle Mill in Pixham so I have a great affinity with the area of Surrey around Dorking, Pixham, Box Hill and Ranmore.

After a career in the Royal Navy, I came back to Dorking as it is one of those places that seems to draw one back. Especially sitting on the slopes of Box Hill on a hot summer’s day, smelling the grasses and listening to the skylarks.

When I am not out and about as Dorking’s town crier (I can be found and heard in Dorking town centre between 11am and 2pm on the second Saturday of every month) or working as a toastmaster, I am very much involved in Freemasonry. This gives me the chance to become involved in many charitable causes, not just in Surrey but London and West Kent too.

When not involved in Freemasonry, I can be found at Dorking Rugby Club. As an ex-senior player and ex-coach of the mini and youth teams, I still support Dorking RFC. One of my sons plays for the Colts and is hoping to move into the senior sides soon.

I am very fond of the Surrey Hills around Dorking, there are some wonderful views, especially towards the south from Box Hill and Ranmore. I enjoy being down by the River Mole at the foot of Box Hill, reminiscing about childhood days playing and fishing along its banks, or exploring the old pillboxes along the slopes of Box Hill.

History lesson

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Back to my duties as Dorking’s town crier and a small piece of history for you; one of the specific duties of the town crier in years gone by was to literally kick-start the annual Shrove Tuesday football match. The day began with a morning procession through the town led by a man carrying a pole with a cross-bar from the ends of which hung two – and later three – painted footballs, and a slogan: ‘Wind and waters Dorking’s glory’. The procession included men in fancy dress, faces daubed with soot and ochre, a man dressed as a woman exchanging banter with the crowd, musicians and, most importantly, collecting boxes for contributions meant to pay for damage to windows but often spent in the pubs afterwards.

At 2pm, the first ball was kicked off from the top of the church passage: a privilege claimed by the town crier. Jack Sanford carried out this formal start from the 1860s until his death in 1895. Soon after midday, the shops were closed and shuttered, lamps covered with sacking. Many people took a holiday. The Eastenders played the Westenders trying to keep the ball in their own territory. The main session began at 5pm with a large gilded ball, by which time the crowd of players had usually grown to several hundred men, young and not so young, and of all classes.

The play was very rough but generally good-humoured. Actually kicking the ball was rare; more often it was hugged or carried. If the ball was carried into a pub, it was the tradition to take a break for a quick drink before the ball was thrown back into play from an upper window. Whichever side held the ball in their territory when the church clock struck 6pm was the winner for the year.

People tried to get the match banned from the 1850s, and although it had strong support from councillors and Dorking Urban District Council, large numbers of police broke up the game in 1897. Attempts were made to keep it alive for nearly 10 years afterwards.

A small bit of information that may come up in a pub quiz: What is the descriptive noun for a group of town criers? It is a bellow of criers.

Keep up to date with the Dorking town crier at or following him on twitter @DorkingCrier.

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