An unusual claim to fame by Chertsey during the First World War is the appointment of the first woman town crier in England.
The role of town crier in Chertsey was an historic post, created by the Feoffees of Chertsey Market under the charter of Queen Elizabeth I. According to news articles of the time, the position had been held by the Blaker family for several generations. Shoemaker Henry Blaker held the post until his death in 1906, and was succeeded by his son Albert Henry Blaker, as confirmed in the Feoffees receipt book of 1907-8 (SHC ref. 6200/385):
“Mr Albert Henry Blaker of London Street, Chertsey, is the duly appointed town crier and collector of market tolls and he is authorised to receive and collect all sums for crying and market tolls due to the feoffees”
Albert Henry Blaker (1869-1959), who had continued his father’s trade as shoemaker, married Mary Anne Field in 1892 at St Peter’s church, Chertsey. Mary Anne was born in Lyne, Surrey, the daughter of Henry and Hannah Field. Her father was recorded in the 1881 census as keeper of the Royal Marine Beer House in Lyne. In 1911, the Blaker family lived in Bridge Road, Chertsey: Albert was listed as a boot repairer, his son Henry Robert a house agent’s clerk.
With the onset of war in 1914, Albert Blaker was called up to serve his country, as was his son who joined the Hussars. The Feoffees of Chertsey then took the unusual step of granting Mary Anne Blaker permission to act as her husband’s substitute. When Mrs Blaker took up her duties in November 1914, the local, national and even American press made much of the appointment of the ‘First Woman Town Crier in England.’ On her first official duty on 3 November 1914, the Surrey Herald proclaimed her ‘Initial and Successful Appearance’, explaining to its readers that “the unprecedented instance of a woman publicly ‘crying’ in England was, like many other things in these times, due to war.” In the national press, the Daily Mirror reported that Mrs Blaker “fulfilled her duties most successfully, her voice being quite audible at a distance of fifty yards.”
The uniform Mrs Blaker wore as town crier had been made for her father-in-law, Henry. Described as ‘Georgian-style’, it comprised a blue coat and matching waistcoat, lined with scarlet and trimmed with gold braid, a black tricorn hat, white scarf and black kid shoes with silver buckles. Instead of the original breeches, worn with yellow stockings, Mrs Blaker chose to wear a black skirt.
During the First World War, Albert Blaker served as a sergeant in the 6th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment. On his return from war, he did not resume his duties as town crier but, instead, his wife continued in the role. Over the next two decades, Mrs Blaker was a familiar figure in Chertsey, leading Armistice Day and other public processions, reading the King’s proclamations, and collecting market tolls and fees. Such was her popularity, that when she decided to resign the post in 1924 and again in 1925, she was asked on both occasions to reconsider, which she did. Later, in 1935, the Gloucestershire Echo reported that Mrs Blaker “discharges her duties with a degree of efficiency at least equal to that of her masculine counterparts”.
Mrs Blaker died on 19 November 1940 aged 71. She had been collecting the tolls of Chertsey Market for the Feoffees only three days beforehand.