On a crisp autumn evening last month in the shadows of two flickering candles, Francis Taylor Slate, dressed in a colonial uniform, stood on the steps of Gadsby's Tavern in Old Town Alexandria before 150 visitors and with a strong, deep voice bellowed the following greeting:

"Oyez, oyez, gentle mistresses and most distinguished gentlemen, as the official town crier for the City of Alexandria in the Commonwealth of Virginia I have been commanded by his honor Mayor James P. Moran to bid one and all of you welcome to our fair city."

Slate, 69, continued speaking to the members of the International Council of Monuments and Sites, who had traveled from Europe to see the Washington area. "We trust that you will enjoy your all-too-brief visit and make profitable use of your time to absorb our history. We also hope that your conference will be very productive." Then he repeated the message in French and concluded with, "God bless the Commonwealth of Virginia."

Slate is Alexandria's town crier, a volunteer position he has held for 10 years. When he started the job in 1977, he was the only town crier in the United States. Now there are three others in Savannah, Ga., and Provincetown and Northampton, Mass. In days past, town criers were chiefly responsible for standing on street corners and shouting the news.

Last week the City Council honored Slate with a proclamation. Dressed in a colonial uniform with a royal red jacket, Slate began his thanks to the council by ringing a bell, and then slowly bellowing, "I would like to thank my tailor in residence {his wife}, without whose assistance I would be standing before you clad in a barrel."

Slate's interest in the profession began in November 1977 as he was standing on the steps of Gadsby's Tavern next to Alexandria City Hall with Carol Amey, then curator of the historic tavern. They were watching festivities commemorating George Washington's last review of the troops in 1798.

Amey said to Slate, who with his wife was dressed in colonial garb, "If we only had some traditional means of letting visitors know what is going on, if we only had a town crier," Slate recalled.

"I said, 'All right, you've got one,' " he said. With that he borrowed a bell and started walking among the crowds telling people what was going on. He was an instant hit and he has never stopped.

Slate takes his job very seriously. He has conducted extensive research on the ancient profession, which declined in most towns with the growth of newspapers and increased literacy. He has business cards announcing he is a town crier, and he owns more 18th century suits than 20th century ones.

"A lot of people say, 'Oh, town crier, 10 o'clock and all's well,' and I politely tell them they couldn't be more incorrect," Slate said.

"Town criers were minor appointed officials that had to be literate," Slate explained. " . . . The night watch was an employe of the town who did not have to be literate. All he had to do was tell time from the town clock and patrol the town from sundown to sunup."

Slate said he portrays a typical town crier of 1770, "so he is still a royal subject of his majesty King George III." His enthusiasm for "crying" has taken Slate and his wife Dudley to international town crier competitions in Canada and England. He explained why, in his five trips to England, he has never won a competition:

"As long at the English are crying, I can forget it. They've had a few hundred more years of experience.

"One of my very good friends is a town crier in Lyme Regis, a town on the south coast of England. His position was established in 1068 by William the Conquerer and it has never been vacant."

According to Slate, in 1984 he became the first American to be inducted in the Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers in England. Also that year, while visiting the Parish of Long Melford, in Suffolk, he was asked to be the town's crier indefinitely. He accepted, and that title is also on his business card.

Mayor Moran said Slate "adds much to the cultural life of the city. We use him every opportunity we get for some pomp and ceremony." A town crier seems appropriate for Alexandria, founded in 1749, because it was once a thriving colonial port city.

"I think it {town crying} is something he has refined over the years, and he's probably more adept at town crying than Alexandria's original town crier," Moran said.

While Slate insists that his duties in Alexandria be volunteer, outside the city he has accepted pay, mostly from advertising agencies, to portray a town crier. One year he stood at Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW in Georgetown crying the attributes of a newly restored colonial building where a bank was opening as youths in punk clothing gawked.