The Waits

Each Year as Christmas approaches the strains of Street musicians are heard in Great Britain. The origin of the custom is to be traced through eight centuries and it throws many sidelights on manners and customs of the past.


For the origin of the word a score of variants can be cited. Originally a noun from the Anglo-Saxon wacian - to watch or guard – the word became altered by the Normans to gaite (Fr. guet), although it is not certain that the noun form may not be an adoption from the Teutonic Wahta, (German, Wacht)The word “waits ” gave rise to two curious errors.  One, that the word did not occur in the singular and the other, that the performers took their name from their instruments. Both errors are found in Busby’s Dictionary of Music’ (2nd ed. 1806, s.v.Wayghtes or Waits).

The survival of occupational names such as Gait, Wait (e), or Wakeman serves to indicate the use of such word-forms in the singular. The lists of freemen of York (Surtees Society, 1896-1900) record between 1272 and 1759, no fewer than 101 entries referring to persons of the name of Wayt(e), Wakeman, Waite or Wate, one of these Rogerus Wayte, admitted in 1363 being described as “piper”. Among 91 musicians and “mynstrills” admitted freemen during the same five centuries we note: In 1565 “Johannes Bawderstone, waite” ; in 1629, “Thomas Girdler, waite”; in 1679, “Nathan Harrison, musition”, who, in 1721 (on the admission of his two sons) is described as “waite”.


It is clear that originally waits were night watchmen in palaces, castles, camps and walled towns who “piped watch upon a musical instrument at stated hours”.  They also played for changing the guard or alerting the populace in case of alarm.  At times, merely to awaken certain persons at appointed hours by soft music at their chamber doors.

One of the earliest references to waits occurs in a treatise ‘De Naturis Rerum’ by Alexander Neckham, Abbot of Cirencester, who died in the early part of the 13th century: “Assint etiam excubiae vigiles [veytes] cornibus suis strepitum et clangorem facientes.” 

Tenure of land by wait-service was common, actual service being commuted into a money payment known as wait-fee.  Sandys in his ‘Christmas Tide’, records Simon le Wayte who held a virgate of land at Rockingham, Northants., on the tenure of being castle-wayte or watch. Blount in his ‘Ancient Tenures of Land’, records a similar instance of wayte-fee in connection with the manor of Marborough, Norfolk, in 1558; also with the manor of Buxton (near Aylsham), where a quarterly payment of I5 shillings was levied for wayte-fee at the castle of Norwich. In Cornwall those holding land on tenure of keeping watch at the castle gate of Launceston were under the jurisdiction of a special court called Curia Vigiliae, Curia de Gayle or Waytern-fee Court, of which many records are preserved in the Public Record Office.

The early romances serve to show that the word referred to the performer, thus, in ‘Kyng Alysaunder’ (I4th cent.): “When the table was y-drawe, Theo Wayte gan a pipe blawe “. This Tafelmusik in course of performance is portrayed on the I5th-century Braunche brass in St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn, and serves to link the musical watchmen with the musicians attached to the houses of the nobility. The romance of Sir Eglamour (1440) states ” Grete lordys were at the Assent; Waytys blewe, to mete they wente “.

In the ‘Promptorium Parvulorum’ of I440 wayte is described as exploratorforis, speculatorforis without any musical connotation, but a Nominale of the 5th century also describes colomaula(i.e. calamus + aulos, hence calamaula) as “wayte-pype”, showing clearly that the performer gave his name to the instrument and not vice versa.  In 1510 we find “tibicen” defined as a wayte; in 1530 Palsgrave gives “Wayte, an instrument, hauboys”.  In 1556 Withal, with less accuracy, gives in his Dictionary “The trumpet or waytes : tuba “. Butler in his ‘Principles of Music’ (1636)clearly regards Waits as being “Hobois”, and such a definition is confirmed by Minsheu (1617) and by R. Sherwood’s English-French Dictionary appended by Cotgrave(1650)


Stow tells us that Henry III in 1253 established watchmen (waytes) in London.  Edward III (I327-77) had three “Wayghtes” in the royal band of “mynstrells”. Henry VI  in I445 had “menistrealx (minstrels), one le Gaite”. As regards Edward IV (1461-83) a full account of his household establishment in the ‘Liber Niger Domus Regis’, specifies ” Minstrelles thirteene, whereof some be trompets, some with the shalmes and smalle-pypes . . .  and “A wayte, that nightely from Mychelmas to Shreve Thorsdaye pipe the watche within this courte fowere tymes; in the somere nightes in tymes, and make the Bon Gayte at every chambere doare, and offyce, as well for feare of pyckeres and pillers” [i.e. thieves].

Andrew Newman, the Waite was one of 42 musicians of Henry VIII.  In 1626, Charles I (1626-1649) had twenty-five waits in his band of fifty-eight performers.  No doubt a very early military band of performers who would play at court and also to announce arrivals and departures.


The custom of municipalities appointing official waits may be said to date from the 15th century; the records of English boroughs and, to a lesser extent, Scottish burghs provide a rich store of information concerning their Waits.


It is not always easy to distinguish waits from minstrels, since their duties were often the same, but there was for centuries hostility between the waits.  Trained musicians who served an apprenticeship, were accorded official status, badges of office, livery and emoluments and the common minstrels – itinerant players of very varied capabilities and some little better than rogues and vagabonds, were held in low esteem. Of the latter Alexander Barclay in his ‘Ship of Fools’ (1508) writes :

That by no means can they abide or dwell

Within their houses, but out they must go.

More wildly wandering than buck or doe

Some with their harps, another with his lute

Another with his bagpipe or a foolish flute.

Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun states that in 1698 there were 100,000 wandering mendicants in Scotland and many of these were doubtless minstrels of a sort. If England’s vagrant musicians were numerous in proportion, it was but natural that competent musicians in the pay of royalty, of the nobility, or of municipalities should resent any derogation of their calling. W. Chappell in his valuable ‘Popular Music of the Olden Time’ remarks:

After the Act of the 39th year of Elizabeth which rendered all minstrels wandering abroad liable to punishment as “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars”, itinerant musicians were obliged to wear cloaks and badges with the arms of some nobleman, gentleman, or corporate body to denote in whose service they were engaged, being thereby excepted from the operation of the Act.

Edward IV granted his minstrels a charter in 1469, and James I in 1604 granted a charter of incorporation to the Society of Minstrels in London, and thus instituted the Worshipful Company of Musicians.


A wide variety of duties devolved upon the waits. They were asked to assist at medieval plays as in 1511, when a minstrel and three waits of Cambridge assisted at a presentation of ‘The Holy Martyr, St. George’ -at Bassingbourn, Cambs. Or again as at Newcastle in 1567, when the incorporated companies performed a miracle play on Corpus-Christi day, the corporation paid 2s to the waites, for playeinge befor the players [i.e. actors].

The waits took up a station on the route and played on the occasion of royal visits. Holinshed records the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Norwich in 1578:

“Then hir majestie drew nere the gates of the citie called Saint Stephan’s gate . . . at this gate the waits of the citie were placed with lewd musicke, who cheerfullie and melodiouslie welcomed hir majestie into the citie.”

The waits met and serenaded visitors of note on arrival, as at Cambridge;  Pepys relates in 1667, he was met by the town music. “But, Lord, what sad music they made“, is his comment. At Bath, on the other hand, the next year, he records: “By and by comes music to play to me, extraordinary good as ever I heard at London, or anywhere“.

John Wood, a century later, in his ‘ Description of Bath ‘ (1769) states :

“The customs that particularly relate to the Strangers be welcoming with them to the city, first by a Peal of the Abbey Bells and, in the next place, by the Voice and Musick of the City Waits … the Waits seldom miss their fee of a Crown, Half-a-Guinea, or a Guinea, according to the Rank of the People they salut.”  This account is almost verbatim to that given in Goldsmith’s ‘Life of Richard Nash’ (1762).

The waits of Scarborough in the 18th century went their rounds from Martinmas Eve to Christmas when the inhabitants were asked for donations which were booked in musical characters: a semibreve (whole note) stood for 5s., a minim (half note) for 2s/6d., a crotchet (quarter note) for 1s. and a quaver (eighth note) for 6d.  In constant demand for weddings and social functions, the waits were frequently mentioned in I7th-century drama, e.g. Beaumont and Fletcher. More rarely, they assisted the choristers in the service of the church as at St. James’, Bristol, in 1583, when the waytes were paid 2s/6d. on Candlemas day and night; at Chester in 1591, 1666 and 1668; at York Minster in 1623; at Christ Church, Dublin, c. 1620.

Five Norwich waits in 1589 achieved unique distinction when they accompanied Sir Francis Drake to Cadiz. “Three new hautboyes and one treble recorder” and a sacquebut” were supplied for their use.  Kemp, the Morris dancer, in his ‘Nine Daies Wonder’ (1600) describes the Norwich waits thus: “Fewe cities in our Realme have the like, none better”.


There was no rule as to the number of the waits, but from four to six was usual, with nine in London.  In Scotland frequently only a bagpiper and a drummer were employed, but from 1607 Edinburgh had five waits.


The waits livery was distinctive and highly coloured, as the following instances show:

Alnwick: Coats of blue broadcloth faced with yellow cloth and trimmed with silver lace, the buttons were engraved with the town arms. Attached to the sleeve was the town’s badge of silver with St. Michael killing the dragon. The vest was yellow and trimmed like the coat. Breeches were of yellow plush and the hat had a cockade and silver lace (C.1769).

Coventry: Coats of coarse red cloth (16l3),

Dublin: Livery cloaks, the cloth to be blue or watchett color with the city cognizance (1596),

Haddington: Grey-plaided garb, the coat having single collar, broad lapels, large black buttons and trimming of black braid; long waistcoat, short knee breeches, black leggings, and with cockades on the hats,

Leicester:  Orange or Tawney and later scarlet gowns edged with silver lace, later gold lace, (1524).

Pontefract:  Coates of blew cloth faced with white taffity as formally, (1657).


In imitation of the badges worn by dependents of great noblemen some waits wore an embroidered badge on the sleeves of their gowns or cloaks. Usually, however, a  silver collar badge escutcheon or cognizance and chain were provided by the municipality “on adequate sureties being furnished by each wait”; happily quite a number of these badges survive. Those of Bristol (1683), Beverley (1550), Wakefield (1688), Stamford (1691) and Norwich (C. 1550) are illustrated in J. C. Bridge’s lecture. Other badges which survive are those of Leicester (1695), King’s Lynn (1640) and  very inferior badges of St. George’s, St. Pancras and St. Giles Waits, London (1801).  Three of four beautiful silver waits chains, believed to date from 1476, are comprised in Exeter City regalia.


Originally the Waits played wind instruments as being best suited for use in the open air. Ox horns and similar nonmusical instruments were replaced by the favourite instrument, the shawm or early oboe, termed “wayte-pipe” or simply “wayte”.  Banners were hung from trumpets and shawms, and constant reference is made to these. At Norwich, banners “made of whyte and red damaske” were used for the waits’ shawms. The use of cornetts and sackbuts (trombones) is recorded in London in 1559-69. Among payments to or on behalf of the waits at Cambridge in 1562 the chamberlain records: “Payde for an instrument called a bumbarde (later Bombard). The Pommer is a member of the bombard family. This instrument is still used for performance. The Pommer is the bass Bombard and is low with not a very loud voice; the Bombard itself is high, loud and penetrating.*(see footer)

Thomas Morley, however, in dedicating his Consort Lessons to the Lord Mayor and aldermen in 1599, praises the London waits and writes his ‘Lessons’ mainly for strings, treble lute, pandora, cittern, bass viol, flute and treble flute.  John Hooker (1525-1601 ), the town-clerk historian of Exeter, left a valuable manuscript ‘Description of the Citie of Exeter’, in which he gives the composition of the waits band in 1575 as “A Doble Curtall, a Lyserden, Two Tenor Hoyboyes, a Treble Hoyboyes, a Cornet, a set or case of fower Recorders”. The double curtall was the early bassoon and replaced the bombard. The Lyserden is thought to have been the tenor of the cornett family. The spelling hoyboyes reveals the influence of the French origin of the word -hautbois- which occurs first in English in the mid 16th century. Robert Lancham tells us that “hautboiz” were among the instruments employed for the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth in 1575. The fower recorders were very probably a set of four different sizes in a case.

The records of the Court of Aldermen of London state:

1559. The Chamberlain to buy one of the City Waits.

1569. The Waits to be paid for a set of Recorders and Cornets.

I597. The Chamberlain shall presently buy and provide the several instruments called a double saggbutt, a single saggbutt and a curtal for the musicians at the charge of the city.

In 1602 the Exeter Waits agreed to buy a set of  “vyalls” (viols) and at Chester in 1590 “howboies, recorders, cornets and violens” were in use.

Liverpool employed a bagpiper as wait in 1571.

During the 18th century, horns, clarinets and bassoons were adopted. Often the waits appear to have been competent musicians, capable of doubling on more than one wind instrument or on a stringed instrument as well.


The English waits had their counterpart in the Stadtpfeifereien of Germany, and the German guilds furnished many excellent musicians -J. S. Bach was the son of a Stadtpfeifer - so among English waits of repute we note: John Ravenscroft (d. c. 1745), a wait of Tower Hamlets, London, who wrote many hornpipe tunes; John Banister (b. 1630), son and pupil of one of the waits of St. Giles, London; Thomas Farmer, Mus.Bac. (Cantab.) in 1684, one of the waits of London; Ferdinando Gibbons, a Lincoln wait, and his famous brother Orlando, were sons of William Gibbons (I540-95) who in 1567 was admitted one of the waits of Cambridge with the annual fee of 40s.


The waits in most towns were allowed a nominal wage and entitled to accept gratuities from private individuals for playing at weddings and other functions. At Canterbury in 1498 the waits received an established fee each per annum. At Exeter in 1602 the four waits each received yearly wages and their accustomed livery. A curious privilege allowed one of the waits, with consent of his fellows, to keep at his sole cost two boys trained up in music to join with the waits. The normal procedure was for each wait to be entitled to have an apprentice. As at Leicester in 1581, the waits were usually obliged to play every night and morning, both winter and summer, and not to go outside the town to play except at fairs and weddings, and then only by license of the mayor. It was further frequently resolved by the council that no strangers, waits, minstrels or other musicians whatsoever be allowed to play within the town.

Waits received wages of such trifling amount that they must have had other employment. In Edinburgh in 1679 the wage was £5 per annum, and in 1696 Malcolm McGibbons, the “double curtle” (bassoon) player of “the good town’s waits” was authorized by the town council “to keep a school within the town to teach that sort of musick and be allowed to play to gentlemen at seasonable tymes”.


Information about the music played by the waits is extremely rare.

Dunbar complained that the Edinburgh waits could play only two tunes, ‘Into June’ and ‘The Day Dawns’, now called ‘Scots wha hae’. An old Northumbrian saying concerned the piper of Hexham, who had only three tunes: “The first was lang unkenned, the second naebody kenned, and the third he didna ken hissel.”

Ned Ward in his ‘London Spy’ derides the London waits, calling them “tooters of the town; and have gowns, silver chains, and salaries for playing Lilla Bullera to my Lord Mayor’s horse through the City

As has been shown, however, the waits as a class were very far from incompetent; Morley in 1599 termed the London waits excellent and expert musicians. Certain groups of town waits had their own particular tunes, which were named after them. About a dozen of them survive (see list below).



The Municipal Reform Act Of 1835 led to the disbanding of the waits in nearly every case but as at Exeter and elsewhere, financial stringency arising from the Napoleonic wars had led to the waits’ dismissal as early as 18l5. The custom of playing in the streets during Advent and Christmastide however, survived the abolition of the waits. At York, for example, Daniel Hardman, one of two pensioned waits continued his profession in a band he had founded in 1833.


The statute of 1744 banning organs in churches led to the enlistment of the services of small groups of amateur musicians thus was kept alive the practice of music in rural England throughout two centuries until the introduction of the harmonium. Thomas Hardy dealt with the 18th century period of such church music in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’, and F. W. Galpin recorded in ‘The Antiquary’ (1806) his researches in the Winterborne Valley in Dorset, where the church band of Winterborne Abbas was not superseded until about 1896. The small bands consisted of violin, flute or oboe, clarinet, bassoon and cello or double bass, sometimes with a serpent, but there was no fixed number of instruments and the players read the voice parts. The “band” sat in the west gallery or at the west end of the nave and was under the direction of the parish clerk. From their custom of playing during Advent and at Christmas these little groups became known as waits, and so even today we have music, much of it sadly debased, from musicians in the streets.

The instrumentalists that are seen today who most emulate the Waits are the Buskers seen both in Britain and in Canada and often seen in Subway entrances in American cities or on street corners. The musicians in Britain still dress up in dazzling jackets that are filled with buttons and there are annual events which feature the Buskers. The early WAITS however did have a very close resemblance to the first military bands in that the instrumentation often was the same. The introduction of oboes and later Clarinets was in fact taken from the waits who used outside instruments which were powerful and could be heard at a distance (Cornetts, Sackbuts, and shawm). The dress uniforms which adorned military bands in the 17th and 18th century can be identified with the clothing first devised for the Waits. The Town Pipers in Germany and other European countries also share a place in early history with the military bands. The Court pipers often were employed to announce arrivals and departures and to sound the warning of war and general alarms.


The music we now recognize as Folk music and dances as well as many early marches was the creation of the Waits. Tunes similar to Lilly Bullero and Wait for the Wagon were early marches. British Grenadiers march was considered music of the Red Coats but in reality was the music of Waits. The earliest forms of music that being A-B-A is the basis of most of the tunes developed by Waits. Dumbarton’s Drums was an early pipe tune used by Waits and later adapted for the field of battle. Similarly “This my Lad a Soldiers Life” began as a street song of the Waits and was known as “The Sprightly Fife” Another which came into existence in the 15th century was a song later known as the “White Army Bean”. During the US Civil War several songs made their way into the campfire songs of soldiers of both sides including the old English melody used with the words of “Eating Goober Peas”.


The Groves Dictionary of Musicians and Music.

Soldier Songs and Marches-

The Henry Farmer papers-

The Street Musicians of Britain by Edward Sembler 1937

* Peter Keel a Bombard player has provided information on the subject.

One Response to “The Waits”

  1. Admiring the dedication you put into your website and detailed information you offer. It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed information. Excellent read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

Leave a Reply