One old Christmas custom that, to all intents and purposes, had died out is now, in a slightly different form, making something of a return. I am referring to the Waits, the groups of musicians who played in towns and cities, usually at night, and who came to be associated with Christmastide. Why they were called Waits is something of a mystery - there is evidence to support all of the views, each of which has its own merits. There are some who believe that the term derives from the musical instruments that they played, others think that it refers to the type of music they played, whilst others prefer the view that it was applied to those who performed under special circumstances.
The name Waits was applied to the minstrels attached to the King’s court who patrolled the streets at night, protecting the citizenry and proclaiming the hour, in much the same manner as the city watch in those days before the police force was established. There was a regular company of Waits at Exeter as early as 1400 and an account in Liber Niger Domus Regis from the time of Edward IV records,
“A wayte, that nightelye from Mychelmas to Shreve Thorsdaye pipethe the watche withen this courte fower tymes, in the somere nyghtes iij tymes, and makethe bon gayte at every chambere dore and offyce, as well for feare of pyckeres and pillers.”
This ‘Wait’ was a kind of yeoman-page, paid partly in money and partly in board-wages, and may well be the origin of the yeoman-waiter of later days, (it should be noted that in this version, he is a ‘domestic wayte’, rather than a ‘civil wayte’). In his edition of The Famous History of Dr Faustus (1858), William Thom writes,
“Lastly, was heard by Faustus all manner of instruments of musick, as organs, clarigolds, lutes, viols, citterns, waits, hornpipes, flutes, anomes, harps, and all manner of other instruments.”
|London Waits - words and music|
Here the waits are included in the list of instruments, and in his Principles of Musik (1636), Charles Butler includes the same in a list,
“Harp, Lute, Bandora, Orparion, Cittern, Gittern, Cymbal, Pfalteri, Dulcimer, Viol, Virginal, &c. and (of Emfmeufta) Pipe, Organ, Shalm, Sagbut, Cornet, Recorder, Fluit, Waits or Hobois, Trumpet &c.”
|C Butler - Principles of Musik - 1636 (Waits and Hobois underlined)|
This ‘waits or hobois’ implies that it is the same instrument known as the hoboy, hautboys, hautbois or oboe; it is called the waits or wayghtes, sometimes the wait-pipe, which was another name for the shawm, an old, double-reeded, woodwind instrument that was the fore-runner of the oboe and the bassoon. It was a long wooden pipe with a flared, trumpet-like bell at the end, and had a harsh, piercing sound that was well suited to open-air playing.
Hautboys, the noun, has no singular form, and the name was passed to the performers who played them in public and thence to any performer who played any instrument in a similar manner. That the name of the instrument became the name of the performers can be seen in this extract from the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1756, describing the freemen of Alnwick who,
“… enter the town, sword in hand, and are generally met by women dressed up with ribbons, bells and garlands of gum-flowers, who welcome them with dancing and singing, and are called timber-waits (perhaps a corruption of timbrel-waits, players on timbrels, waits being an old word for those who play on musical instruments in the streets)”.
In a curious, old poetical satire by Andrew Brice The Mobiad, (1737), he writes,
“Shrill Hautboys and the fhriller Trumpet greet,Attentive Ears, by Turn, in ev’ry Street,”with an added note,“Hautboys, &c. - The City Waits and Trumpet, about this Hour of Eight, begin to traverfe the Town.”
In a letter to his brother dated January 2nd 1614, Robert Heyricke, an alderman of Leicester, wrote,
“Yow wryte how yow reacayved my letur of (on) St Stevens day, and that, I thanke yow, yow esteemed yt as weelcoom as the 18 trumpytors.”
|Waits Badge from Leicester|
By the 1500s, the city waits were issued with uniforms and played at the parades made by mayors and other civic dignitaries, as well as watching over the nighttime streets until these patrols passed over to the regular police force. Samuel Johnson did not included the word ‘wait’ in this sense in his Dictionary, but Edmund Burke, in his copy of the same (now in the British Museum), has a hand-written addenda reading,
“WAIT, n. s. from ye French guet (literally a sentinel on outpost duty). 2. Waits, in ye pl. an old word signifying ye night Guard in ye city of London.”
|The calling Waits|
A different entomology links ‘waits’ to the German ‘wacht’, as a watch-man and without the musical connotations, with others pointing to the old Scots word ‘waith’, meaning ‘to wander from place to place’, referring to the ‘menstrales’ of, for example, Glasgow, where certificates and uniforms where issued to old, often blind, respectable musicians who played slow, soothing airs on the December nights leading up to the New Year and who then collected subscriptions from the inhabitants of the city.
|The Waits call|
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the peak of the waits as public performers, maybe following the examples of the carollers and wassailers, and for the three weeks preceding Christmas the waits would play every night in the streets of the cities, returning during the days to collect money, food and drink.
|Waits Badge from Wakefield - 1670|
They were issued with special licences but other unofficial groups, cashing in on the practice, also performed and collected tips, leading the official, established waits to complain about the activities of these impromptu opportunists. It was probably the amateur performances of these ‘musicians’ that marked the beginning of the end of the waits, as the once welcome nighttime subtleties of an older age were replaced with a raucous, nocturnal clamour that roused the innocent householders from their December slumbers, with insult added to their injuries when the perpetrators returned in the daylight, demanding tips and Christmas boxes.
|The Unwelcome Waits|
In December 1822, Mr Munroe, the authorised principal London Wait, brought charges against four men for playing musical instruments in St Martin’s Lane at half-past twelve in the morning and for soliciting Christmas boxes. Due to the wording of the Vagrancy Act, the defendants got off on a technicality, but were admonished by Mr Halls, the sitting magistrate, and ordered not to collect any more Christmas boxes. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, as part of the great early Reform acts, effectively ended the role of the official civic Waits, although amateur musicians continued to accompany carol singers at their concerts and modern Waits societies have revived the spirit of the Waits in their reconstructions (although, thankfully, they no longer parade and play through the streets during the winter nights).