www.townwaits.org.uk / History Index / Berwick

Berwick Waits

Waits are discussed and the following waits are mentioned in: Roz Southey 'Music-making in North-East England during the eighteenth century' (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), as well as many other local musicians, fiddlers, pipers etc (some of whom may have been waits)

McGill, David fl.17--
Oswald, John fl.1735
Tate, Henry d.1784

Music for civic ceremonies from 16th-19th Centuries were provided in Berwick by the town 'waites'.
Early on some of these were quite talented - for example between 1735 and 1758 John Oswald from Crail was employed to lead the waits. His son James Oswald (1710-1769) became one of the leading composers of his day in the Scots/Italian style eventually ending up at the court of George III. Oswald's music is now enjoying something of a revival.
But by the 19th.century the waits' lack of talent had become an embarrassment and the post was abolished.

James Wallace - Last of the Town Waits- by Gerry Wallace


From medieval times up to the beginning of the 19th century, every British town and city of any note had a Town Wait or a band of Waits. Waits were professional musicians employed by the town and paid for out of the taxes. My great great great great grandfather, James Wallace was just such a Wait.

In the years before Cook discovered New Zealand, my forefather, James Wallace entertained, informed and watched over the good people of Berwick-upon-Tweed. He was born in 1759 in the Scottish borders but he was christened in Berwick Holy Trinity church on 28th October 1759.

James became so popular that a drawing was made of him and even a statuette was made in his honour. These can be viewed on request at the Berwick-upon-Tweed, Borough Museum which is located at the appropriately named Wallace Green Road. How's that for a coincidence?

The redoubtable James Wallace was blind from an early age, and the drawing shows him going through the streets in his full regalia, carrying a fiddle and being escorted by a young boy, possibly his son Paul.

Paul went on to become a Professor of Music in Edinburgh and established a school of music in Nicolson Street. But that's another story.

James, like other Waits of his time had several important functions in the community. In those days there were no street lights; and candles were so expensive that people went to bed when it was dark and got up when it was daylight. They really had no way of telling the time with any consistency. Houses were not that secure and folk went to bed with the worry that there could be all sorts of vagabonds and ne'er-do-wells lurking about in the dark streets. A friendly Wait keeping watch while doing his rounds must have been a real comfort.

Waits started out as City or Town gatekeepers and night-watchmen. Their shrill musical instruments which included the shawm or Wait pipes, were used entertain, to signal that all was well, and also to sound alarms.By the end of the fourteenth century, they had become sought after minstrels who played for civic functions. Their duties included playing their instruments through the town at night, waking the townsfolk on dark winter mornings, welcoming Royal visitors by playing at the town gates, playing at religious services and private functions and leading the Mayor's procession on civic occasions.

Waits would often go on tour, visiting the country seats of the aristocracy, and playing in towns which lacked Waits of their own, sometimes helping out with civic ceremonies.

Being blind didn't stop James from being at the top of his profession for over 50 years, which is more than you can say for most of today's entertainers.

Prior to becoming a Wait at the age of 20 in 1779, James made his living as a musician in the Castlegate / Greenseas area of Berwick.

In 1835, an Act of Parliament abolished the position of Town Wait. However the Berwick Town Council allowed James to retain his post well after the position was abolished.

An insight into James's character and his life and times can be gained from looking at the Guild account books held at the unique Berwick Museum.

On the 8th October, 1779, James was issued with his Great Coat. These coats were expensive, ornamental and colourful, usually skirted, and with a collar of office, which consisted of a chain with a scutcheon of the Town's arms, usually in silver; and later with silver arm-badges. These collars were very valuable, sometimes costing the equivalent of two year's wages.

The Guild record reads 'This day the Guild also resumed the Consideration of the Petition of James Wallace the Corporation Wait of Castlegate presented to a Guild holden on the Thirtieth day of July last. And do hereby order that he be allowed a Great Coat according to the prayer of his Petition'

This account further identifies him as 'The Piper of Castlegate' and shows his annual wages to be £3.00.

There was an attempt to increase this, two years later in February 1800. The account states that on 28th February 'Mr. Joseph Brown moved the Guild that the salary of James Wallace, Wait of Castlegate be augmented to £7.00 per annum, the said motion is referred to the adjournment.' The motion was later heard by the Guild on 21st March 1800 but was rejected. No luck James!

James lived in the towns Marygate, a bustling street in its day with his son Paul, who was born in 1806, but James had an earlier flirtation and owned up to it, as documents of that time revealed.

This document relates the death of his first son and announces, 'the death of James Smith, natural son of Jane Smith, Spinster by James Wallace, musician. Died November 27, 1802 age just 2 ¾ years, from fever.' Our hero was later to do the right thing and marry Jane Smith.

James also had a servant, which was not uncommon in those days and not as grand as it appears. Given James' aforementioned blindness this would have been a great help to him. His servants name was Alexander Wilson. Curiously enough, the picture of James, held at the Berwick Museum was drawn by James Wilson, a local Lighthouse keeper. It may be that they were related.

This was the period when Grace Darling would obtain notoriety for her famous rescue of stricken sailors, and given the location and close knit community of the era, they all probably knew each other.

James' demise was recorded in the Berwick Advertiser on 21st March 1845, he was 86. His headstone can be seen in the towns Holy Trinity Churchyard to the right of the gateway to the little cottages. The Church itself is well worth a visit.

James's death in 1845, heralded the demise of the last ever Town Wait of Berwick.

From Alan Radford, 23 Feb 2015.


In the seventeenth century the May Fair was opened at 10.00 by the Town Clerk reading the proclamation on the Monday of Trinity week, afetr which the Mayor, the Justices and other Corporation officials walked the Fair. Members of the Guild were "commanded under a penalty of 5 groats to walk with the Mayor on the Fair Day, with the Town's Waits before them in all Dignity and Decorum", and they had to appear in "their Gownes and other Apparell" under a "Forfett to the Gylde of 8 shillings without Redemyson".

back to topNames of Waites in the Northeast of Englandhistory section index