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Waits' Duties

The duties carried out by Waits varied considerably from time to time and place to place, but there are certain common denominators. From the earliest times, up until their abolition in 1836, they played about the streets of the town at night during the winter months. Sometimes this was combined with the duty of calling out the hour and the state of the weather, and, in sea ports, the state of the tide. In other places, they started in the early hours and played to wake people up for work. They were also required to play for whatever occasions the Mayor of the town or city saw fit, and were often prominent at the opening ceremonies for fairs, and for other important festivals. Below are some records of Waits' duties.

Doncaster   Great Yarmouth   Hexham   King's Lynn   Stamford   York


"Item, it is ordered and agreed by the maior aldermen and capitall burgesses that there shalbe in this towne fower common waytes, and all of them to be parteners in all vayles and duties. And that they shall from henceforth have yearely allowed them of this coporacon iiij li towardes buying them livery cootesof stanell and that they shall yearelie provide and weare their cootes orderley every Saboth and festivall day. Anyd that they nor any of them shall goe oute of the towne either in christmas or any other tyme above three dayes without lycence first obteyned of the maier. And that they and every one of them shall beginne their watchesthe Mundaye after Michaelmas day every yeare, and continew the same until Shrove tuesdaye foloowing upon payne to forfett for any of the offences for every tyme x s. And that they shall not directly or indirectly guide or conduct starngers from house to house to playe at men's houses. Provided if they misdemeane themselves in any respecte towardes the maior aldermen and burgesses that then they shall lose their whole wages."

In 1585 four waits were appointed who were to:
"play about the towne every night between eight and nine of the clocke as they do in other places" and it was also decreed that "they shall not receive at any wedding for their wages above 2 s. 8 d. and to divide the same indifferently amongst them".

from The Musical Times, June 1st 1905, pp. 371-372.

Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

The Assembly Books:

1576/7 (31 August 1577) [C19/3, fol. 184v] waytes service
Also it is agreid yat from hensforthe the waytes shall begyn ther Seruice at the natyvitie of our ladye and shall ende ther Seruice at our ladye in lente and yat soche as will not pay them ther wages shalbe comytted to preson by mr bayliffe

The Liber Ordinum:

1598 [LO, C18/3, fol. 154v] Waytes wages & office.
That the waytes shall have ther accustomed wages of iiijli yerely, & euery of them a marke 13s 4d euery yere towards ther lyueryes & of euery one of the xxiiijties ijs viijd. And of euery of the xlviijties xvid. as heretofore itt hath bene payd. And that all the Commonors & Inhabitants shalbe rated by the Aldermen in ther seuerall wardes, to contribute towards the amendement of ther wages by the discrecion of the Alderman the Constable & such of the xlviijties as they shall choose. Provided they doe ther service as before & euery second yere make them newe lyueryes, And euery sondaye in Sommertyme playe with ther wholl Companye vpon the Leades at the Towne howse.


The duties of a wait are specified in Hexham Manor Rolls, Borough Book, 1665, cited in A. B Hinds, A History of Northumberland, Vol. 111, Hexham, Newcastle upon Tyne and London, 1896.

'We the burrow jurie of Hexham for the tyme being, have been diveerse tymes, and especially at this tyme desired to consider the good and benefit of the whole towne in generall. And whereas seuerall addresses and motions haue beene propounded and moued unto us for the constituteing and appointing them a waite, for the better stirring up of their servants and apprentices to their labour and imployment, urgeing the custome and practise of other good towns (as laudable in this particular) unto us. We therefore order & present Tho. Patteson to be waite and servant to this towne, and soe to continue untill the next court, and untill another be appointed in his roome; and that he shall goe about the towne once euery night, between the houres of seaven & nyne a clocke at night, and euvery morneing between three and fiue of the clocke, playing upon some audible musicall instrument, and shall often as he goeth alonge salute the people, acquainteing them with the tyme of the night and morneing, and what weather then blowes, and thus shall he continue betweene Michaelmasse & Kandlemasse, and in all other things shall carefully & honestly demeane himselfe in the said service in as large and ample manner as others who have had the same office haue formerly done; and if any great complaint against him shall be, that the same be referred unto the lord of this mannor to be ordered by his discretion. In lieu & consideration of such his said seruice, all other pipers and musitions whatsoeuer shall be debarred from playing in this towne in any companie or at any meeting whatsoeuer unlesse they first compound with him for the same, and in case they will not take a discharge from him, that then the constable bringe them before the baliffe of this towne for such their contempt; and that the said Tho. Patteson shall haue the accustomed benevolence of euery neighbour in this towne at the Christmasse tyme as other waits haue formerly had; and the ye constables shall out of the townes charge buy him a red coat, which he shall weare at meetings as the townes liuerie; and we hereby request the lord of this manner to bestow upon him the cognisanze that formerly John Blakelocke had bestowed upon him, that he may be knowne from others to be the lord of the mannors servant, and the townes servant, and thus shall he continue to be the townes waite, quamdiu bene se gesserit'.

King's Lynn, Norfolk

Council Hall books and chamberlains accounts, held at King's Lynn Town Hall

1431-1432 [gd 18. CC] Item in Vadimoniis de le Waytes de lenn pro die festi et in octabo die iiijs

1432 (8 October)[KL/C7.3, fol. 16] Et ibidem petitum fuit si voluerint retinere histriones pro anno isto Et concessum est vt habeant anno isto pro suo regardo cum eorum liberata per amersamentum Maioris ordinata. vtriusque eorum xiiijs iiijd vltra suam liberatam & per villam transibunt a festo Michaelis vsque festum Carnipreuij.

1433 (1 November) [KL/C7.3, fol. 30v] Et ibidem exhibita fuit vna billa ex parte histrionum eo quod desiderant augmentum regardi sui Etn concessum est vt uterque ipsorum duorum habeat pro feodo sua .xx.s & vesturam suam pro anno isto. quae concessio durabit pro anno isto totum Et transibunt per villam cum suis Instrumente a festo Omnium Sanctorum vsque festum Purificacionis sequentis.

1509 7 Dec. [KL/C7.5,fol. 97] Watche. This day it is Agreed that the Constabylle of this Toun shall make watche on nyghtes thys wyntertyme & specially in Christmas for vagabundes and ryottours players

1583 (4 October)[KL/C7.7, fol. 275] Order for the waite Att this daie it is condiscended and agreed by mr maior Aldermen & comen Counsell that Iohn Allyn Musicion with fower other sufficient persons att his appoyntment to the Likinge of the said maior Aldermen & comen counsell shalbe the comen waite for this Town & shall goo about euery mornynge sundayes excepted [in the] weekelye from the xxtie daye of Octobre vntill the xxv daie of marche, [And also] vsinge the Instrumente of waite as heretofore have been accustomed. And also that thei shall attend vpon M Maior for the tyme beinge vpon Michaelmes Daye & [suche] att suche other tymes as thei shalbe called either to mr maiors howse, or to Mustars or suche like assemblies with suche instrumente as shalbe mete in that behalf. And that thei shall have euerye one of them yerelie for their wage xxs a pece & for their Liueries xxs a pece. And that the said Iohn Allyn shall have the Townes sett of v instrumente or waite with the iij collers & the Trumpette deliuered vnto hym vpon suerties to be putt in for the mayntenaunce & saffe custodye of them and so to retorne restore & redeliuer them att all tymes whensoeuer the same shalbe demaunded or required.

1593 (1 October) [KL/C7.8, fol. 35] order for ye waite Att this Daie it is agreed by Mr Maior the aldermen & comen Councell that Iohn Whitehead, Mathew Semelie Denys Exelbye Iohn Hawkyn & William Hargrave shalbe the Town waite for this yere, & that the Town shall bestowe vpon them for ther Liveryes xxs apece, & for ther wage xxs apece to be paide as heretofore have been accustomed, & that thei shall give ther attendance vpon Mr [maior] as occasion shall serve, when thei shalbe required & that thei shall kepe the watche of morninge on the worken dayes from the first of Novembre next vntill the xxv of maarche followinge as before have been vsed & that on euery Sundaie & hollie Daie within the said tyme [the] in the eveynge thei shall plaie vpon ther Instrumente in the markett stede [b] ouer the Conditt yer beinge faire weather,

Stamford, Lincolnshire.

W Harrod (1785). The Antiquities of Stamford and St Martin's, compiled chiefly from the annals of the Rev. Francis Peck, with notes to which is added their present state including Burghley.


The four waits have an annual salary of fifty shillings each, theƒe dreƒt in ƒcarlet cloaks trimmed with gold lace precede the mayor with their music the day on which he is choƒen, commonly called the mayor’s feaƒt day ; and on his majesty’s birthday ; thrice weekly alƒo in the dead of the night they walk the ƒtreets playing from the above fair to Chriƒtmas, at which holidays they call at perƒons houƒes when after playing a tune or two they are preƒented with a ƒhilling, or half-a-crown at the donor’s pleaƒure.

It was cuƒtomary for them to go the ƒame rounds from the holidays to lady-day and again to call on the ƒame houƒes, but when there is not a vigilant magiƒtrate this quarter is neglected. (F)

 Anon. (1822). The History of Stamford in the county of Lincoln.Printed by and for John Drakard. p. 112.

The waits,[1] or town music, consist of four musicians, who have an annual salary of fifty shillings each. They are dressed in scarlet cloaks, trimmed with gold lace, and precede the mayor (as before stated[2]) in the procession on the day of his election ; also on the proclaiming of St Simon and Jude fair ; on the king’s birthday, and on other public occasions. Thrice weekly in the night they play through the streets of the town, beginning at the above fair, and continuing till Christmas. At this period, they call upon the principal inhabitants, and usually receive a trifling gift at the pleasure of the donor. It was customary for them to go the same rounds from Christmas to Lady-day, and again call at the houses, but this extra duty has long been discontinued.

George Burton (1846). A Chronology of Stamford.

Waits – on the passing of the Municipal Reform Act in 1835, this office was abolished, but the musicians still play during the winter as before, for which services they receive the contribution of those inhabitants who do not like to see all our good old customs dies away.

[1] Waits are not so called from waiting on the magistrate but from their watching in the night. Cleland says, that the summons to the festival of Yule, or Christmas, was formerly given by music going the rounds the night before, to awaken persons from their sleep, and that the waits originated from this custom.

[2] p. 108. The mayor is then accompanied to St Mary’s Church by the aldermen and capital burgesses ; from whence, after divine service, they return to the town-hall, preceded by the twelve constables, the town music, and the mace bearers.


1558 . . . . that the said Robert hathe plaide the morn watches with. (will of William Hill, wait).

1584-5 John Balderston (fife - wait) & Edmund Archer (drummer) to warn the citizens of the Midsomer Even show. Waits play in the show (procession?).

1603 Waits play for arrival of James VI of Scotland on his way to London for coronation.

1652 In regard of the extreame poverty of this cittyit is ordered that John Gridler [sic] and his sone be hencefourth discharged of walkinge the night watch or performinge any other service or expecting any other benefit as the citty waites till further notice. Council house book.

1770 WAITS’ OATH You shall be obedient to the Lord Mayor or his deputy for the time being and shall attend and play upon such musical instruments as you are best masters of in all services of the Corporation when required by him or his deputy - you shall attend the sheriffs of this City in their public Cavalcade [the sheriffs’ riding of the city limits] to read the proclamation on or about Martinmas and also each sheriff on the day he makes an entertainment for the Lord Mayor and Aldermen [at the Black Swan, Coney Street, now demolished] for which service you shall receive from each sheriff one guinea but if the sheriffs or eithet of them require your further attendance for the entertainment of their friends paid as such services may deserve. You shall call the city [observe the morning watches] from the first Monday after Martinmas to the end of February that is every Monday Wednesday and Fryday. House Book (from transcription by W Giles.

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