1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Waits

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WAITS (A.S. wacan, to “wake” or “watch,”), the carol-singers and itinerant musicians who parade the streets at night at Christmas time. The earliest waits (those of the 14th and 15th centuries) were simply watchmen who sounded horns or even played a tune on a flute or flageolet to mark the hours. This appears to have been known as “piping the watch.” The black book of the royal household expenses of Edward IV., under date 1478, provides for “a wayte, that nyghtely from Mychelmas to Shreve Thorsdaye pipe the watch within this courte fowere tymes; in the somere nightes three tymes and maketh bon gayte at every chambre doare and offyce, as well as for feare of pyckeres and pilfers.” Elaborate orders as to his housing occur. Thus he was to eat in the hall with the minstrels and was to sup off half a loaf and half a gallon of ale. During his actual attendance at court he was to receive fourpence halfpenny a day or less in the discretion of the steward of the household. He had a livery given him and during illness an extra allowance of food. Besides “piping the watch” and guarding the palace against thieves and fire, this wait had to attend at the installation of knights of the Bath. London and all the chief boroughs had their corporation waits certainly from the early 16th century, for in the privy purse accounts of Henry VIII. occurs (1532) the entry “Item, the XI daye (of October) paied to the waytes of Canterbery in rewarde . . . vijs. vjd.” In 1582 Dudley, earl of Leicester, writes to the corporation of London asking that a servant of his should be admitted to the city waits. These borough waits appear, however, to have been more nearly akin to the medieval troubadours or minstrels who played to kings and nobles at and after the evening meal. The duties of the London waits, which included playing before the mayor during his annual progress through the streets and at city dinners, seem to have been typical of all 16th- and 17th-century city waits. The London waits had a special uniform of blue gowns with red sleeves and caps, and wore a silver collar or chain round the neck. In the 18th and early 19th century the ordinary street watchmen appear to have arrogated to themselves the right to serenade householders at Christmas time, calling round on Boxing Day to receive a gratuity for their tunefulness as well as their watchfulness. When in 1829 their place as guardians of the city's safety was taken by police, it was left for private individuals to keep up the custom.