What Is A Waite?

Dictionary definition:

Waits n pl. Rare. a band of musicians who go around the streets, esp. at Christmas, singing and playing carols. [Old French waitier, to lurk; related to Old High German wahtėn, to WAKE].

Groves' Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1929:

Wait (Wayt Waight)

An obsolete musical instrument of the hautboy type used by the Waits (q.v.) or watchmen and identical with the earlier Shawm. According to Henry Davey's Hist. Eng. Mus., the statutes of Edward I (before 1296) provided for the City of London that each gate shall be 'shut by the servant dwelling there and each servant shall have a wayte, at his own expense.' In a Nominale of the 15th century the low Latin word Calamaula, a reed-pipe - whence the word Shawm - is translated 'wayte pipe', and in a 17th century MS. (Harl. 2029) there is a sketch of a reed-pipe to which is appended the threefold title ' a Howboye or a Wayte or a Shawm.'

Waits, The

In early times Waits were the night guards stationed at city gates. They were provided with a reed instrument, of the hautboy kind, for the purpose of signalling, or sounding at regular intervals to proclaim 'All's Well.' Gradually we may assume that musical effects were produced by the original instruments and by others added to them. In the 15th and 16th centuries the Waits had developed into paid bands of musicians supported by the towns and cities for the purpose of playing at civic functions, etc. They were accustomed to welcome distinguished visitors into the towns, and many of the entries in the MS. books of household expenses are donations to the Waits of different towns. This practice had not died out in the 18th century, for in Humphrey Clinker, Mathew Bramble is welcomed to Bath by the Town Waits calling at his lodgings and playing. At Christmas it was the custom for the Town Waits to visit the houses of notables, playing and singing suitable music, and the term 'Christmas Waits' survives as applied to these players and their imitators. In the 16th and 17th centuries it is quite evident that members of the Town Waits were skilled musicians. William Kemp, in his account of his nine days' Morris from London to Norwich in 1599, speaks of being welcomed by the City Waits. He further says:

'Such Waytes (under Benedicitie be it spoken) few citties
in the Realme haue the like, none better; who besides
their excellency in wind instruments, their rare cunning
on the vyoll and violin, theyre voices be admirable,
eurie one of them able to serue in any Cathedrall Church
in Christendome for Quiresters.'

(Nine Daies Wonder, 1600)

In certain places silver badges bearing the town's arms were issued to the official Waits. Leeds maintained four Waits in the 17th century, and one of the silver badges is still in existence.


People keep asking me, "How do you spell Waites?" The short answer is that I spell it Waites. The whole concept of spelling is a relatively modern invention. The accepted modern spelling of the word is Waits, and the York Waits recognise this in their title, but use the spelling Waites when referring to their historical predecessors. In the Hall Books at King's Lynn Town Hall, there are references to Waites, Waytes, Whaites, Whaytes and Waits among others, but the most popular spelling, both in Lynn and nationally, seems to have been Waites. I realise none of this clears the matter up, but I hope it explains the confusion!

What Did Waites Do?

The publick waites who liveryes do own,
And badges of a City, or some Town,
Who are retain’d in constant Yearly pay,
Do at their solemn publick meetings play.
And up and down the Streets, and Town in cold
Dark nights, when th’Instruments they can scarce hold
They play about, and tell what hour it is,
And weather too, this Course they do not miss,
Most part of Winter, in the Nights; and when
Some generous Persons come to Town, these Men
As soon as they’re Inform’d, do then repair
Unto their Lodgings play them some fine Ayre
Or brisk new tune, such as themselves think fit,
And which they hope, with th’ Gallants fancies hit,
They cry God Bless you Sirs; again then play,
Expecting Money, e’er they go away.

(Pecunia obediunt omnia.)
Anon. c.1680

King's Lynn Waites

The first reference to Waites in the Hall Books of Lynn is in 1362-3:

Chamberlain’s accounts KL/39/25 (1362/3)

ffeoda Solutis ...Item de ____ xxxvjs viijd solutis solutis Johannem de Boys Wayte pro eodem

(36s 8d paid to Johannem de Boys, Wayte. First record of a Wait in Lynn.)

There were originally only two, who in 1512 were provided with chains of office:

ij Collers of Dragon heads & braunches of syluer with Skochons enhameled pondentes x vnce & j quarter.

On the 7th February, 1584 we find evidence for the colour of the Waites' uniforms, as they were given new ones for the ceremony of the opening of the Mart:

Also payde to william Blande for makinge of redde Coates for the waytes at the Marte xxiijs.

The Mart is a fair dating back to medieval times, which takes place on Tuesday Market place in the centre of the town, and is opened with much ceremony by the Mayor on St Valentine's day. For pictures of the Waites leading the Mayor's procession and performing at the opening of the 2000 Mart, click here.

The entry for 1st October, 1593 shows how far the Waites had come by then:

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 in the eveynge thei shall plaie vpon ther Instrumente in the markett stede ouer the Conditt yer beinge faire weather,
Allso their is Dd out of the hall heare att this Daie to the said Iohn Whitehead & others of his companye theise Instrumente belonginge to the Town followinge viz a Doble Curtall a single Curtall Twoo Lizardines & a Tenor hoboye./...... Allso the iij waite collers with scutchinge of the Towns armes to the same [of syluer] are dd to mr Maior to be dd to the waite att mr maiors Discreton.

See instruments page for descriptions of the above instruments.

The Lynn Waites prospered until 31st July 1746, when they appear to have been abolished:

Resolved that the Company of Whaites in the present service of this Corporation be and stand dismissed and discharged from Michelmas next and the Chamberlain is ordered to pay them their wages together with a gratuity of fifty shillings a piece upon their delivering up their Badges and Chaines to him.


The King's Lynn Waites were revived in April 1999, and performed their ancient civic duty by playing at the Mayor-making in May of the same year, when Dr Paul Richards was returned for a second term as Mayor of the Borough of King's Lynn & West Norfolk. Dr Richards, a highly regarded local historian, has been enthusiastic in his help and encouragement of the Waites. To hear Elizabeth Gutteridge's composition, 'Dr Richards, His Farewell', composed to mark the end of his term of office as Mayor, click here.

For more information on Waits past and present, visit the Waits Website

For a history of The York Waits, read the fascinating book, 'YORK MUSIC' by James Merryweather, published by Sessions Book Trust, The Ebor Press, York, England, (ISBN 1 85072 034 7). Available via the internet: http://www.sessionsofyork.co.uk/books/york_gen.html Update available from the author  or downloadable direct from The Waits Website

For more on the history of King's Lynn read 'King's Lynn' by Paul Richards, published by Phillimore & Co. Ltd., Shopwyke Hall, Chichester, Sussex, (ISBN 0 85033 603 1),


Click here for details of information on the history of Lynn Waites. (Only for the serious researcher.)