Originally bands of musicians employed by city corporations such as Norwich, York, Chester, and Leicester, to parade the streets at night playing music to soothe and reassure the inhabitants, and were thus allied to the Watch who also policed the streets in medieval towns. The waits also played at civic ceremonial occasions and offered their musical services to whoever needed them and were willing to pay. As city employees they were provided with a livery and badge of office and, at least in earlier periods, were granted a near-monopoly on music-making within the city. The earliest references are to the 13th century at York (1272) and Norwich (1288), and they lasted in many places well into the 19th century; at Leicester they were only abolished by the 1836 Reform Act. Even then they did not disappear completely in many places, as each year at * Christmas they were given a licence to play during the festive season, collecting money at houses that they had serenaded on Boxing Day, which explains why many writers after the 1830s define the waits as specifically Christmas visiting musicians. In most cases they played wind instruments, hautboys, clarinets, bassoons, and so on, but there are also mentions of violins and other stringed instruments, and it is clear that the Waits could be accomplished and well-known musicians in their own right; but there are also reports of drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
   ■ Jonathan E. O. Wilshere, Leicester Towne Waytes (1970); Chambers, 1878: ii. 742-4.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.


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