The Christmas Waites
Index of Quotations:
After the abolition of Town Waits resulting from the Corporation Acts of 1835, the name 'Christmas Waits' became attached to various groups of singers and musicians who played and sang carols at Christmas for money. Below are a selection of references to these groups.
A London footman named William Tayler wrote critically of waits in his diary on 26 December 1837:
These are a set of men that goe about the streets playing musick in the night after people are in bed and a sleepe. Some people are very fond of hearing them, but for my own part, I don't admire being aroused from a sound sleep by a whole band of musick and perhaps not get to sleep again for an houre or two.
James Greenwood commented in his In Strange Company in 1874 on the oddity of the seasonal occupation of London waits:
Night after night, for ten or a dozen nights, they turn out at an hour when even the public-houses are closed, and nobody is abroad but penniless, homeless wanderers and the police; and they play to houses wrapped in darkness, and to people who, for all they can know to the contrary, are fast asleep, and who, on that ground, may justly repudiate the debt accumulating against them.
He noted that a peculiarity of the waits was that necessarily they had to play and sing on credit (banging on doors in the middle of the night to ask for money would have been unpopular) but that to ask for contributions after the event must have been almost as unrewarding.
Both the above are from http://www.worldwidewords.org:80/nl/jdbu.htm
Christmas Day is ushered in with the sound of fiddles and drums; parties of negroes going round the town about four o'clock in the morning, playing upon these instruments for the purpose of breaking people's rest, (for I am sure it cannot amuse;) and then they have the assurance to call at the different houses during the day for payment. At the conclusion of this serenade, or waits, or whatever else they choose to term it, the musicians generally raise their voices to the highest pitch, and call out, "Good morning to you, massa; good morning to you, missis; good morning to you, ladies and gentlemen all!". A flourish is then given with fiddle and drum, and they march off to disturb another quiet household.
Christmas Waits annoy me, and I yearn to throw open the window and fling coal at them--as once from the window of a high flat in Chelsea I did. I doubted their being genuine Waits. I was inclined to the opinion they were young men seeking excuse for making a noise. One of them appeared to know a hymn with a chorus, another played the concertina, while a third accompanied with a step dance. Instinctively I felt no respect for them; they disturbed me in my work, and the desire grew upon me to injure them. It occurred to me it would be good sport if I turned out the light, softly opened the window, and threw coal at them. It would be impossible for them to tell from which window in the block the coal came, and thus subsequent unpleasantness would be avoided. They were a compact little group, and with average luck I was bound to hit one of them.
I adopted the plan. I could not see them very clearly. I aimed rather at the noise; and I had thrown about twenty choice lumps without effect, and was feeling somewhat discouraged, when a yell, followed by language singularly unappropriate to the season, told me that Providence had aided my arm. The music ceased suddenly, and the party dispersed, apparently in high glee - which struck me as curious.
One man I noticed remained behind. He stood under the lamp-post, and shook his fist at the block generally.
"Who threw that lump of coal?" he demanded in stentorian tones.
To my horror, it was the voice of the man at Eighty-eight, an Irish gentleman, a journalist like myself. I saw it all, as the unfortunate hero always exclaims, too late, in the play. He - number Eighty-eight - also disturbed by the noise, had evidently gone out to expostulate with the rioters. Of course my lump of coal had hit him - him the innocent, the peaceful (up till then), the virtuous. That is the justice Fate deals out to us mortals here below. There were ten to fourteen young men in that crowd, each one of whom fully deserved that lump of coal; he, the one guiltless, got it - seemingly, so far as the dim light from the gas lamp enabled me to judge, full in the eye.
As the block remained silent in answer to his demand, he crossed the road and mounted the stairs. On each landing he stopped and shouted-
"Who threw that lump of coal? I want the man who threw that lump of coal. Out you come."
Now a good man in my place would have waited till number Eighty-eight arrived on his landing, and then, throwing open the door would have said with manly candour-
"I threw that lump of coal. I was-," He would not have got further, because at that point, I feel confident, number Eighty-eight would have punched his head. There would have been an unseemly fracas on the staircase, to the annoyance of all the other tenants and later, there would have issued a summons and a cross-summons. Angry passions would have been roused, bitter feeling engendered which might have lasted for years.
I do not pretend to be a good man. I doubt if the pretence would be of any use were I to try: I am not a sufficiently good actor. I said to myself, as I took off my boots in the study, preparatory to retiring to my bedroom - "Number Eighty-eight is evidently not in a frame of mind to listen to my story. It will be better to let him shout himself cool; after which he will return to his own flat, bathe his eye, and obtain some refreshing sleep. In the morning, when we shall probably meet as usual on our way to Fleet Street, I will refer to the incident casually, and sympathize with him. I will suggest to him the truth - that in all probability some fellow-tenant, irritated also by the noise, had aimed coal at the Waits, hitting him instead by a regrettable but pure accident. With tact I may even be able to make him see the humour of the incident. Later on, in March or April, choosing my moment with judgment, I will, perhaps, confess that I was that fellow-tenant, and over a friendly brandy-and-soda we will laugh the whole trouble away."
As a matter of fact, that is what happened. Said number Eighty-eight - he was a big man, as good a fellow at heart as ever lived, but impulsive - "Damned lucky for you, old man, you did not tell me at the time."
"I felt," I replied, "instinctively that it was a case for delay."
My name is Pleaceman X;
Last night I was in bed,
A dream did me perplex,
Which came into my Edd.
I dreamed I sor three Waits
A playing of their tune,
At Pimlico Palace gates,
All underneath the moon.
One puffed a hold French horn,
And one a hold Banjo,
And one chap seedy and torn
A Hirish pipe did blow.
They sadly piped and played,
Dexcribing of their fates;
And this was what they said,
Those three pore Christmas Waits:
"When this black year began,
I was a great great man,
And king both vise and great,
And Munseer Guizot by me did show
As Minister of State.
"But Febuwerry came,
And brought a rabble rout,
And me and my good dame
And children did turn out,
And us, in spite of all our right.
Sent to the right about.
"I left my native ground,
I left my kin and kith,
I left my royal crownd,
Vich I couldn't travel vith,
And without a pound came to English ground,
In the name of Mr. Smith.
"Like any anchorite
I've lived since I came here,
I've kep myself quite quite,
I've drank the small small beer,
And the vater, you see, disagrees vith me
And all my famly dear.
"O Tweeleries so dear,
O darling Pally Royl,
Vas it to finish here
That I did trouble and toyl?
That all my plans should break in my ands,
And should on me recoil?
"My state I fenced about
Vith baynicks and vith guns;
My gals I portioned hout,
Rich vives I got my sons;
O varn't it crule to lose my rule,
My money and lands at once?
"And so, vith arp and woice,
Both troubled and shagreened,
I hid you to rejoice,
O glorious England's Queend!
And never have to veep, like pore Louis-Phileep,
Because you out are cleaned.
"O Prins, so brave and stout,
I stand before your gate;
Pray send a trifle hout
To me, your pore old Vait;
For nothink could be vuss than it's been along vith us
In this year Forty-eight."
"Ven this bad year began,"
The nex man said, seysee,
"I vas a Journeyman,
A taylor black and free,
And my wife went out and chaired about,
And my name's the bold Cuffee.
"The Queen and Halbert both
I swore I would confound,
I took a hawfle hoath
To drag them to the ground;
And sevral more with me they swore
Aginst the British Crownd.
"Aginst her Pleacemen all
We said we'd try our strenth;
Her scarlick soldiers tall
We vow'd we'd lay full lenth;
And out we came, in Freedom's name,
Last Aypril was the tenth.
"Three 'undred thousand snobs
Came out to stop the vay,
Vith sticks vith iron knobs,
Or else we'd gained the day.
The harmy quite kept out of sight,
And so ve vent avay.
"Next day the Pleacemen came-
Rewenge it was their plann-
And from my good old dame
They took her tailor-mann:
And the hard hard beak did me bespeak
To Newgit in the Wann.
"In that etrocious Cort
The Jewry did agree;
The Judge did me transport,
To go beyond the sea:
And so for life, from his dear wife
They took poor old Cuffee.
"O Halbert, Appy Prince!
With children round your knees,
Ingraving ansum Prints,
And taking hoff your hease;
O think of me, the old Cuffee,
Beyond the solt solt seas!
"Although I'm hold and black,
My hanguish is most great;
Great Prince, O call me back,
And I vill be your Vait!
And never no more vill break the Lor,
As I did in 'Forty-eight."
The tailer thus did close
(A pore old blackymore rogue),
When a dismal gent uprose,
And spoke with Hirish brogue:
"I'm Smith O'Brine, of Royal Line,
Descended from Rory Ogue.
"When great O'Connle died,
That man whom all did trust,
That man whom Henglish pride
Beheld with such disgust,
Then Erin free fixed eyes on me,
And swoar I should be fust.
"'The glorious Hirish Crown,'
Says she, 'it shall be thine:
Long time, it's wery well known,
You kep it in your line;
That diadem of hemerald gem
Is yours, my Smith O'Brine.
"'Too long the Saxon churl
Our land encumbered hath;
Arise my Prince, my Earl,
And brush them from thy path:
Rise, mighty Smith, and sveep 'em vith
The besom of your wrath.'
"Then in my might I rose,
My country I surveyed,
I saw it filled with foes,
I viewed them undismayed;
'Ha, ha!' says I, 'the harvest's high,
I'll reap it with my blade.'
"My warriors I enrolled,
They rallied round their lord;
And cheafs in council old
I summoned to the board-
Wise Doheny and Duffy bold,
And Meagher of the Sword.
"I stood on Slievenamaun,
They came with pikes and bills;
They gathered in the dawn,
Like mist upon the hills,
And rushed adown the mountain side
Like twenty thousand rills.
"Their fortress we assail;
Hurroo! my boys, hurroo!
The bloody Saxons quail
To hear the wild Shaloo:
Strike, and prevail, proud Innesfail,
O'Brine aboo, aboo!
"Our people they defied;
They shot at 'em like savages,
Their bloody guns they plied
With sanguinary ravages:
Hide, blushing Glory, hide
That day among the cabbages!
"And so no more I'll say,
But ask your Mussy great.
And humbly sing and pray,
Your Majesty's poor Wait:
Your Smith O'Brine in 'Forty-nine
Will blush for 'Forty-eight."
"I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band, which I concluded to be the waits from some neighbouring village. They went round the house, playing under the windows. I drew aside the curtains, to hear them more distinctly. The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement, partially lighting up the antiquated apartment. The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened - they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sank upon the pillow and I fell asleep."
This book, published in 1886 and illustrated by Randolph Caldecott, chronicles the American writer Washington Irving's nostalgic recollections of Christmas traditions in 19th century England. There is a facsimile version available on the web at http://www.openlibrary.org/details/oldchristmas00irviarch The text first appeared in 1819 in Irving's Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., which also contained such classics as
"Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
The only music I have heard this week is waits; to sit up working until two or three in the morning, and then - just as I am losing myself in my first sleep - to hear "Venite Adoremus" welling forth from a cornet English pitch, a saxhorn Society of Arts pitch (or thereabouts), and a trombone French pitch, is the sort of thing that breaks my peace and destroys my goodwill towards men!
In our village, Christmas time, I says to several mates,
"Look 'ere, lads," I says, "Now what about some Waits ?"
We gets a carol, lairns it up, and on an evenin' wintry
We muffles up and sallies forth to try it on the Gentry.
"Good King Wenceslas looked out," sings we with splendid power:
Several neighbours looked out too, to see what all the row were!
We sings forte (sounded like a hundred),
Even in the soft bits 'ow we thundered.
Bill, our bass, 'e 'urt 'is face , we thought that it was torn;
Yet all agreed there were none like we to 'ail the 'appy morn.
Perkins took the treble line (a lovely voice 'e's got),
I were tenor, Bill were bass, and Fred sang all the lot!
'E wandered up and down the scale, but still 'e rather marred it
All cos 'e never knew the words, and so 'e "lah-lah-lahed" it.
"Lah-lah-lah-lah looked out" sings 'e with splendid power.
Several neighbours looked out, too, to see what all the row were!
We sings forte (sounded like an 'undred),
Even in the soft bits 'ow we thundered.
Every verse got worse and worse, and though we all felt worn,
Yet all agreed there were none like we to 'ail the 'appy morn.
Still we never got no cash, which didn't seem quite just,
Seein' we'd stood there for hours, a-singin' fit to bust.
Then our policeman, old Bob Bates, comes down, a-scowlin' proper;
"Good old Bob", young Perkins cries, "At last we've got a copper!"
Good King Wenceslas looked out, we still kept on recordin',
Bob said "yes, you'll come too, it's seldom I've heard more din."
Then a change came o'er the situation,
Bob got nasty and took us to the station.
"Look 'ere, Bates, we're Christmas Waits," I says to him with scorn.
He said, with a sneer, "Now wait in here and greet the 'appy morn."
Supposed to have been sung in Rochester, Kent, c.1880.
However, Chris Skidmore writes:
[This] is the text of a comic song, words by Charles Hayes, music by Thomas Sterndale Bennett entitled "The Carol Singers". The copy I have was published by Cramer & Co in 1921. It seems unlikely that this is the one sung in Rochester in the 1880s since Thomas Sterndale Bennett was only born in 1882!
By this time they were crossing to a gate in the direction of the school, which, standing on a slight eminence at the junction of three ways, now rose in unvarying and dark flatness against the sky. The instruments were re-
tuned, and all the band entered the school enclosure, enjoined by old William to keep upon the grass.
"Number seventy-eight," he softly gave out as they formed round in a semicircle, the boys opening the lanterns to get a clearer light, and directing their rays on the books.
Then passed forth into the quiet night an ancient and time-worn hymn, embodying a quaint Christianity in words orally transmitted from father to son through several generations down to the present characters, who sang them
out right earnestly.
Remember O thou Man
Having concluded the last note, they listened for a minute or two, but found that no sound issued from the schoolhouse.
"Four breaths, and then 'O what unbounded goodness!' number fifty-nine," said William. This was duly gone through, and no notice whatever seemed to be taken of the performance.
"Good guide us, surely 'tisn't an empty house, as befell us in the year thirty-nine and forty-three!" said old Dewy.
"Perhaps she's jist come from some musical city, and sneers at our doings," the tranter whispered.
"'Od rabbit her!" said Mr. Penny, with an anihilating look at the corner of the school chimney. "I don't quite stomach her, if this is it. Your plain music well done is as worthy as your other sort done bad, a' b'lieve, souls; so
"Four breaths and then the last," said the leader authoritatively. "'Rejoice, ye Tennants of the Earth,' number sixty-four."
At the close, waiting yet another minute, he said in a clear loud voice, as he had said in the village at that hour and season for the previous forty years:
"A merry Christmas to ye!"
standing out in the snow, chilled to the marrow, hoping
the warm householders will notice their music - and pay up.
Punch, 26th Dec, 1885
A Merry Christmas! Ah, no doubt;
But if we can but play together. --
Well, well, we'll try it. Tune up, Bill,
An outside berth in this cold weather
Suits none of us. Let's hope the fates
Won't keep us waiting long as waits!
Several pairs of heavy boots were dragged as far as the lamp at the crossroads. Then the band played. After a single performance of a carol tune I heard a massive form clambering over my rockery, and horny thumbs seeking the bell-push. Waving my retinue of servants aside, I myself opened the door, and spoke without reserve to the musician who stood there holding a dented euphonium in one hand and touching a few fragments of hat with the other. In a voice that was gentle though husky he offered an explanation of his visit. "There's some as don't like
us to go too far, guv'nor, so we gives a sample and then calls to discuss business."
"I don't understand," I replied, "and, in any case, come off those bulbs!"
"S'posin' you don't 'appen to be fond of a bit of music," he said tolerantly, "p'r'aps there's some - er - friend you'd like us to visit, now you know our style. Ten chunes, carrils and what-not, for seven-and-a-tanner - or 'Erald Angels over and over for five bob, that's our tariff," and he breathed on the breach of his instrument and polished it lovingly with his sleeve.
I was quick to catch his meaning, and it was but the work of a moment to select one of my - er - friends. "Take this seven-and-sixpence, my good man," I said. He obeyed. "Go to the house named 'Woodside'. Play there. It is sure to be appreciated."
I returned to my fireside well pleased to think that Raunder, the president of our local orchestral society, was about to receive some return for his outrageous conduct which compelled me to resign my place as second flute.
I could hear the shuffling of feet, but when the musicians moved away it was not in the direction of the Avenue. Hatless, I pursued them. The one who had called on me politely turned to meet me.
"Scoundrels! I pay you to go to 'Woodside', and you move off in the opposite direction. Give me back my money."
"You said 'The Lilacs', Bill," said the cornet reproachfully: and the euphonium, looking puzzled, replied that 'The Lilacs' was certainly what he'd understood the gentleman to say.
"Some misunderstandin', Sir," he said blandly, feeling in his pocket. "If I'd 'ad any idea it was 'Woodside' I couldn't never 'ave took the money. Couldn't 'ardly go back to 'Woodside', could we Sam?"
"Imposserble", said the cornet.
"Go back! What do you mean?", I asked.
"Well, Guv'nor," said the euphonium, "if we was to go playin' at 'Woodside' the gent there would want to know why we wasn't up 'ere playin' outside o' your 'ouse, like what 'e told us;" and he handed me three half-crowns, two of which, I subsequently discovered, were bad ones.
The waits wake me up at night, paying me the discordant compliment of playing opposite my window longer than anyone else's.
What a pity it is that London should be so far behind Birmingham where that energetic chief of police, Major Bond, has commenced a crusade against the waits. London has no Bond, worse luck! Failing police protection against these Christmas nocturnal disturbers, might we adopt the irate suggestion of a misanthropic old brute who sends us the following recipe: "Keep in your bedroom a garden-engine, its reservoir filled with ice-cold water, of which to give any wait full measure".
BECAUSE carols are never entirely satisfactory when suggestive of frequent visits to a public house.
BECAUSE a sackbut, a curtal and a shawm should be in time and tune to give due effect to a midnight rendering of the Wassail.
BECAUSE "Merry Gentlemen" can never "sit at home at ease" with howling the crescendo in the street outside.
BECAUSE an application for largesse at 1 am is inappropriate and irritating.
BECAUSE the plea that "Christmas comes but once a year" is absolutely unnecessary.
Lastly, BECAUSE Yuletide would be a long way "merrier" without the waits.
by a sufferer
AIR - Obvious [apparently]
What un-fairylike music
Steals my slumber from me?
Provoking a sentence
That beginneth with D!
'Tis the voice of the trombone,
Blown with might and with main,
As it mingles its tone
With the shrill cornet's strain.
The cabs are all hushed,
And the buses at rest:
But these sleep-murd'ring wretches
The still streets infest.
My ears from their torments
No night-cap can save:
So I groan to the summons
To get up and shave.
Mr Punch, what has become of Christmas? Old Father Christmas, as poets and song-writers delight to call him.
Of course, I don't mean to ask what has become of the days between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Day. What I do want to know is, where is the jolly, hearty Christmas time that you and I, Mr Punch, remember in our younger days?
The waits for instance. There are no waits now. Formerly the waits used to be a band of individuals with voices more or less bad, who used to sing a good old carol or quaint chorus outside your window, and their melodious notes rarely, if ever, woke you. Indeed, if you happened to be awake when they commenced, you were usually lulled to sleep very shortly.
Or else the waits consisted of a couple of old fellows with fiddle and harp, who made very little noise, and what there was was not unpleasant.
What is the case now? Several sturdy, and generally intoxicated, parties, with great power of lung, blow Verdi and other such noisy composers at you in the dead of night out of fearful and incomprehensible brazen machines. You are sure to wake up, and as sure to be kept awake for a considerable time and at considerable sacrifice of temper!
The appropriation in modern days of the name waits by wretched street players and singers at Christmastide is unfortunate, as it has thrown contempt on the memory of a worthy institution.
It seems curious that in England, where the cultivation of music has been advancing for many years, a good thing has been allowed to decline and finally die out, while hordes of the incapable are encouraged!
F.A. Hadland, 1915
Registered Charity Number 1127315.