The International Guild of Town Pipers

From medieval times up to the early 19th century, every major British town and city employed a small band of musicians, usually called “Waits”. Their duties varied, but they included playing their instruments through the town at night, waking the townsfolk on dark winter mornings by playing under their windows, welcoming important visitors by playing at the town gates, and leading the Mayor’s procession on civic occasions. The Waits were required to play many different instruments, but they were particularly known for loud wind instruments – shawms, curtals, cornetts, sackbutts, bagpipes. They were often attired in colourful liveries, and in some cases wore silver chains.

What does a band of Waits sound like? Here are the York Waits playing a couple of popular 16th century tunes.

York Waits – “Dulcina” and “All you that love good fellows”

Most continental European countries had their equivalents of waits. In Holland they were called “Stadspijpers”, in Germany “Stadtpfeifer” and in Italy “Pifferi”. Wikipedia, abridged

“Of all musical sounds that from day to day smote the ears of a sixteenth-century town resident, the deafening skirl of the shawm band in palace courtyard or market square must have been the most familiar” Anthony Baines

As a result of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, Waits were abolished in Britain, though their name lingered on as ‘Christmas Waits’, who could be any group of singers or musicians who formed a band in order to sing and play carols for money around their town or village at night over the Christmas period. Unfortunately, it is these largely amateur musicians who have become associated in peoples’ minds with the name ‘Waits’, when they have heard of them at all, rather than the important civic officers and accomplished musicians who were true Waits.

With very few exceptions, Waits are no longer officially employed by town authorities. But, with the ever-increasing interest in early music and historically informed performance, many new bands of waits have formed. There is a a growing pool of amateur and professional performers who specialise in the instruments typically used by the original waits. They take great pains to research the music and the performing style, and often adopt historical costume. Some are officially sanctioned by the towns they represent, and are engaged on an occasional basis to provide colour and grandeur for public events.

The International Guild of Town Pipers is a registered charity. We exist to promote interest in the history and music of the Waits, and to encourage the formation of performing groups. We maintain this website, which has extensive information on the historical waits and the modern revivals. Every two years, we organise a Waits’ Festival, where multiple bands of Waits gather for a weekend to meet, swap ideas, and perform.