Frank Kidson’s entry on Waits in Grove’s Dictionary 1904

supplied by Alan Radford, Leeds Waits

Frank Kidson was was one of the founders of the Folk Song Society in 1898 and a collector and publisher of all manner of traditional materials. Among his output, he published two major works, Old English Dances (1890) and Traditional Tunes in 1891. He was a resident of Leeds, and did much of his collecting around the three Ridings. Due to the myopic policies of Leeds City Library in the 1920s when Kidson died, his library and notebooks are split between the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and the EFDSS at Cecil Sharpe House, London.

Below is his entry on Waits in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1904.


I.  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 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, Matthew 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, euerie one of them able to serue in any Cathedrall Church in Christendome for Quiresters’ (Nine Daies Wonder, 1600).

Several distinguished musicians have arisen from the ranks of the Waits. The father of Orlando Gibbons was one of the Waits at Cambridge; the father of John Banister was one of St. Giles in the Fields; and John Ravenscroft, a composer of some clever triple time hornpipes and one of the band belonging to Goodmans Fields Theatres was a Wait of the Tower Hamlets.

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.

II.  The name was also applied to pieces of music supposed to have been played or sung by the Waits of particular towns or cities, as especially associated with these places. Thus we get London Waits, Chester Waits, Colchester Waits, Worksop Waits, Oxford Waits,

Bristol Waits, York Waits, and so on. Many of these are preserved in 17th and 18th century country dance-books, the earliest specimen in print known to the writer being one named The Waits in the 3rd edition of the Dancing Master, 1665, among the tunes at the end. In the reissue of this part of the book under the title Apollo’s Banquet the air is named London Waits.

The Waits

A more famous air for four voices, also named The Waits is by Jeremy Savile, and is published in Playford’s Musical Companion 1672-73. It is a fine melody, and is sung to the syllables ‘Fa, la, la’. The meetings of the Madrigal Societal maintain the custom of concluding their music with the singing of this piece four times.

To hear Jeremy Savile’s The Waits and other “Waits’ Tunes”, visit the Music section.