The Waits; or, Making the Most of It

The Waits; or, Making the Most of It. — Drawn by H. G. Hine. — 14.8 cm high by 23.3 cm wide. P. 581. Illustrated London News (24 December 1853) 581, framed.


In the last of The Christmas Books, Charles Dickens alludes seasonal musicians playing woodwind, brass, and percussive instruments in the streets near the Old College. From the middle ages in England until the passage of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, a character such as Dickens's Professor Redlaw in The Haunted Man might hear in the evening hours in an urban setting the music of professionals working on behalf of civic authorities. They would play loud wind-instruments such as the shawm and serpent for such occasions as the welcoming of royal visitors at the town gates and escorting the Mayor and aldermen through the streets of any British town of note. Until 1835, as was the custom from mediaeval times, members of waits were paid salaries, and given civic liveries and silver chains of office, bearing the town's arms.

However, since such professional bands were abolished shortly before Victoria's accession, Dickens's Redlaw would have heard rather more amateurish musicians since after 1835 the term "waits" was generally applied to amateur bands of musicians, often augmented by carolers, who would sing and play traditional Christmas songs for money around their town or village at night over the Christmas period. The Victorians, yearning for the customs of Old Christmas, revived British carols, which had survived in only a few country hamlets and towns. In such places as Dorset, the custom of the parish quire's going from house to house to play for drinks and food continued well into the nineteenth century, as Thomas Hardy's 1872 novella The “Under the Greenwood Tree, or, The Mellstock Quire — A Rural Painting of the Dutch School suggests in the opening scene, realised by illustrator R. Knight as Going the Rounds (Chatto and Windus, 1878, p. 33).

The line referring to the Christmas "waits" (a term originally implying "watchmen") in The Haunted Man (1848) contrasts the practice of celebrating Christmas in the streets at night with the solitary Redlaw, lost in his own thoughts and barely cognizant of the signs of the season such as the holly that he has just discovered the Swidgers putting up around the Old College. Dickens's original team of illustrators, led by John Leech did not actually provide an illustration to complement Dickens's reference to the waits; rather, that realisation had to wait until the practice had virtually died out, in the 1912 Pears' Centenary Edition of The Haunted Man in Charles Green's The Christmas Waits were playing somewhere in the distance (Chapter One,"The Gift Bestowed," p. 43). By the opening decades of the twentieth century when this centenary edition was published, in England's towns and cities the street singing of carols was dying out, along with performances throughout Christmas by the local waits. Thus, Green's illustration of the three-man wait would have been informative to many readers who had heard about such a tradition, but had never actually seen and heard a wait. Green himself may have consulted the Christmas Supplements of The Illustrated London News in order to provide scenes authentic to the period. Although not dressed in any sort of livery as they would have been before 1835, the magazine's four musicians (one of them, a mere boy, playing the triangle, left) are bundled up against the blustery, cold weather typical of Christmasses in England in the 1840s. For added warmth, doubtless, the trombine player carries a bottle of spirits in his overcoat pocket. one should note that the drum played vigorously by the muffled musician to the right appears to be of military issue as it bears the monarch's coat of arms and motto, "Honi soit qui Mal ypense", flags crossed, and a unicorn.

In November 1988 as part of its Carollers series for the forthcoming Christmas season, the British Post Office issued a stamp depicting traditional nineteenth-century waits of the type found in many Victorian towns and cities. Its commentary on the post cards, first day of issue cover, and presentation package connect one of Dickens's favourite American writers, Washington Irving, the author of Bracebridge Hall, to the reference to "waits" in The Haunted Man (1848):

The Christmas Waits

The waits whose 'beautiful music' surprised an American visitor, Washington Irving, on Christmas night 1820, descended from the horn-blowing nightwatchmen. Edward IV maintained at court 'A wayte that nightelye pipe the watche fower tymes — in the somere nightes three tymes'. May you be surprised three or fower tymes this Christmas by the beautiful music of the waytes. [British Post Office First Day of Issue Presentation Pack, 22 November 1978]

On Christmas night in 1820, an American visitor to England, Washingtion Irving, was surprised to hear 'beautiful music from rustics'. he found it came from 'a band which I concluded to be the waits from a neighbouring village'. The waits — yet another Christmas takeover from the past. Waits were the nightwatchmen of old, who would sound a horn or play a tune, to mark the hour. . . . . [British Post Office First Day of Issue cover, 22 November 1978]

Scanned image, caption information, and text by Philip V. Allingham. You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link to this URL or cite it in a print document.]


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British Post Office. Christmas 1978: 19th century Waits, [9 p]. Reproduced from a stamp designed by Faith Jacques and issued by the Post Office on the 22 November 1978. First day of issue cover and presentation pack. Edinburgh: Post Office Picture Card Series PHQ 32 (b).

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Hine, H. G. (illustrator). The Waits; or, Making the Most of It". The Illustrated London News, Christmas Supplement. 24 December 1853: page 581.

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Last modified 18 August 2015​