Story of

Short history of the Bath City Waits

Around 1570…
The Bath Chamberlain Accounts show notes of payments for Waits liveries, though there are also notes of payments to the Bristol Waits for appearing at the time during the visits of certain lords to the city of Bath. It is not clear whether the payment for liveries was to the Bristol Waits or whether Bath had its own by that time. The Bristol Waits were certainly busy because there are records of them also being paid to perform in Bridgwater and Wells at about the same time.

Early mention of musicians in Bath (1700)
In Edward Ward’s book, ‘A Step to the Bath’ is a mention, “In the morning we were saluted by the whole fraternity of cat-gut scrapers and could not get rid of them without the assistance of an Angel.”  [An Angel was a coin worth 10 shillings.]

During the Beau Nash era (1704-1764)
Beau Nash, as city Master of Ceremonies, had given orders that visitors were to be greeted with a peal of the Abbey bells, and then at their lodgings by the City waits. Apparently the bell ringers were to be paid half a guinea for their efforts, and the waits half a crown.

The Waits became official in 1733
The Bath Council Minutes for March 26 record, “Agreed that the City Waits, now established by this Corporation, whose business is to attend the Corporation on all occasions shall have 4 guineas p.ann. for their trouble.” This was most likely for their role in playing during the procession for the annual Mayor-making ceremony and other events.

Christopher Anstey’s, ‘The New Bath Guide’ (1766) notes,
“And music’s a thing I shall truly revere Since the city musicians so tickle my ear: For when we arrived here at Bath t’other day, They came to our lodgings on purpose to play.”…“I scarce was arriv’d when the fiddlers all came, And bawl’d out aloud, as by instinct, my name; Surpris’d at the meaning, I roar’d out to know, While the sweat stood like peas on my deep-furrow’d brow, Why such noise and disturbance was making below?”

Matthew Bramble’s Trip to Bath: Arrival at Bath (w/c, pen & ink and pencil on paper laid on mount) by Rowlandson, Thomas (1756-1827); 11.7×18.7 cm; Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA; English, out of copyright

John Wood (architect) in 1769 writes,
The customs that particularly relate to the Strangers be welcoming with them to the city, first by a Peal of the Abbey Bells and, in the next place, by the Voice and Musick of the City Waits … the Waits seldom miss their fee of a Crown, Half-a-Guinea, or a Guinea, according to the Rank of the People they salut.

Tobias Smollett, in his novel ‘The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker’ (1771) writes,
This fray being with difficulty suppressed, by the intervention of our own footman and the cook-maid of the house, the ’squire had just opened his mouth, to expostulate with Tabby, when the town-waits, in the passage below, struck up their music (if music it may be called), with such a sudden burst of sound, as made him start and stare, with marks of indignation and disquiet. He had recollection enough to send his servant with some money to silence those noisy intruders; and they were immediately dismissed, though not without some opposition on the part of Tabitha, who thought it but reasonable that he should have more music for his money.

By now the Waits had acquired an unsavoury reputation and an attempt was made to disband them, as noted below.

The Waits ordered to disband in 1774
The Bath Chronicle records on December 15, “ORDERS have been sent by authority to the Musicians, or City Waits to desist from playing at Lodging-houses, to the great disturbance of the sick and others who resort to this place. – And these orders having been disobey’d, Notice is hereby given, that information against them, either as vagrants or extortioners, will be received by the Magistrates at the Town Hall any Monday morning at eleven o’clock.
[For a facsimile of that Bath Chronicle item please visit the Gallery page.]

This did not seem to stop them, for in 1796
The Bath Chronicle records on November 10, “Cautions to the Company visiting Bath. … It is further requested that no money be given to those persons who play at the lodging-houses, calling themselves the CITY WAITS, as there is no legal appointment of such persons; and who on persevering such imposition, will be prosecuted as VAGRANTS, according to Act of Parliament. By order of the Magistrates.
[For a facsimile of that Bath Chronicle item please visit the Gallery page.]

The Waits get a second chance in 2012
The Minutes of the Standing Committee of the Charter Trustees for May 12 record, “BATH CITY WAITS  Councillor Gilchrist recommended reviving the tradition of having about six musicians performing on civic occasions.  The group would make no charge but would be included in any hospitality when they were playing and the Mayor would buy a round of drinks when s/he attended one practice session a year.  The group would play English traditional music, be called ‘Bath City Jubilee Waits’, and membership would be open to all musicians who were willing to attend rehearsals.  The Mayor would be invited to become their Patron.  It was resolved that the Mayor should become Patron of Bath City Jubilee Waits and the musicians would be invited to perform on approximately three suitable occasions each year and given at least four weeks’ notice of each event.

With thanks to various sources:

Trevor Fawcett, ‘Voices of 18th Century Bath’, Ruton Press, 1995
Trevor Fawcett, ‘Bath Entertain’d’, Ruton Press, 1998
Lewis Melville, ‘Bath Under Beau Nash’, 1907
University of Toronto, ‘Records of Early English Drama (Somerset)’, 1996
John Wroughton, ‘Stuart Bath’, Lansdown Press, 2004
The Record Office of the Bath and NE Somerset Council and the B&NES library service in finding these sources.
Dr Michael Rowe, of the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, for tracking down the Rowlandson picture.