In the days of William the `Conqueror' a Curfew was imposed at 8 pm. When the curfew bell tolled, all fires and lights had to be put out. The official reason for this was to prevent fires and other forms of flame getting out of control while the inhabitants of mainly wooden houses were asleep. The other undeclared reason was that it served to keep townsmen in their houses and in their beds thus cutting down the opportunities for plotting against the new regime.
In 1103 Henry I repealed the curfew law so that commercial and social life did not come to a dead stop at 8pm. However the new freedom not only benefited the good citizens of cities and towns but allowed footpads, thieves and other undesirables free rein to pursue their trades as well. By 1253 the situation had become so unruly that Henry III commanded that 'watches be kept for the preservation of peace in cities and borough towns'. Colchester having held its charter for 64 years by this time, the town Bailiff was forced to raise a body of 'good men and true' to patrol the streets during the hours of darkness and take into custody any malefactor to appear before a magistrate at the earliest opportunity. The Colchester Watch is a revival of the ancient body to provide the town with a ceremonial bodyguard.
From spring to autumn the Watch would gather together, probably in the gatehouses above the towns gates and maintain a watch from dusk to dawn. To while away the hours and entertain themselves, those who could, would play upon instruments and this was the basis for the town band or `Waits' as they were known. Apart from providing entertainment, the Waits had a part in the Watch's peace keeping role, for when a patrol was mounted it was accompanied by Waits playing very loudly. This, it was hoped, would frighten off evildoers before the watch arrived in their location and assure the good burghers of Colchester that the watch were on the job. What it did for their sleep pattern is a matter for conjecture.
The Colchester Town Waits revive a tradition dating back at least until Norman times, when men were first commissioned to perform watch duties at the gates of the town. The word is acknowledged to come from the German 'wacht' and is spelt variously Waits, Waytes, Waites etc.
The Waits were supplied with high-pitched, double-reed pipes - a simple version of the modern oboe. The pipes became known as Waits Pipes and were first used to sound alarms. Later Waits evolved into groups of municipal musicians, required to prepare and play music and entertainment for civic occasions and ceremonies such as the inauguration of the mayor or a visit from a VIP. Official town Waits were abolished in the 1830s.
While the history of Town Waits in Colchester is sparse, historical references do prove that they existed in the 17th century (#1). The tradition also existed widely across Britain and mainland Europe with a wealth of documentary evidence to support it (#2).
Revived Waits are currently known to exist in York (1977), Kings Lynn (1999), Doncaster, Canterbury, Oxford and Leeds (#3).
Colchester can claim title to an earlier revival; the New Colchester Waytes brought a group of local musicians together in 1974 to perform an historical musical entertainment based on the rise and fall of Matthew Hopkins, the notorious Witchfinder General, part of which was broadcast on BBC television.
Colchester Town Waits is divided into two strands - the 'marching' Waits and the Waits Consort. The 'marching' Waits works with the Colchester Town Watch which has accompanied the Mayor on many occasions since its revival in September 2001 (#5). The marching Waits has devised a program of marching tunes and songs drawn from the Tudor period which may be heard when the Town Watch is on duty.
The Waits Consort is in the process of being drawn together and will, initially, concentrate on developing a repertoire of acoustic music suitable for civic occasions such as Mayoral receptions and the annual Oyster Feast. Former mayors have given the Waits much encouragement and it is expected that they will perform a growing role in town life.
It is planned that the Waits Consort will continue to develop repertoires from other historical periods and also create modern works within the Waits tradition (i.e. non-amplified, acoustic).
#1 Norwich Mayor Books mention one 'John Spratte, a minstrel, who having a wife in Colchester was forbidden to live or play music in Norwich'. (Sounds and Sweet Tunes, Geitz, Ohio State University, 1987).
William Chappell's Popular Music of Olden Time provides the music for a tune called Colchester Waits from Henry Playford's Apollo's Banquet 1689. While current thinking is that these tunes were in honour of Waits rather than signature tunes (Merryweather et al.), the existence of a tune with this title is also strong evidence to support the existence of a Colchester Waits in the 17C.
Chappell also notes that the accounts of Sir John Wentworth, King Henry III and King Henry VIII mention payments to Colchester Waits.
Colchester's Bailiff's Records 1619 mention payment of £22.0.0 for liveries for Town Sergeants, Waits, Beedles, etc. and a further £6.0.0 for badges.
Further research in Town and County Records is in progress.
#2 Waits are widely mentioned in many acknowledged historical reference documents including Strutt's Sports and Pastimes, Galpin's Old English Instruments of Music, Chappell's Popular Music of Olden Time, &c.
#3 See waits.org.uk.
For further information please contact Phil Manchester on 01206 367670 or at:
contact ye webmaster at