Story 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)

18th century WaitsIn 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,A typical 18th c. waits band 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?”

John Wood (architect) in 1769 writes,

An 18th c. Oboe and Bassoon Band“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.

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.”

The Bath Waits as depicted by Thomas Rowlandson in approx 1790

This shows a motley band of musicians greeting the arrival of a stage-coach, possibly in Queen Square. Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) was a caricaturist famous for his representations of life in Bath, London and other places.

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.

The Town Waits website ( has some information which has been used in the compilation of the above material including the pictures.


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