By Gerrard’s time Oxford’s city waits had acquired duties which included performing on the King’s three annual holidays, and at
the return of the mayor from London at his election. On such occasions the waits played at Carfax, the main crossroads in the city centre, where stood a remarkable stone-carved conduit. Water was conveyed to it from a cistern on Hinksey Hill via a lead pipe
‘into the body of the carved ox and thereby the city is supplied with good and wholesome water, issuing from his pizzle, which continually pisses into the cistern underneath from whence proceeds a leaden pipe out of which runs wine on extraordinary days
At Carfax the waits played on the roof of Penniless Bench, a recessed bench first used by beggars which later became an assembly point for the city council.
Sometimes a special gallery was erected for the musicians. In 1633 we find the musicians on strike, complaining that the city gave them no allowance for playing on the king’s holidays or the mayor’s return from London, and had moreover abandoned
its old custom of giving them ‘Wyne and Cakes’ at Penniless Bench. Grievances were settled, however; the allowance for wine and cakes was restored and it was agreed that the waits be supplied - out of city funds - with handsome livery cloaks (though
still no regular allowance). Additionally, a new ruling was introduced in the council acts of 21 May 1638 to the effect that membership of the waits was only allowed to those who had served a proper apprenticeship to a freeman musician of the city.
Like other waits bands, Oxford’s city musicians were expected to provide loud music on wind instruments. The ancient mainstay of Waits everywhere until the end of the
16th century was the shawm, or, in its more evolved form, the hautbois, or hoboy, usually with sackbuts taking the lower parts. Anthony à Wood specifically refers on one occasion to the Oxford Waits providing ‘wind-musick of houtbois’. Other characteristic wind instruments were cornet, curtal and lisserdine. But the string instruments found in the possession of the Oxford Waits, William Gibbons and John Gerrard (and the possible
waits Leonard Maior and John Stacy), make it clear that for indoor entertainments and private functions they provided more than wind music alone.
Many waits elsewhere were in possession of non-wind instruments at their demise. Edward Jefferies
senior, a member of the Norwich Waits, left at his death in October 1617, a treble violin, another violin (of unspecified size), treble and bass viols, a bandora, an old lute and two other unspecified instruments.
Thomas Girdler, a York Wait who died in November 1640, left a bandora , a treble violin, a tenor violin, and a kitt (a small fiddle or rebec, often carried by dancing masters).
The bandora’s presence in the inventories is interesting. Wire-strung and used for strumming chords it often accompanied singers, and also featured in broken consorts where strings and wind mixed. Waits everywhere exploited varied talents
and multifarious instruments to earn their living.
Civil War and Protectorate
The English Civil War had a massive impact on Oxford, which was for three years the royalist capital of Britain. Charles I arrived on
29 October 1642 and from then until his surrender in June 1646 the city served as his military headquarters as well as the seat of his court and parliament. University life was disrupted as colleges were converted into arsenals, powder magazines and artillery
parks. The Law and Logic schools became granaries. Cattle were penned in the quadrangle at Christ Church. Some of the great names of early English music had received their degrees at Oxford; John Dowland and Thomas Morley in 1588, and Thomas Weelkes
in 1602. During the Civil War, the music school closed down (not re-opening till 1657) and it is likely that the waits’ duties were suspended too, for they do not feature in the council acts during this period.
That some public
music-making went on is beyond doubt, however. In 1644 Oxford succumbed to a disastrous fire which a Puritan observer, Nehemiah Wallington, attributed to the hand of Providence. ‘At the last Lord’s day in the morning, some of the soldiers had appointed
a merry meeting at a fiddler’s profane taphouse near the Red Lion by the Fish-market, with music, drink and tobacco, one drinking an health to the King, another to the next meeting of Parliament. Thus by drunkenness, music, scurrilous songs, cursing
and swearing, profaning God’s holy day. About three o’clock in the afternoon the fire began to appear, which by the just hand of God hath burned about 330 houses’.
Was that ‘fiddler’s profane taphouse’ run by one of the waits? Given their tavern-keeping and their sole performing rights it is not wholly implausible. It has to said, though, that Oxford boasted a multitude of unlicensed ale-houses in
the 17th century, and no doubt its share of unlicensed fiddlers too.
The Oxford Waits resumed their official duties under the Commonwealth, receiving their cakes and wine by the pint when they played at Penniless Bench. The interregnum was by no means as joyless an era as sometimes asserted. It was, in fact, under Cromwell’s Protectorate in 1651 that John Playford published the nation’s first great collection
of country dance tunes, ‘The English Dancing Master,’ which proved a popular bestseller. Oxford under the Stuarts had been famed for its dancing schools, especially the Bocardo in Cornmarket Street, and they flourished under the Commonwealth
too. A vintner named Thomas Wood had a school at the Salutation tavern in the High Street; and in 1652 his ex-apprentice John Newman set up a rival academy in Ship Street. In 1657 the diarist Anthony
à Wood took violin lessons from another dancing master, William James, who taught at a school outside the North Gate.
Wood received violin tuition from three different musicians under the Commonwealth. The first was a master of
music named Charles Griffith, who gave him instruction in September 1653 and who he describes as ‘one of the musicians belonging to the city of Oxon.’ The inference here is that Griffith
was one of the Oxford Waits.
The second violin teacher was John Parker, one of the university musicians. He used with Wood to attend some lively music meetings held in the 1650s at the house of a former St John’s organist named William
Ellis who had lost his job when Cromwellian officials took over the city (organs and choirs were two things the Puritans did object to, being associated with high church service). Ellis’s response was typical of an Oxford musician; he took out
a licence as an ale-house keeper, and renewed it until his organ post was restored in 1660.
Many present at Ellis’s meetings were scholars and gentlemen. Wood reports that
his violin tutor Charles Parker was not made entirely welcome, notably by Edward Low, a Christ Church organist. ‘Mr. Low, a proud man, could not endure any common musitian to come to the meeting, much less to play among them.’
The third musician to give Wood violin lessons was the dancing master, William James, who had apparently gained his knowledge of music and dance in France. Wood had six months tuition under James, ‘yet at length he found him not a compleat master
of his facultie, as Griffith and Parker were not: and to say the truth there was yet no compleat master in Oxon for that instrument, because it had not been hitherto used in consort among gentlemen, only by common musicians, who played but two parts.’
Violins had in reality been played by court musicians since the time of Henry VIII. Nonetheless, Wood reports that the members of Ellis’s music circle favoured the viol, and ‘esteemed a violin to be an instrument only belonging to a common fidler,
and could not indure that it should come among them for feare of making their meetings seem to be vaine and fidling.’
People took their music seriously under the Commonwealth
- the council no less than the gentlemen-scholars. When young John Davis was admitted to the Oxford Waits in September 1659, it was only on half pay, it being alleged that he was ‘not at the present a sufficient artist nor soe well instructed as to play
his part in the consort’. Only after a year’s probation was he to be granted equal shares with the other five waits. John Davis, however, went on to be a stalwart of the band
and appears in the record books as yet another musician/ale-house keeper; he was landlord at The Goat’s Head in 1690.
When the conduit ran claret
Oxford Waits perhaps had their heyday in the early years of the Restoration. In October 1661 they numbered no fewer than eight musicians, all sharing equally in the ‘profits and advantages that shall come to them as the Citty musicians’. Sampson
Strong was still among them, now accompanied by his son William Strong, John Davis, Francis Taylor, William Hilliard, William Garnet and two musicians from Abingdon, James Stokes and John Evans. This was not the only time that an earlier ruling was waived
to permit the waits to draw on talents from outside the city. In 1672-3, when they had dwindled to four musicians, two new members named John Foster and Robert Winsloe (or Winston) were brought in from Gloucester.
Francis Taylor was spokesman for the ‘Citty Musique’ in 1673 when the waits successfully petitioned for the two new members. It was now agreed that if the waits should make
up their number to ‘six able musicians’ they would be given an annual salary of 40s. a head and be given liveries and silver badges to a total value of £20. These would be reissued every three years provided they gave a bond to live in the
city and leave their badges to the city on their deaths.
Furthermore their sole performing rights were restated: ‘it is agreed that to give encouragement to the City waits they shall be “owned as the Citty musitions.”
and all other common minstrels or musicians (the University Musick excepted) shall be prohibited and punished as vagrants according to Statute, if they play in any public house within the City or suburbs except at the Act or the Assizes’.
The new salaries represented a real advance for the waits, but no gravy train. Francis Taylor himself seems to have been hard up, for in the same year the city grants him £2 ‘to buy him an instrument’. And in 1683, we find the same musician
asking the city to pay his creditors out of his Waits allowance.
The waits were out in full force in November 1677 when the Duke of Buckingham came to visit Oxford. The council acts
dwell at length on the lavish reception accorded him at Penniless Bench by the mayor and aldermen clad in their scarlet gowns while the waits played their music. A banquet was held for his Grace that night at the private house of a Mr Langstone, near Carfax,
where a great table covered with damask groaned under the weight of ‘all manner of fish and fowle as could be got for mony Round the Country’ to say nothing of plentiful wine and ‘sweetmeates wett and dry togeather with tarts, Gellies, and
all other things suitable.’ The waits provided music for the entire time that the Duke was in the house.
Alderman Townsend must have beamed with special satisfaction
as the waits appeared in their handsome livery, for he had furnished the cloth for their garments. The price was £17 14s. 7d for five waits cloaks plus Alderman Harris’s pensioners’ gowns. Three years later, following a visit of the Court
to Oxford in 1681 Alderman Townsend again presented the council with a bill: ‘for the City waits for their livery cloaks, £17 1s. 4d’. This was expensive cloth; the tailor, Mr Streete, charged much less for his work on the garments - a modest
£1 10s. 0d.
In 1683, when the Duke and Duchess of York arrived in Oxford, the city musicians played their hautbois from their gallery at Carfax, till the distinguished visitors
were out of earshot. ‘All of which time,’ wrote Wood, ‘and for about half an houre after, the conduit ran claret for about half an hour at two places. All which the vulgar sort and rabble received in cups and hats and drank the duke’s
The parade of 1685, when four waits played wind-music on horseback, has been mentioned above, and two years later, when James II visited Oxford, he was entertained
by the combined forces of Town and Gown musicians ‘the wind musick or waits belonging to the city and universitie.’
But even at their height in the latter decades
of the century, it is evident that the seeds of a decline had been sown. In August 1680 we find complaints that the musicians have been neglecting their task of playing music at dinner on the mayor’s boat when he rode for franchises (made a circuit of
the city boundaries). It was ordered that in future the musicians ‘sett at the end of Mr. Mayor’s Boate’ should ‘play all Dinner while as hath been accustomed.’
In 1697 the waits played, amid bonfires and
bell-ringing, at celebrations to mark the Peace of Ryswick which ended the War of the Grand Alliance. But in October 1698, a Council act which renewed the waits’ cloaks also stripped them of their salaries. It further warned that unless they attended
as usual on days of rejoicing their cloaks ‘shall likewise be taken off.’
New cloaks were issued up to 1712, but afterwards no further mention is made of the Oxford Waits
in the council acts.
The precise circumstances of their demise, as of their emergence, require research. Fiddlers played at franchise-riding between 1747 and 1751, implying that
the waits had by this time been disbanded. However, there is a record of a grand celebration in Oxford for the proclamation of peace at Aix la Chappelle in February 1749 with fireworks at night and the conduit running wine as in days of yore. According to
the report Oxford’s various trade companies turned out for the procession, each attended with ‘its own band of French horns, drums and other musical instruments’. Later, on horseback, come the City Marshal, the City constables, the
Mayor’s Sergeant, accompanied by two trumpeters.’ Then, we are told, ‘the city music followed on foot.’
The waits, it seems, still existed in some form at
They also left a legacy from this late period in the form of a tune called ‘The Oxford Waits’. It appears in two mid-18th century collections of country dances,
complete with instructions (‘The 1st man clap hands twice to his partner’, etc). Town bands often had melodies named after them - the famous ‘London Waits’ appears, for example, in the 1665 edition of Playford’s Dancing Master;
the York Waits had a hornpipe and the Warrington Waits a minuet named after them.
Were these, as some have suggested, the ‘signature tunes’ of the bands? It is doubtful, especially in the case of ‘The Oxford Waits’.
The tune is a cebell - a distinctly English dance, much like the French gavotte but slightly quicker. The sprightly melody must have been composed at the end of the 17th or beginning of the 18th century, the time of the cebell’s popularity. It is too
late a piece to have been played during the waits’ heyday, and too dainty and complex to have furnished hautbois players with a strong theme tune. More likely it was composed as a tribute to the Oxford Waits, or it was simply a piece which was noted
from the repertoire of a band which had played an important role in the civic life of their city.