During the middle ages a wait was a British city or town night watchman who policed the streets and played his horn to sound the hours. Over time a number of other instruments were used. The main one was the shawm, a double-reed, conical-bored instrument introduced in the 12th century, which was often called a wait-pipe.

By the 15th century waits had begun to form itinerant bands to entertain the public over the Christmas period. Instruments included horns, bassoons, bass viols, fiddles, drums, hautboys (three-reed conical instrument) and shawms. Some wait bands also had singers as well as players.

By the early 16th century the waits had became professional. In addition to night watchman duties they were employed by town and city corporations to play at festivities, welcome a royal visit, wake up the townsfolk on a cold winter morning, lead processions and play at civic events. The waits wore brightly coloured livery and added dignity to formal occasions.

During the 19th century, the night watchmen duties were gradually replaced by police and the paid position of wait was finally abolished by the 1835 Municipal Corporation Act. So waits went back to being amateurs, forming bands for playing and singing carols at night through towns and cities during the Christmas period. They were remunerated by the public putting money in the hat which was passed around at the end of a performance. Amateur musical bands are still a feature of the British Christmas period today.

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