The Bellman--descriptions Of Him

Before the advent of Christmas the Bellman, or Watchman, left at each

house a copy of verses ostensibly breathing good-will and a happy

Christmas to the occupants, but in reality as a reminder to them of

his existence, and that he would call in due time for his Christmas

box. The date of the institution of the Bellman is not well defined.

In Tegg's Dictionary of Chronology, 1530 is given, but no authority

for the statement is adduced; Machyn, in his diary, is more definite

[the xij. day of January 1556-7, in Alderman Draper's ward called]

chordwenerstrett ward, a belle man [went about] with a belle at evere

lane, and at the ward [end to] gyff warnyng of ffyre and candyll

lyght, [and to help the] poure, and pray for the ded. Their cry

being, Take care of your fire and candle, be charitable to the poor,

and pray for the dead.

Shakespeare knew him, for in Macbeth (Act II. sc. 2) he says:

It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bell man,

Which gives the stern'st good night.

And Milton mentions him in Il Penseroso:

Or the bellman's drowsy charm,

To bless the doors from nightly harm.

Herrick also celebrates The Bellman:

From noise of Scare-fires rest ye free,

From Murders Benedicite.

From all mischances, that may fright

Your pleasing slumbers in the night;

Mercie secure ye all, and keep

The Goblin from ye, while ye sleep.

Past one o'clock, and almost two,

My Masters all, Good day to you.

On the title page of Decker's Belman of London (ed. 1608) we have a

woodcut giving a vivid portrait of the Bellman going his nightly

rounds with his pike upon his shoulder, a horn lanthorn, with a candle

inside, in one hand, and his bell, which is attached by a strap to his

girdle, in the other hand, his faithful dog following him in his

nightly rounds. In his Lanthorne and Candle light; or The Bell-man's

second Night's walke, ed. 1608, the title page gives us a totally

different type of Bellman, carrying both bell and lanthorn, but

bearing no pike, nor is he accompanied by a dog. In his O per se O,

ed. 1612, is another type of Bellman, with lanthorn, bell, and brown

bill on his shoulder, but no dog. And in his Villanies Discovered by

Lanthorne and Candle Light, etc., ed. 1620, we have two more and yet

different Bellmen, one with bell, lanthorn, and bill, followed by a

dog; the other (a very rough wood cut) does not give him his

four-footed friend. This is the heading to the Belman's Cry:

Men and Children, Maides and Wives,

'Tis not late to mend your lives:

* * * * *

When you heare this ringing Bell,

Think it is your latest knell:

When I cry, Maide in your Smocke,

Doe not take it for a mocke:

Well I meane, if well 'tis taken,

I would have you still awaken:

Foure a Clocke, the Cock is crowing

I must to my home be going:

When all other men doe rise,

Then must I shut up mine eyes.

He was a person of such importance, that in 1716 Vincent Bourne

composed a long Latin poem in praise of one of the fraternity: Ad

Davidem Cook, Westmonasterii Custodem Nocturnum et Vigilantissimum,

a translation of which runs thus, in the last few lines:

Should you and your dog ever call at my door,

You'll be welcome, I promise you, nobody more.

May you call at a thousand each year that you live,

A shilling, at least, may each householder give;

May the Merry Old Christmas you wish us, befal,

And your self, and your dog, be the merriest of all!

At Christ-tide it was their custom to leave a copy of verses, mostly

of Scriptural character, and generally very sorry stuff, at every

house on their beat, with a view to receiving a Christmas box; and

this was an old custom, for Gay notices it in his Trivia (book ii.)

written in 1715:

Behold that narrow street which steep descends,

Whose building to the slimy shore extends;

Here Arundel's fam'd structure rear'd its frame,

The street, alone, retains the empty name;

Where Titian's glowing paint the canvass warm'd,

And Raphael's fair design, with judgment, charm'd,

Now hangs the bellman's song, and pasted here

The coloured prints of Overton appear.

Another ante-Christmas custom now falling into desuetude is the waits,

who originally were musical watchmen, who had to give practical

evidence of their vigilance by playing on the hautboy, or flageolet,

at stated times during the night. In the household of Edward IV. there

is mentioned in the Liber niger Domus Regis, A Wayte, that nightely

from Mychelmas to Shreve Thorsdaye, pipe the watch within this

courte fowere tymes; in the Somere nightes three tymes, and maketh

bon gayte at every chambre doare and offyce, as well for feare of

pyckeres and pillers.[25]

These waits afterwards became bands of musicians, who were ready to

play at any festivities, such as weddings, etc., and almost every city

and town had its band of waits; the City of London had its Corporation

Waits, which played before the Lord Mayor in his inaugural procession,

and at banquets and other festivities. They wore blue gowns, red

sleeves and caps, and every one had a silver collar about his neck.

Ned Ward thus describes them in his London Spy (1703).

At last bolted out from the corner of a street, with an ignis

fatuus dancing before them, a parcel of strange hobgoblins, covered

with long frieze rugs and blankets, hooped round with leather girdles

from their cruppers to their shoulders, and their noddles buttoned up

into caps of martial figure, like a Knight Errant at tilt and

tournament, with his wooden head locked in an iron helmet; one, armed,

as I thought with a lusty faggot-bat, and the rest with strange wooden

weapons in their hands, in the shape of clyster pipes, but as long

almost as speaking trumpets. Of a sudden they clapped them to their

mouths, and made such a frightful yelling that I thought he would

have been dissolving, and the terrible sound of the last trumpet to be

within an inch of my ears.... 'Why, what,' says he, 'don't you love

musick? These are the topping tooters of the town, and have gowns,

silver chains and salaries for playing Lilli-borlero to my Lord

Mayor's horse through the City.'

That these Corporation Waits were no mean musicians we have the

authority of Morley, who, in dedicating his Consort Lessons to the

Lord Mayor and Aldermen in 1599, says:

As the ancient custom of this most honourable and renowned city hath

been ever to retain and maintain excellent and expert musicians to

adorn your Honours' favours, feasts and solemn meetings--to these,

your Lordships' Wayts, I recommend the same--to your servants' careful

and skilful handling.

These concert lessons were arranged for six instruments--viz. two

viols (treble and bass), a flute, a cittern (a kind of guitar, strung

with wire), a treble lute, and a pandora, which was a large

instrument, similar to a lute, but strung with wire in lieu of catgut.

The following is a description of the York Waits, end of seventeenth


In a Winter's morning,

Long before the dawning,

'Ere the cock did crow,

Or stars their light withdraw,

Wak'd by a hornpipe pretty,

Play'd along York City,

By th' help of o'er night's bottle

Damon made this ditty....

In a winter's night,

By moon or lanthorn light,

Through hail, rain, frost, or snow

Their rounds the music go;

Clad each in frieze or blanket

(For either, heav'n be thanked),

Lin'd with wine a quart,

Or ale a double tankard.

Burglars send away,

And, bar guests dare not stay;

Of claret, snoring sots

Dream o'er their pipes and pots,

* * * * *

Candles, four in the pound,

Lead up the jolly Round,

While Cornet shrill i' th' middle

Marches, and merry fiddle,

Curtal with deep hum, hum,

Cries we come, come,

And theorbo loudly answers,

Thrum, thrum, thrum, thrum, thrum.

But, their fingers frost-nipt,

So many notes are o'erslipt,

That you'd take sometimes

The Waits for the Minster chimes:

Then, Sirs, to hear their musick

Would make both me and you sick,

And much more to hear a roopy fiddler call

(With voice, as Moll would cry,

Come, shrimps, or cockles buy).

Past three, fair frosty morn,

Good morrow, my masters all.

With regard to their modern practice of playing during the night-tide,

we find the following explanation in an Essay on the Musical Waits at

Christmas, by John Cleland, 1766. Speaking of the Druids, he says:

But, whatever were their reasons for this preference, it is out of

doubt that they generally chose the dead of night for the celebration

of their greatest solemnities and festivals. Such assemblies, then,

whether of religion, of ceremony, or of mere merriment, were

promiscuously called Wakes, from their being nocturnal. The master

of the Revels (Reveils) would, in good old English, be termed the

Master of the Wakes. In short, such nocturnal meetings are the

Wakes of the Britons; the Reveillons of the French; the

Medianoche of the Spaniards; and the Pervigilia of the Romans. The

Custom of Wakes at burials (les vigiles des morts) is at this

moment, in many parts, not discontinued.

But, at the antient Yule (or Christmas time, especially), the

dreariness of the weather, the length of the night, would naturally

require something extraordinary, to wake and rouse men from their

natural inclination to rest, and to a warm bed, at that hour. The

summons, then, to the Wakes of that season were given by music,

going the rounds of invitation to the mirth or festivals which were

awaiting them. In this there was some propriety, some object; but

where is there any in such a solemn piece of banter as that of music

going the rounds and disturbing people in vain? For, surely, any

meditation to be thereby excited on the holiness of the ensuing day

could hardly be of great avail, in a bed, between sleeping and waking.

But such is the power of custom to perpetuate absurdities.

However, the music was called The Wakeths, and, by the usual

tendency of language to euphony, softened into Waits, as workth

into wort, or checkths into chess, etc.

Another authority, Jones, in his Welsh Bards, 1794, says: Waits are

musicians of the lower order, who commonly perform on Wind

instruments, and they play in most towns under the windows of the

chief inhabitants, at midnight, a short time before Christmas; for

which they collect a Christmas box, from house to house. They are said

to derive their name of Waits, for being always in waiting to

celebrate weddings and other joyous events happening within their

district. There is a building at Newcastle called Waits' Tower,

which was, formerly, the meeting-house of the town band of musicians.

The town waits certainly existed in Westminster as late as 1822, and

they were elected by the Court of Burgesses of that city--vide a

magazine cutting of that date: Christmas Waits.--Charles Clapp,

Benjamin Jackson, Denis Jelks, and Robert Prinset, were brought to Bow

Street Office by O. Bond, the constable, charged with performing on

several musical instruments in St. Martin's Lane, at half-past twelve

o'clock this morning, by Mr. Munroe, the authorized principal Wait,

appointed by the Court of Burgesses for the City and Liberty of

Westminster, who alone considers himself entitled, by his appointment,

to apply for Christmas boxes. He also urged that the prisoners, acting

as Minstrels, came under the meaning of the Vagrant Act, alluded to in

the 17th Geo. II.; however, on reference to the last Vagrant Act of

the present king, the word 'minstrels' is omitted; consequently, they

are no longer cognizable under that Act of Parliament; and, in

addition to that, Mr. Charles Clapp, one of the prisoners, produced

his indenture of having served seven years as an apprentice to the

profession of a musician to Mr. Clay, who held the same appointment as

Mr. Munroe does under the Court of Burgesses. The prisoners were

discharged, after receiving an admonition from Mr. Halls, the sitting

magistrate, not to collect Christmas boxes.

In an article, Concerning Christmas, in Belgravia (vol. 6, new

series, p. 326), we read: It may not, perhaps, be generally known

that, in the year of grace 1871, 'Waits' are regularly sworn before

the Court of Burgesses at Westminster, and act under the authority of

a warrant, signed by the clerk, and sealed with the arms of the city

and liberty; in addition to which they are bound to provide themselves

with a silver badge, also bearing the arms of Westminster.

The modern waits have entirely departed from any pretence of allusion

to Christ-tide, and play indifferently the last things out in dance

music, operatic airs, or music-hall songs; and they act upon people

according to their various temperaments, some liking to hear the

waits, whilst others roundly anathematise them for disturbing their


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