The Joiners and Ceilers recent church procession from Painters Hall was led by young Oliver acting as a ‘whiffler’.
He told me that when the streets were covered in dung a boy was employed to clean the way for the liverymen.
Shakespeare mentions the word in Henry V
The deep-mouth’d Sea,
Which like a mighty Whiffler ’fore the King,
Seems to prepare his way.
Here the sense is of someone who clears the way and the Oxford English Dictionary defines a whiffler as an attendant armed with a javelin, battle-axe, sword, or staff to clear the way for a procession.
The word is said to derive from the Old English wifle for a spear or battleaxe.
The word whiff may come from this as whifflers in action would certainly have raised a constant whiffle of wind.
In the 1740 records of the Drapers a new freeman, weaver James Ferry of Spitalfields was described as “poor; whiffler”.