Poodles and hooligans: the unusual history of bank holidays

Our beloved bank holidays have been bringing us joyous long weekends for nearly 150 years, thanks to a man who tried to teach his poodle to read.

In 2020, there are eight bank holidays in England and Wales, nine in Scotland, and 10 in Northern Ireland, bringing joy to millions of people. Ever wondered why we have bank holidays? Here’s a run through where they came from, with tales of seaside frolicking and merriment along the way.

The statutory bank holidays we know and love today were introduced in 1871 by banker and politician John Lubbock, the first Baron of Avebury, who it’s fair to say was a bit of a character. See, alongside his banking and political activities he was a scientific writer, which included an effort to teach his poodle to read.

Yeah, good luck with that one, John.

That's a lot of days off

Before Lubbock came on the scene and made bank holidays all proper, the Bank of England and the Exchequer — as well as numerous other public offices — took a large number of holidays (about 40) to celebrate royal events, Christian festivals and saint’s days. It’s a wonder anyone got any work done.

This was trimmed down to 18 days in 1830, then slashed down to just four in 1834. Ouch.

A taste of freedom

Meanwhile, after the Industrial Revolution, ‘local holidays’ became a strong tradition, with factories shutting down on certain days and giving everyone a day off at the same time. This tradition faded, however, with the advent of paid leave for employees, standardised school holidays and a downturn in manufacturing.

The term ‘bank holiday’ can be interpreted very literally, with banks closing on these days, postponing any financial dealings until the next day. The Bank Holiday Act ensured no penalties were incurred for these delays. Before the introduction of the Act, banks feared they’d go bankrupt if they closed on a weekday, but Lubbock’s work took away such concerns.

It'll have to wait until tomorrow. (Photo by Philip Veater / Unsplash)

The first bank holidays

Lubbock drafted the Bank Holidays Bill in 1871, and when that became law the first official bank holidays in England, Wales and Ireland were Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. Meanwhile, Scotland had New Year’s Day, Good Friday, the first Monday in May, the first Monday in August, and Christmas Day.

Alongside the standard set, any additional date could be officially proclaimed a bank holiday, just to keep us on our toes.

Watch out, it's the bank holiday hooligans

Around the 1960s, workers didn’t have as much leave as they enjoy today, so on bank holidays things got a bit crazy. The seaside was the holiday destination of choice (£20 Ryanair flights to Europe hadn’t been invented yet) and people flocked there in huge numbers.

They had so much pent-up holiday enthusiasm they couldn’t keep themselves under control, burning deck chairs and smashing up public conveniences in a freedom-fuelled rampage that put popular resorts such as Brighton and Margate “permanently on guard”, according to a 1960 edition of The Times.

It's all fun and games until someone goes on a toilet-smashing rampage. (Photo by Tom Wheatley / Unsplash)

Another product of giving millions of people time off at the same time is the ‘bank holiday getaway’, in which roads are overwhelmed by a stampede of extra vehicles packed with desperate holidaymakers. In 2019’s August bank holiday the problem was made even worse by a heatwave and the closure of major rail routes.

In the workplace, bank holidays can cause all sorts of trouble and careful planning is needed to minimise the disruption of the lost day. These days, people seem more concerned with strategically booking their annual leave around bank holidays to get as much time off as they can using as little of their leave allowance as possible. Clever stuff.

Well, that’s about it for this wander through the history of the bank holiday. Before you go, here’s a few fun facts about when key holiday dates were introduced.

Historical origins of bank holidays

New Year’s Day

The Act in 1871 made this a bank holiday in Scotland, but it would be another 100 years before England, Wales and Northern Ireland joined in the fun with the 1971 Act.

2 January

The 1971 Act made this a bank holiday in Scotland only. It seems the Scots care more about the New Year than the rest of the UK.

St. Patrick’s Day

1903’s Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act marked St Patrick’s Day as a bank holiday on 17 March.

Good Friday

Good Friday started life as a public holiday, except in Scotland where the 1871 Act made it a bank holiday. The 1971 Act brought England, Wales and Northern Ireland in line, making it a bank holiday.

Easter Monday

The 1871 Act made this a bank holiday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland missed out on this one.

May Bank Holiday

In 1978, the government made the first Monday in May a bank holiday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Meanwhile Scotland had already been enjoying this bank holiday since 1871.

Spring Bank Holiday

Whit Monday used to fall anywhere between 11 May and 14 June after the 1871 Act. This was tidied up in 1971 by fixing it at the last Monday in May.

Battle of the Boyne

This Northern-Ireland-only bank holiday was introduced in 1926 and falls on 12 July, commemorating the anniversary of the 1690 battle.

August Bank Holidays

The 1871 act created the first Monday in August as a bank holiday in England, Wales Northern Ireland and Scotland. Then in 1965, a chap named Edward Heath (President of the Board of Trade) changed it to the Monday following the last weekend in August in a bid to increase trade in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland was exempt from the change, with its school year beginning in mid-August.

Following the 1971 Act, the August bank holiday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was updated to fall on the last Monday in August.

Christmas Day 25 December

This has been a bank holiday since 1971, but it was once a ‘public holiday’, except in Scotland where it’s always been a bank holiday since the 1871 Act.

Boxing Day 26 December

Became a bank holiday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1871, with Scotland joining in from 1971.