It’s raining outside, so that must mean the Bank Holiday weekend is officially underway. I was never mad keen on a Bank Holiday Monday that fell during the school summer holidays as a kid; it felt like we’d been cheated of a day off, as we were already enjoying six weeks of that. My dad would be at home and took charge of the telly, interrupting the regular BBC1 morning viewing aimed at me and sticking on ITV for coverage of the Roses match between Yorkshire and Lancashire; this broadcast usually opened with a wide shot of an empty cricket ground bathed in a grey sky and drenched in an unwelcome shower. Regular schedules were temporarily on ice, anyway.
The usual regional news programmes were cut in half and the normal Monday children’s line-up made way for ‘Disney Time’ and a highlights compilation of the most recent ‘Blue Peter’ expedition to a foreign field. Venturing outdoors on a Bank Holiday Monday in my childhood predated the advent of the mega-theme park (a small mercy for which I am thankful), so it would generally encompass an excursion to some deathly dull garden centre, which seemed to be the only store open for business on a Bank Holiday back then – well, that and the odd Asian-owned corner shop. The high-street was an abandoned retail graveyard, an extension of the traditional Sunday state of affairs. The country would effectively close down in a way that would be unimaginable today.
The history of Bank Holidays in the UK is somewhat convoluted, with up to 33 saints’ days and other religious festivals observed as holidays by the Bank of England until 1834, when these were dramatically cut to four. The Bank Holidays Act of 1871 specified these four days (in England, Wales and Ireland) would be Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. Christmas Day and Good Friday didn’t fall under this legislation, as they had both been public holidays for centuries. St Patrick’s Day was made an Ireland-only holiday in 1903, whereas New Year’s Day wasn’t included as a holiday in England and Wales until as late as 1974 – which must have made English and Welsh workplaces on January 1 a repository for the walking wounded before then. The Scots, on the other hand, made their own rules and regulations regarding public holidays.
A century on from the first legislation, a further act in 1971 regulated Bank Holidays, making a few alterations that have largely lasted to the present day. August Bank Holiday was shifted from the beginning of the month to the end, the old Whit Monday was superseded by Spring Bank (the last Monday in May), and May Day (the first Monday in May) joined the list in England and Wales as of 1978. St Andrew’s Day (falling at the end of November) has subsequently become a Bank Holiday in Scotland, though neither patron saints of England or Wales have yet to be gifted with their own.
As was the case with so many aspects of British life in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Bank Holidays were also established throughout the Empire. As each colony gained independence from the Mother Country, these Bank Holidays were retained in Commonwealth countries but added to with other public holidays reflective of the individual nation’s culture. In fact, most of the former colonies have far more public holidays than the UK can boast; we have no Independence Day, for obvious reasons, but even significant military victories or the birthdays of historical national figures aren’t observed here in ways they are abroad, though there are occasional exceptions to the rule. Bar extra Bank Holidays for royal events such as jubilees or weddings, however, these tend to involve rearranging an existing Bank Holiday, as when May Day was shifted to mark the 50th anniversary of VE Day in 1995.
The term Bank Holiday itself is such a British cultural institution that our most British of bands, Blur, even named one of the more frenetic tracks on their seminal ‘Parklife’ album after it, providing their US record company with another excuse as to why the LP would make no sense across the pond. The song paints a portrait of rather desperate excess, peppered with people determined to enjoy the day off work whatever the weather, a sensation familiar to anyone who grew up in this country, anyone who probably possesses more memories of damp, drizzly Bank Holiday Mondays than ones where the sun shone all day long. And we’re back to the Roses match again.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, this weekend marks the last Bank Holiday of the year; Scotland has its celebration of St Andrew in November, and then (with the exception of Christmas and New Year) there’s nothing that’s nationwide again until Good Friday. For some, Bank Holidays are a welcome breather; for others, they’re an inconvenience. But at least most of the shops are open now, should we run out of milk, bread, tampons or condoms; and our viewing habits are no longer governed by the broadcasters should our personal tastes not stretch to whatever crappy family film they stick on in the middle of the afternoon or indeed the Roses match – which is probably the province of the pay-per-view media moguls now, anyway. So, enjoy yourself. You have to. It’s the law.
© The Editor