RainIt’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


  1. In an increasingly secular and commercial nation, perhaps the vailidity of all such common holidays should be reconsidered. Ask most workers if they would prefer Bank Holidays or the equivalent days to be added to their annual leave entitlement and I expect most would plump for the latter – far better to have a choice of dates and not to be scrabbling for road-space, flight-seats or event admission with 60 million others. I know in my working days I would have preferred that option. And, let’s face it, with on-line banking, debit cards and credit cards, the concept of any days without financial transaction capability are long gone, so even the nomenclature itself of ‘Bank Holiday’ is now somewhat redundant.

    One of the delights of no longer working is the irrelevance of different days of the week, of the month or of the year – every day is a new one to wake, check the weather and consider how to make use of it and/or take pleasure from it. Bank Holidays are now just days when some other folk don’t work, some services aren’t available and any interesting places are too busy to bother hoing, so they have become more of an irritant than a bonus. Or am I just becoming predictably cantankerous with age ?

    You’re right about New Year’s Day before 1974 as, being old enough to have been working then, it was a day of some folk calling in ‘sick’, others arriving when they should have stayed home, roads filled with drivers still at grave risk from the breathalyzer, thus a grave risk to others, and general levels of productivity and irritability which must have caused many employers to question why they bothered to open the doors at all that day. But it was usually a quiet day at the office, so some good came of it.

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    1. It was quite a surprise a few years back when I learnt New Year’s Day wasn’t a public holiday in England until ’74, as I’d grown up assuming it always was one – though there was obviously no school on that day, anyway. From what you say of your memory of it as a working day, it seems finally making it a holiday was as much a decision based on public health as economics! As for the continuation of the Bank Holiday, I too am either unaffected or annoyed by them, working as I do from home – or from home’s keyboard.


  2. Conversely, back in the 1960s I can remember Christmas Day being a working day in Scotland, with my late father gamely cycling to work after the family had opened Christmas presents together. In those days New Year, not Christmas, was the time for celebration north of the border – indeed it was the only time of year when complete strangers, heavily fuelled by alcohol no doubt, would greet you warmly in the street.

    Perhaps Scotland and England synchronised their winter holidays in 1974, as they now seem indistinguishable.


    1. I know (from what I’ve read, anyway) there even used to be a full Football League programme on Christmas Day, which I think ended at some point in the 50s. As far as I can gather, New Year was always a bigger deal north of the border until England fell into line in 1974, and I think it’s more or less just St Andrew’s Day that now stands alone as a holiday unique to Scotland.


  3. In Scotland the Bank Holidays are only taken by the Banks (logical) and Civil Service. An arrangement I like because there is no reason for all the population to all rush together to join the traffic jams, overcrowded public transport and busy and costly amusements.
    Christmas Eve and Christmas Day mornings were worked. Christmas was a time for family, so sober. Boxing Day a normal working day.
    Hogmanay was for celebrating out with the family. January 1st was a holiday as was the 2nd because many did not stop the celebrations until late on the 1st.
    For some reason football and rugby matches were played on Jan. 1st. Play being made more interesting because of the condition of the players, with many trips to the boundary for stomachs emptying.

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