Bank holiday chaos in more ways than one

John Lubbock

John Lubbock MP, later created the first Baron Avebury, the man behind the Bank Holidays Act 1871.

Traffic chaos including a 30 mile traffic jam on a major motorway characterised the final weekend in August in the UK as families hit the road. This was their last chance to enjoy a last summer long weekend away before the children go back to school in early September.

I say ‘long weekend’ because here the last Monday in August is a bank holiday. But, the interesting question is just when is a bank holiday not a bank holiday? You may be surprised to learn that the answer is when it has been observed so long that it is covered by common law, not by an Act of Parliament.

Different countries have various public holidays, even in the UK, so I shall keep my comments to those in England and Wales. In both those countries there are just six official bank holidays.

Only six, I hear you say, that’s not right, we have eight. Well, that may be just a little confusing because, technically, we don’t.

The other two days that are not statutory bank holidays are, get ready for this second example of chaos, Good Friday and Christmas Day. That’s right, those two days are not given by any Act of Parliament but are regarded as public holidays under common law.

One government website gives the following explanation: ‘Bank holidays are holidays when banks and many other businesses are closed for the day. Public holidays are holidays which have been observed through custom and practice.’

The banks are still closed though!

Why do we have these welcome days away from our places of work? Well, it was Liberal MP John Lubbock who got the ball rolling. A banker by profession, he introduced a Bill that was to become the Bank Holidays Act of 1871, aiming to ease the pressure on workers with an extra four days off. At that point only Easter Monday, the first Monday in August, Whit Monday, and Boxing Day. As an aside here, Lisa tells me that Good Friday, Easter Monday and Boxing Day are not holidays in the USA but they have plenty of others.

Anyway, John Lubbock later became the first Baron Avebury and years later as a teenager I was fortunate enough to get to know his grandson Eric Lubbock, now the 4th Baron, who became the Liberal MP for the town in which I grew up – Orpington, then in Kent but since 1965 part of the London Borough of Bromley.

eric lubbock

The fourth Baron Avebury, formerly Eric Lubbock MP, grandson of John Lubbock MP.

John Lubbock had four main political agendas, one of which was securing additional holidays and shorter working hours for the working classes and, predictably, the new law was very popular.

A lot has happened since then, the holiday in August was changed from the first Monday to the last, and Whit Monday was been changed to the Spring bank holiday on the last Monday in May, instead of the Monday following the Christian religious festival of Whitsun that, like Easter, moved around a bit.

We have now accounted for the four bank holidays covered by the 1871 Act plus the two common law public holidays. Two days remain.

The newest bank holidays (yes, real ones) are New Year’s Day which was added to the list 1974 and the early May one, the first Monday in May not the first day of the month, in 1978.


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