The happy history of Bank Holidays

PORTH DINLLAENNamed after days when banks were shut, so that no trading could take place, Bank Holidays in Britain first became official public holidays in 1871.

Prior to that however, in the Nineteenth Century there had already been thirty three religious festivals for which the banks had closed and people had consequently had a day off. In 1834 this was reduced to just four days a year, May Day, All Saints Day, Good Friday, and Christmas Day.

It wasn’t until 1871 that these free days officially became known as Bank Holidays. Introduced by the Liberal politician Sir John Lubbock, the Act stated that “no person was compelled to make any payment or to do any act upon a bank holiday which he would not be compelled to do or make on Christmas Day or Good Friday, and the making of a payment or the doing of an act on the following day was equivalent to doing it on the holiday.”

This first Bank Holiday Act designated four holidays in England, Wales and Ireland, (Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day). In Scotland five Bank Holidays were allotted, on New Year’s Day, Good Friday, the first Monday in May, the first Monday in August, and Christmas Day.

Over time the Bank Holiday days have changed and been added to. In 1903, St Patrick’s Day (17th March) became an Irish Bank Holiday, and in 1971 the Whit Monday Holiday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was given the fixed date of the last Monday in May, as Whitsun can fall anywhere between 11 May and 14 June.

In 1973, the last Monday in August replaced the first Monday in August as a Bank Holiday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the 2nd January became an additional bank holiday in Scotland. The following year, New Year’s Day was added to the Bank Holiday list in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Boxing Day became an additional bank holiday in Scotland.

Bank Holidays are still continuing to evolve, as recently as January 2007, the St Andrew’s Day Bank Holiday (Scotland) Act 2007 was given Royal Assent, making 30 November (or the nearest Monday if a weekend) a Bank Holiday in Scotland.

There are currently eight Bank Holidays in England, Wales and Scotland, and ten in Northern Ireland, but with campaigns running to make St George’s Day and St David’s Day Bank Holidays, there could soon be two more!

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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