Why Britain’s days off are called bank holidays

When Britain takes a day off work, it calls the day a bank holiday. England has eight of them, Scotland has nine, and Northern Ireland has ten. Or at least, that was the 2020 count. The queen can add one if the mood takes her, and she’s done exactly that for the 70th anniversary of her queenship. 

Why don’t we get a separate count of holidays for Wales and Cornwall? Because they’re still tucked under England’s wing, and every so often, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear a bit of uncomfortable squawking and rustling under there.

Entirely relevant photo: This is Fast Eddie (in slow mode). He doesn’t have to wait for a bank holiday to take a break.

What do banks have to do with not working? 

I’m so glad you asked. Bank holidays were introduced by the first Baron of Avebury, whose real name was John Lubbock. In 1871 he drafted the Bank Holiday Bill, which true to its name had a limited scope: It was about holidays for banks and financial buildings. 

Buildings? Let’s assume they mean institutions. Buildings go on being buildings even when they’re empty and the doors are locked.

Listen, I only write this shit. I’m not what you’d call responsible for it.

If Lubbock sounds like Santa Claus, handing out days off work, he wasn’t. Bank holidays started before he came along, although I’m not sure they were called that. The Bank of England, the Exchequer, and other public offices took days off for royal events, Christian holidays, and assorted saint’s days (which I’d have lumped into the Christian Holidays category, but see above for me not being responsible). Add them all up and you got around 40 of them. 

In 1830, that was cut back to 18, then cut to 4 in 1834. But a precedent had been established.


What did Lubbocks’s act really do?

Read the small print and you discover that the act wasn’t so much about creating holidays as it was about making sure that banks didn’t get penalized for shutting down on a weekday. Any financial wheeling and dealing was postponed till the next day. Bills and promissory notes that were due on bank holidays wouldn’t be due until the next day. But in the process, it standardized the days that were protected that way.

Now can I confuse the picture for a minute? Please? 

Having told you about the many holidays banks used to take, let me quote another source that acknowledges them but also says that before the act banks couldn’t close on a weekday because they’d have been risking bankruptcy. You figure out how to fit those two together. I’m lost.

Over time, shops, schools, other businesses, and the government itself started closing down on bank holidays, but everyone still calls them bank holidays. 


A bit of background

The industrial revolution–and the act came along in the middle of it–lent some oomph to the standardization of holidays. It was cheaper for a factory to shut down on a given day, or even for a given week, than to have people wander off wherever they wanted to. 

Not that they could’ve wandered off without getting fired, mind you. But even the great industrialists–those fine folks who kept both adults and children working eighteen-hour days for the most minimal pay–couldn’t keep them working 365 days a year. Among other things, holidays had a religious origin, and theirs was still a religious culture. 

Some things, even the industrialists couldn’t face down. Religious tradition was one of them.


Enough about the holidays. Let’s talk about Lubbock

Lubbock’s other claims to fame are that he was a science writer, a banker, and a politician. We can assume it was the collision of those last two claims that led him to think of standardizing bank holidays.

His science writing was more than just a rich man’s hobby. He published books on archeology, entomology, and animal intelligence, and it was in relation to that last subject that, as you’d expect from someone so sober and well connected, he tried to teach his poodle to read flash cards. The Britannica says his book “established him as a pioneer in the field of animal behavior.” 

You can go tell that to my dogs. In spite of his experiments, they remain woefully illiterate.

In his writing on archeology, he introduced the words Paleolithic and Neolithic to the world, and in the spirit of high-minded racism, he titled his book Pre-historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. It was “probably the most influential archeological textbook of the nineteenth century.”

I don’t suppose I need to comment on that.

Having already become a baronet when his father died, he was later made a peer and took the title Lord Avebury, after the stone circle near Stonehenge that he bought in order to protect it from builders.

Okay, he bought the land it stood on. They tossed the stones in for free.

It’s a hell of a stone circle. If you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by.

A note about that newsletter I claimed I was going to send

To those of you who were kind enough to sign up for my alleged newsletter, I have to report that there won’t be one. It’s a complete flop. Or I am. I had an extended wrestling match with MailerLite and although I didn’t break any equipment or murder anyone, I did threaten all of the above. Basically, all I was going to send was an announcement that my next novel was out, and I’ll do that right here, in this very spot, about a week from now. So you didn’t miss anything anyway. 

And to those of you who didn’t sign up, weren’t you clever? 

I don’t know why I thought setting up a newsletter was a good idea anyway. It’s something that the folks who seem to know things advise writers to do. I think the idea is that if you pop up in people’s inboxes, they won’t be able to get away from you until they’ve bought your book, but we all know that’s not true. They–or you, or we–can leave any time they/you/we want. 

Besides, here I am, popping up in your inbox anyway.

57 thoughts on “Why Britain’s days off are called bank holidays

  1. A little know fact is that on the very first bank holidays even the financial buildings picked up their foundations and made their way to to the coast for a bit of a jaunt and some sea air. It is why in those old photos of victorian holidays, the seaside buildings all look so crammed in, they have to make room for their big city visitors. They were not very gracious about it tbh, which is why the practice stopped happening and big city financial buildings decided they’d be better off staying put!

    The photos of the buildings going for a splash in the sea were all destroyed because they offended the victorian sensibilities, after all their foundations were on show and that sort of thing might give people ideas!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have to tell you that Waterstones beat you to my in box on the subject of your book when they sent me a note yesterday advising me of its shipment.

    Sorry to hear you had a ‘mare with MailerLite. I tried to use the Chimp one previously, which seemed jolly easy even for a luddite like myself, but lost enthusiasm for dredging up stuff to write about. I mean, I’ll happily write about all old shite, but when I actively consider the people on the receiving end, it all goes to pot.

    Anyway, back on subject – I’m looking forward to reading the book once it makes its way through my letter box.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, that does seem like the problem with newsletters–coming up with something anyone wants to read. I’m a victim of endless political fundraising emails from the US, and they never end. Occasionally I wonder what I’d write if in some nightmare I had to do their fundraising for them. It’s always a crisis, always breaking news (usually about 2 weeks behind the actual news).

      Anyway, I’m off the topic. Thanks for ordering the book. Thanks even more for not demanding a newsletter. I think I might prefer fundraising for political candidates to working my way through MailerLite (which is supposed to be simple, by the way).

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Nothing like a little newsletter angst to snap a writer’s head into a reality check, as in why did I ever think a newsletter was a good idea in the first place…I feel your pain.
    Can’t wait for your book!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What an interesting post! Thanks for this glimpse into the past! As much as I would love to jump back to the Edwardian or Victorian times, I’m glad – most of the time – to live in this day and age with health care, social security net and 30 vacation days a year plus the bank holidays, of course. Stonehenge is impressive indeed … if there weren’t all these tourists 😁. Myself included. Which doesn’t stop me from wishing to be able to be there all alone. To just soak up the atmosphere in peace and quiet. Love the cat pic, by the way. Mine is curled up next to me right now, sleeping as well. Very looking forward to your next post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The Former Colonies venture into Bank Holidays came a couple decades ago when the Post Office decided it wanted all holidays celebrated on a Monday so that they got two days behind in delivering the mail, instead of just Sundays. There was even some thought of moving the celebrating July 4 to the closest Monday, possibly making July 7 the Fourth of July. Thankfully somebody put the kibosh on that, and the Veterans groups insisted that Veterans Day actually be on Nov. 11 (fka Armistice Day.) There are still some inconvenient ironies, such as moving ML King Jrs bday celebration to the nearest Monday, which is sometimes January 19…still celebrated in certain parts of the country as Robert E. Lee’s bithday…
    God save the Bank Holidays !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Back when I still worked and was a marginally useful member of society, I’d have supported moving any holiday to a Monday so that I’d get a long weekend. Logic, tradition, and sentiment be damned. Now I’m just an interested observer–but one who hadn’t clocked the MLK/Robert E. Lee irony. Oy vey.


    • In my family they *could* have been merged as something like “Good Misguided Men Day” if the 18th of January hadn’t been the birthday of the writer known as Grandma Bonnie Peters. That was *really* something to celebrate.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Why Britain’s days off are called bank holidays – Nelsapy

  7. I always though that Lubbock was an insult, as in “you great, swarmy Lubbock” and now I know why! We have a lot of names for holidays here: civic holidays, statutory holidays, Family Day, Remembrance Day…the list goes on. Now that I’m retired, it doesn’t get me quite as excited!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m glad your posts pop up in my Blogspot feed. WordPress links via e-mail didn’t work for me, years ago when I tried following some people that way.

    The Chimp is awful. I followed Dan Lewis’s mailings that way and one day one of them contained horrible pop-ups that disabled my browser for more than an hour.

    Twitter offered one last year…it never did work for me.

    I hated doing the Glyphosate Awareness Newsletter, hated that it was necessary, and hate that it may still be necessary to resume. Last year I considered doing a “Just the Fluff” newsletter with only the funny bits, book reviews and announcements, and recipes that balanced my soul after working on GAN. Meh. How many people want more fluff in their e-mail?


    • WP, I’m told, isn’t friendly to readers who aren’t themselves WP bloggers. I’ve given up on worrying about it, since I can’t change it. As for fluff, it’s an interesting question. Some people do want it as an antidote to the heaviness of the world.


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