Monday, 29 August 2011

Bank Holidays

I have been reminded of the fact that when the August Bank Holiday Act was before the House it was objected to on the ground that if working people enjoyed a holiday they would get drunk and be unfit for work for several days. It is well within the recollection of the House that newspapers seemed to take a joy after the Bank Holiday in publishing the number of drunks and comparing the number with previous holidays. (Mr. Creech Jones, Hansard, 6 April 1938)

Today is a bank holiday, which according to the following definition is as follows:

Bank holiday (society): An official state or public holiday on a weekday (except Saturdays and Sundays) when most public facilities and offices, shops and factories are closed. The current bank holidays in England and Wales are New Year's Day (or the first weekday following it); Good Friday; Easter Monday; the first Monday in May (May Day Bank Holiday which may be abolished soon); the last Monday in May (Spring Bank Holiday); the last Monday in August (Summer Bank Holiday or August Bank Holiday); Christmas Day (or the Monday after it, if it is a Saturday or Sunday); and Boxing Day (or the next weekday after Christmas Day). There are some different bank holidays in Scotland (such as August Bank Holiday on the first Monday in August) and Northern Ireland. (1)

But how did bank holidays come about? The increasingly urban society of the late 19th century expanded the amount of leisure activities enormously, both intellectual pursuits and sports. Factory time may have been longer than we are used to, but the regulation of time meant that there were fixed times without work for many people, and a clear demarcation between work time and leisure time.

In contrast, the mainly rural population that had existed before the industrial revolution had their own seasonal festivals at slacker times of the year, but the persistent nature of farming activities meant that spare time was unregulated in the same way. The loss of the rural festivities also meant that there was no equivalent time off for the urban population. In 1834 most of the rural festivities were culled from 33 holidays to just 4.

The 1871 Bank Holiday Act was introduced by Sir John Lubbock, President of the Institute of Bankers and Liberal M.P.

On Motion of Sir JOHN LUBBOCK, Bill to make provision for Bank Holidays, and respecting Bills of Exchange and Promissory Notes payable on Bank Holidays, ordered to be brought in by Sir 662 JOHN LUBBOCK, Sir DAVID SALMONS, Mr. BARNETT, and Mr. RATHBONE.[21 February 1871 ]

This established established Boxing Day, Easter Monday, Whit Monday and the first Monday in August as bank (i.e. public) holidays, and an amendment by Lord Colonsay "he proposed to introduce Good Friday, which was already observed to a great extent as a bank holiday" which was accepted.

The result of the increased leisure can be seen in a mention of Kew Gardens in 1879 as a popular venue for visitors at bank holidays::

On the occasion of two Bank holidays last year close upon 60,000 visitors entered the Gardens in one day. One proof that good had been done by the movement for extending the hours during which the Gardens were open to the public was afforded by the fact that on Bank holidays the Gardens were now open at 10 o'clock, instead of 1 o'clock, as was formerly the case. That the change was appreciated was shown by the circumstance that on Easter Monday 4,000 people, and on Whit Monday 5,000 people, entered the Gardens before 1 o'clock.

The Bank Holiday Act was to the subject of a highly topical reference in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience - "A steady and stolid-y, jolly Bank-holiday", and is also referenced in Ruddigore:

ROB. Really, I don't know what you'd have. I've only been a bad baronet a week, and I've committed a crime punctually every day.
SIR ROD. Let us inquire into this. Monday?
ROB. Monday was a Bank Holiday.
SIR ROD. True. Tuesday? 215
ROB. On. Tuesday I made a false income-tax return.
ALL. Ha! ha!
IST GHOST. That's nothing.
2ND GHOST. Nothing at all.
3RD GHOST. Everybody does that. 220
4TH GHOST. It's expected of you.

Part of the reason often cited for the bank holidays is that Lubbock was a keen cricketer and selected the extra days (apart from Christmas and Easter) to be suitable for matches, traditionally played in Whitsun and early August. The last Monday in August was formally made a bank holiday in place of the first Monday in August in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1971.

But there was also pressure for reform in worker's conditions from the Chartist movement, which had come into being after the 1832 Reforms produced a singular lack of suffrage for the ordinary working class man. The increase in leisure pursuits available because of statutory holidays meant that employees would seek enjoyable distractions in preference to political reform, and it relieved the political pressures on reform. Other provisions such as the earlier Factory Acts of 1850 and 1853 had already brought about early closing on Saturdays to many factories. By 1874, a full Saturday half-holiday was normal. Workers conditions were improving, but paid holidays outside of bank holidays were still some time off.

The Bank Holiday Acts of 1871 and 1875, which came to guarantee four free Mondays in the year including the first Monday in August, were of no importance here, although they did help to open out summer holiday opportunities in parts of the country where the older holidays had not survived. Paid holidays for manual workers before the First World War were offered by only a few paternalistic or enlightened employers, and although they spread gradually through the inter-war years a compulsory Holidays with Pay Act was not passed until 1938, and did not become effective until after the Second World War, when English seaside resorts had a particularly prosperous couple of decades, before generally failing to meet the challenge of new opportunities and new destinations.(3)

A bank holiday is primarily a day in which banks close and there were several extraordinary bank holidays which came about because of the banking crisis in the 1930s, when banks were failing. The first took place in Germany and Austria in 1931, where the banks were failing because of the withdrawal by American and other foreign investors of liquid deposits, 'hot money' in flight and also a "sharp decline in the value of their medium- and long-term loans to and shares in shaky industrial customers." This seems almost a modern scenario, and as today, required international efforts to stave off a domino effect across the world's banking systems:

The first to collapse was the Creditanstalt, Austria's largest bank, which closed its doors on 11 May 1931. The panic spread quickly to involve the big German banks, the most vulnerable of which, the Darmstädter and National Bank (the 'Danat'), closed on 13 July 1931. The Austrian bank was reopened only after an international rescue operation had been arranged by Montagu Norman. To forestall a run on the other German banks an extended Bank Holiday was announced, lasting for a fortnight, with the German banks eventually opening again on 5 August. In the mean time an international financial conference was held in London from 21 to 23 July, at which US President Hoover proposed a one-year moratorium on international political debts, including German reparations. Despite strong French reluctance (since they rightly, if prematurely, feared a German-Austrian 'Anschluss'), this was accepted, providing a basis for the almost-final settlement of reparations and inter-Allied war debts and giving time for the German authorities to prepare plans for strengthening their perilous banking system. (4)

Later, in 1933, in America, 10 days of bank holidays were brought in to give another breathing space for the banks:

Franklin D. Roosevelt's first action on becoming President on Saturday 4 March 1933 was to declare a national Bank Holiday from Monday 6 March. Every bank in the country, including even the Federal Reserve Banks, were thus closed and allowed to reopen only after a special investigating team, hurriedly rushed into action, had declared each bank to be solvent. A number of States had already declared partial Bank Holidays, but this was the first time in American history for such a complete stoppage to occur in the country's main monetary artery, and the natural domino effect of the increasing rate of bank failures was brought at a stroke to its logical conclusion by presidential decree as a necessary prelude to enforced reform of the whole financial system. The world's largest economy was thus virtually bankless for at least ten days. More than $30 billion of bank deposits, in a country more dependent on such deposits than any other, were thus temporarily immobilized, causing a desperate money shortage which the almost simultaneous increase of around $1 billion in notes did little to alleviate. (5)

Other bank holidays have been declared on special occasions, notably for Royal Weddings ,although Gladstone was singularly unmoved by this argument in 1893 (the future George V and Mary of Teck)

HC Deb 22 June 1893 vol 13 c1679 1679

COLONEL HOWARD VINCENT I beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury if his attention has been directed to the express terms of the 4th section of the Bank Holiday Act (34 & 35 Vict,, c. 17), authorising the proclamation of a close holiday in all banks in any particular county, city, borough, or district of the United Kingdom, without reference to any other part of the country in which such holiday is not desired; and if the Government can be induced to re-consider its refusal to take the steps necessary to secure freedom from ordinary work for the bank clerks and other officials in places like Sheffield, wherein, by popular desire and civic authority, the Royal Wedding Day is to be observed by all other classes of the community, and not least of all by working men, as a day of general rejoicing?

THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (MR. W. E. Gladstone,) Edinburgh, Midlothian I believe, Sir, that the hon. Gentleman is correct in his reference to the Bank Holiday Act. In cases of local holidays we have had no representation whatever from the Local Authorities that it would be, in their judgment, desirable to arrest the action of the banks on those days, and we certainly could not deem it to be our duty to consider that question except on the motion of the Local Authorities.

Not to be outdone, the good Colonel (who reminds me of a States Deputy) raised the spectre of "sinister effect", but to no avail:

COLONEL HOWARD VINCENT (Sheffield, Central) I beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury if the Government is still determined not to afford banks the necessary legal facilities for closing and deferring their financial obligations on the day of the Royal Wedding, notwithstanding the repeated representations as to the sinister effect of such refusal, the danger to public property thereby involved, and notwithstanding that the 4th section of the Bank Holiday Act expressly enables the required Order in Council to have purely local application, and imposes no obligation upon any factory, shop, or establishment other than a bank in such locality to suspend for a moment its operations?

MR. CREMER (Shoreditch, Haggerston) May I ask whether the Government are in possession of any information which justifies the statement of the hon. and gallant Member in the question as to danger to public property?

MR. W. E. GLADSTONE In answer to the hon. Member for Shoreditch, I have to say that the Government have no information to the effect to which he refers. In regard to the question of the hon. and gallant Member for Sheffield, I would remind him that only a few days ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer fully explained the views of the Government on the matter. I have nothing to add.

(1) A Dictionary of British Institutions: A Student's Guide. John Oakland, 1993, p14
(2) British History, 1815-1906. Norman McCord, 1991
(3) The Oxford Companion to British History. John Cannon, 1997, p.484
(4) A History of Money: From Ancient Times to the Present Day. Glyn Davies, 2002
(5) A History of Money: From Ancient Times to the Present Day. Glyn Davies, 2002

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