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When's your Wakes Week?

12:00am | & News

If you're retired, or don't have the responsibility of dependent children, chances are you can take your summer holidays whenever you like. If you do have children then you're probably tied to the school holidays, but not too long ago many Brits had no choice over when to take their annual summer break.

Across the North of England, into the Midlands and up into Scotland, workers in the mills and factories downed tools and headed for the seaside on whichever was their town's "Wakes Week".

Originally a religious celebration or feast, the tradition of the Wakes Week was adapted to create a uniform pattern of workers' holidays in heavily industrialised areas of the country throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. Each locality nominated a Wakes Week during which the local factories, collieries or other industries would close down. Originally these were unpaid holidays when the mills and factories closed for maintenance.

Over time distinctive patterns developed which enable the bulk of an industry to keep running while a part of it had a break. For example, in Lancashire's thriving textile industry, each of the major mill towns took its Wakes Week holiday on a different week, roughly between June and September. It meant that on any given week in that period one town would be on holiday and effectively 'shut down' while the rest kept working.

Initially the Wakes Weeks offered little more than seven days' free time, away from the daily grind of the workplace, although there might be church picnics, country walks or sports days. Since the holiday was unpaid many were even glad to return to their work and wage. But as the railway network grew, later bolstered by motorised charabancs, the opportunity came for eagerly anticipated day trips. These were often to the seaside, where bathing in the sea was believed to have significant health benefits.

From the last quarter of the 19th century, these day trips were extended to a full week away, with many mills and factories setting up "Wakes Saving" of "Going Off" clubs so workers could save all year to pay for their week away.

In Lancashire the favourite destination was Blackpool, which flourished as a holiday town filled with "bed and breakfast" establishments. The slightly better off headed to Southport, while workers from the West Yorkshire textile towns favoured Morecambe or headed to Scarborough on the east coast.

While these holiday towns were jam-packed throughout the summer months, the usually bustling industrial communities became practically ghost towns during their particular Wakes Week. It wasn't just the mills and factories that closed; with the workers away at the seaside there was no point opening shops and other small local businesses, so they took their holiday at Wakes Week too.

Any stranger arriving in a northern mill town during its Wakes Week would be forgiven for thinking there had been some great catastrophe which had caused the entire population to flee en masse!

The approach of a town's Wakes Week was met with growing excitement, with special trains and charabancs laid on to transport the townsfolk to the seaside. Imagine going on holiday with every family from your street, let alone your town!

Of course, it was all over too quickly and back to work while another nearby town started its Wakes Week. Some towns complained that their particular week was always blighted with poor weather and there were even campaigns to rotate the Wakes Weeks for towns within a particular district, but they came to nothing.

For the mill owners it was a good thing to have the certainty of knowing exactly which week each year you could close your business. It allowed them to plan ahead, to make sure they had enough stock in hand to cover the fallow week, and to organise essential maintenance including an annual service of vital machinery such as the steam powered mill engines. In many towns these maintenance crews were the only people left working during Wakes Week, and too often they couldn't even find a pub open to slake their thirst after a hard day's graft!

As the old industries gradually died out, so did the tradition of Wakes Weeks, though it lingered on in many communities. Before school holiday times were largely standardised, many local areas' school holidays reflected their traditional Wakes Week. Even now, some former mill and factory towns are unusually quiet during one particular week or fortnight of the summer. Old habits die hard! 

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