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Why do we have bank holidays?

12:00am & News

Are you enjoying your Bank Holiday Monday?

For people in employment, bank holidays represent eagerly anticipated extra leisure days, although there is no automatic right to time off on these days. Many occupations require people to work on bank holidays, although their dedication is usually recognised with extra pay or time off in lieu, or both.

But what is the origin of bank holidays and who decides how many we should have or when they should fall?

The first official bank holidays for England, Wales and Ireland were the four days named in the Bank Holidays Act 1871 – Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. This Act did not include Good Friday and Christmas Day as they were already recognised as common law holidays (holy days), and so it was felt there was no need to include them.

As their name suggests, bank holidays were days when the banks would remain closed. Because that made trading difficult for many other businesses, they also stayed shut, with their employees given the day off, so bank holidays effectively became public holidays.

Until 1834, the Bank of England observed about 33 saints' days and religious festivals as holidays, but in that year it was reduced to four – May 1st (May Day), November 1st (All Saints' Day), Good Friday and Christmas Day. Not all banks followed suit so the 1871 Act, introduced by banker and Liberal politician Sir John Lubbock, was designed to regulate and regularise the system.

People were so grateful for these officially recognised holidays that for a time they were called "St Lubbock's Days"! Scotland, which had its own distinct traditions such as Hogmanay, had five days under the Act, which were New Year's Day, Good Friday, the first Mondays in May and August, and Christmas Day.

Today's August Bank Holiday at the end of the month was introduced in 1965 on an experimental basis, designed to "give a lead in extending British holidays over a longer summer period".

The bank holidays we currently have were more or less set out a full century after the 1871 Act, in the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971, with a few amendments since then. Under the 1971 Act bank holidays are determined each year by the legal device of a royal proclamation. It allows bank holidays to be 'moved' so that they are not lost in years when they would fall on a weekend. For example, this year's bank holiday for Christmas Day (which falls on a Sunday) will be on Tuesday December 27th.

Under the current arrangements England and Wales have eight bank holidays per year. Scotland and the Republic of Ireland each have nine while Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man each have 10. St Patrick's Day and St Andrew's Day are both bank holidays in Ireland and Scotland respectively, leading to calls in recent years for an extra bank holiday in England on or close to St George's Day (April 23rd), and in Wales on or close to St David's Day (March 1st).

There has also been talk in recent years of moving the May Day bank holiday (first Monday in May) to late October and celebrating it as "UK Day" or "Trafalgar Day". This would break up the cluster of four bank holidays around Easter and May and give one in the last third of the year, which currently has none between the end of August and Christmas (except St Andrew's Day in Scotland and the last Monday in October in the Republic of Ireland).

It is also possible to declare additional one-off bank holidays to mark special events judged to be of national importance. The most recent of these was on April 29th, 2011, for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

But as things stand your next bank holiday for England and Wales won't come until Christmas, so you'd better make the most of today!

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The Arthritis Foundation's Ease-of-Use Commendation

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