This edited article about British holidays originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 734 published on 7 February 1976.
When the first Monday in August comes round, startle your friends by announcing: “Today is Saint Lubbock’s Day!”, for it would be a nice tribute to the man who gave the British their Bank Holidays.
The unofficial saint was a banker named Sir John Lubbock. Even by Victorian standards, this splendid man was very active, in Parliament and as a scientist as well as in banking. His sensational innovation got through Parliament in 1871, and August Bank Holiday, always on the first Monday of the month until recently, was the one that got him an honorary sainthood from the public, perhaps because it broke up the horribly long gap between Whitsun and Christmas.
It is often thought that until that gala year workers had only Christmas Day and Sundays off, which is untrue. Certainly, early in the century, as the Industrial Revolution enslaved so many workers in grim factories, holidays had been almost non-existent, unlike previous centuries when there had been a number of festivals which rated as holiday time. But gradually many employers allowed their workers some holiday time.
The North began the Wakes Week break, while in the Manchester area many workers were let off in Whitsun Races week on Kersal Moor. Fairs in cities, too, often had an employer giving his men a day off. Of course, there were too few such days, even when the habit of giving men Saturday afternoon off grew from mid-century onwards, but the breaks existed. So why was a Bank Holiday Act needed?
The answer is simple and perhaps surprising; it was for the benefit of the white collar workers – bank clerks, shop assistants and clerical workers generally, also for farm workers. It was they who benefitted most and descended on many a seaside town in excursion trains in vast numbers.
A full 30 years before Sir John Lubbock helped the seaside industry in particular and white collar workers in general, an historic event had occurred. On July 5, 1841, Mr. Thomas Cook, whose name is now known the world over, conducted his very first tour, arranging an excursion for all of eleven miles from Leicester to Loughborough on a special Midland Railway train.
His party was not a group of jolly trippers but a band of temperance demonstrators bound for a rally to proclaim the evils of the Demon Drink, a fair subject in those times when drunkenness was almost as much a national vice as it had been in the 18th century.
A full 500 people bought tickets, at a shilling for a return, children being allowed half price. There were some 20 open carriages, nicknamed “tubs”, and a band went along, too. At Loughborough another band was brought into action, and every street was crowded, every window filled and even suitable housetops were alive with viewers, who cheered the daring travellers to the echo. A new off-duty activity was away to a flying start.
The new habit grew, and in July 1855 there was another breakthrough, for Thomas Cook took his first party to the Continent for a very busy fortnight which embraced the Rhine, Frankfurt and Paris. But such a trip was for the well-to-do, not the millions who lived to bless Lubbock. All the holidays were welcome, but it was the August one that captured the imaginations of so many. It meant so much in an age when the idea of holidays was a new one.
The Saturday half-holidays, as we shall see next week in our final glimpse of Britain off duty, were a boon to sports lovers, but August Bank Holiday was sacred to the family and to every working man or woman who could get away. And getting away meant different things in different parts of the country.
Lancashire and Derby folk headed for North Wales, Southport and Blackpool, and all round Britain the pattern was repeated, for the railway builders had done their work well and there was a holiday resort for every man and woman who did their best to leave home early and reach the longed-for beach by nine.
Others headed for fairs, like the famous one on Hampstead Heath, where there were now splendid steam-driven roundabouts, swing-boats and switchbacks to gladden those who had already patronised the fortune-teller, the shooting galleries, peep-shows and coconut shies. Whit Monday on Hampstead heath was a famous Victorian scene, though more sober citizens might prefer their children to visit Madam Tussaud’s Waxworks, or go to a concert of sacred music.
Yet the greatest of all spectacles in Victorian Britain was not to be seen on a Bank Holiday, but on Epsom Downs on Derby Day.
Readers will recall the tragic division of classes that occurred in Britain early in the century when the Industrial Revolution was getting under way. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, but, worse, a great gulf yawned between the two, and snobbery became rampant to a disgusting degree.
Happily, on Derby Day the gulf disappeared and all classes mingled, surprised to see each other at close quarters perhaps, but interested. And everyone was determined to have a good time. That greatest of all “photographic” narrative paintings, Frith’s “Derby Day”, alive with detail of Britain on parade, proves this as much as any of the published accounts of it.
The very journey there was part of the general excitement, and excitement mounted with the miles. So did the noise, for everyone – in carriages, donkey carts and every other sort of vehicle – seemed to be laughing and joking or shouting with joy.
Every village was crowded with smiling viewers of the colourful scene, and every village green had its bevy of pretty girls in their best clothes. There was no Victorian stuffiness on that enchanted day, for just for once it was not “not done” to wave back at kisses blown and hands waved in a girl’s direction. Naturally, schoolboys were allowed out of their classrooms to watch the folk go by.
The traffic jams were frightful, the pubs were packed along the route, but finally Epsom Downs were reached and the real carnival began. There were swells and their ladies picnicking on top of their carriages; there was all the fun of the fair; and there were the bookies, who were doing a roaring trade, for the British were as gambling mad as their ancestors – and descendants. Music filled the air; the songs of comic minstrels, the sounds of banjoes and bagpipes, complete with Highland lassies dancing to their lovely wailing native sounds.
There were even, a few who viewed the proceedings with horror, if the dismal American clergyman who was at Epsom in 1840 is anything to go by. In his account of his trip that he wrote home he consigned all and sundry to Hell – the rich, the rope-dancers, the poor, the “various kinds of gamesters”. As for the splendid booths and pavilions that “contained the appliances and paraphernalia of gambling and carousing on the most extended scale”, they seemed to him to sum up the world’s “varied allurements of sin.”
After the races, when carrier pigeons had headed across the nation bearing the results in the fastest way possible, the vast throng, many less sober than they had been, gave themselves over to the carnival spirit even more joyously until it was at last time to wend their way home.
A French visitor one year had a friend who stayed until midnight and saw “many horrors which I cannot describe”. Maybe. The happy fact remains that Derby Day was the off-duty treat to end all treats, a folk festival that recalled Merry England when festivals were not few and far between. Even today the words “Derby Day” have a thrilling sound: then, they were very heaven.
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