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Why Do Brits Have Bank Holidays?

We’ve just had a bank holiday, and we don’t have long to wait until the next: the ‘spring bank holiday’, as it’s known, will take place on Monday 25th May! But where did the phrase come from – and are bank holidays set in stone, or can they change?

What is a Bank Holiday?

Simply put, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, a bank holiday is a type of public holiday – a day on which many businesses, including banks, are shut. Not all public holidays are bank holidays, though: Good Friday and Christmas Day, for example, are ‘common law’ holidays. The term ‘bank holiday’ was first used by Sir John Lubbock, a politician and baronet, who felt that a special name was needed to differentiate the types of public holiday.

A close up of a May Pole, which is a traditional feature in May Day celebrations (the first bank holiday in May).

The History of Bank Holidays

Rather amazingly, before the 1830s, British banks closed their doors to mark a huge number of special days: around 33 saints’ days and religious festivals.

In 1871, Sir John Lubbock introduced the concept of bank holidays via an official Act of Parliament. The Bank Holidays Act designated four official holidays in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and five in Scotland. These were as follows: Easter Monday, the first Monday in August, Boxing Day (26th December), and Whit Monday. Scotland’s rules were slightly different (their five days were Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Good Friday, the first Monday in May, and the first Monday in August). In England, Wales and Ireland, Good Friday and Christmas Day were deemed ‘common law’ holidays – traditional days of rest – so there was no need to include them in the act.

There are two interesting rumours from this interesting time in parliament. First, Sir John Lubbock was apparently a huge cricket fan, and it has been alleged that he chose bank holiday days that fell on the same dates as the home fixtures of his local village team. Second, the implementation of bank holidays was such a popular notion that there was a movement to christen one of the bank holidays (August) ‘St. Lubbock’s Day’ after Sir John!

In 1971, the Bank Holidays Act was superseded by the Banking and Financial Dealings Act, which remains in place to this day. The act recognises eight public holidays in England and Wales; nine in Scotland; and ten in Northern Ireland. If a bank holiday date falls on a weekend, a 'substitute' day becomes a bank holiday.

At one time, every commercial premises closed on a bank holiday; not just banks, but also shops, offices, and leisure centres. Now, it’s common for many businesses to remain open in some capacity. This can be very handy if you need to pop out for a pint of milk or essential supplies on a public holiday – but do take care on Christmas Day or Easter Sunday, because these are the two days on which almost every UK business shuts up shop.

Can Bank Holidays be Changed?

2020 has been an unprecedented year in many ways, not least because one of the UK’s early bank holidays, May Day, which traditionally takes place on the first Monday in May, was moved to Friday 8th May. This change was made by the government to mark the 75th anniversary of ‘Victory in Europe’ Day, the day on which Nazi Germany surrendered (effectively ending the Second World War in Europe).

Bank holidays can only be officially altered by Royal Proclamation. The Queen is able to enforce date changes to existing bank holidays and also introduce extra bank holidays to commemorate special events (in celebration of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011, for example, and to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 2012). Interestingly, the last time the early May bank holiday was moved was in 1995, and again, this was in honour of VE Day (it was moved from the first to the second Monday in May in order to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Germany’s surrender).

Bank Holidays in 2020

New Year’s Day. Wednesday 1 January
New Year’s Holiday. Thursday 2 January (Scotland)
St Patrick’s Day. Tuesday 17 March (Northern Ireland)
Good Friday. Friday 10 April
Easter Monday. Monday 13 April (England, Wales and Northern Ireland)
Early May bank holiday. Friday 8 May
Spring bank holiday. Monday 25 May
Battle of the Boyne. Monday 13 July (Northern Ireland)
Summer bank holiday. Monday 3 August (Scotland)
Summer bank holiday. Monday 31 August (England, Wales and Northern Ireland)
St Andrew’s Day. Monday 30 November (Scotland)
Christmas Day. Friday 25 December
Boxing Day. Monday 28 December

Are you already daydreaming about the next bank holiday? Or perhaps you know a little-known fact about something quintessentially British? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook or Twitter!