The first Monday in August used to be Bank Holiday Monday, the high point of the summer holiday season for many English people. (But not all; parts of the North of England and the Midlands had different traditional holiday arrangements.)
Christmas Day, Good Friday and Whit Monday had traditionally been observed as holidays in England. It was said that ‘Saint Monday’ was also widely observed by the English labouring classes.
In 1871 the government passed the Bank Holidays Act, which added 26th December (Boxing Day), Easter Monday, and a new holiday, the first Monday in August, to the existing traditional days. Banks would be closed, and so any business involving financial transactions would perforce have to close also.
According to The Times, the ‘holyday’ was devised for the benefit of the lower middle class, who inhabited ‘the rows of small houses which extend for miles through the suburbs of London,’ from among whom ‘the vast army of bank clerks’ was drawn. Hitherto they had been overlooked by legislators and philanthropists. ‘It is not for them that taxes have been taken off, schools founded, or suffrages extended.’
The new holiday was an immediate success. The Times reported that ’the early morning trains to the country and the Southern seaside resorts were crowded and the favourite exhibitions in London were frequented by innumerable sightseers.’
The local newspaper in one south eastern seaside resort reported ‘we are overcrowded, invaded and threatened with famine … On Saturday, Sunday and Monday last every nook and corner was filled. In vain respectable people applied for lodgings …. Monday was a holiday under the new Act and we had forgotten all about it. Our rooms were not reserved, our bread and beef had been supplied only in the customary quantities. When the rush of excursionists came - over 700 in one train - we were overwhelmed and the excursionists were starved.’
It was said that in London neither the railway companies nor the steamboat companies could cope with the rush to the seaside that weekend. Passengers on boats were packed like sardines, all the food on board being sold out within ten minutes. Travellers arriving at Charing Cross at eight o’clock in the morning had to wait two hours to get on a train.
England might stop on a Bank Holiday weekend, but world events did not. Bank Holiday Monday in 1914 was 3rd August. On that day Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The British government declared that the banks would remain closed the following day also, in order to avoid a financial panic.
As paid holidays became the norm, Bank Holidays became less significant. But the first weekend in August remained the time when many people took their two weeks summer holiday. As car ownership became more common, for many the Saturday of the Bank Holiday weekend was notable for the hours spent sitting in traffic jams.
In 1965, in an attempt to spread the holiday rush more evenly, the Bank Holiday was moved to the last Monday in August, initially on an experimental basis. The change was made permanent in 1971, one hundred years after the holiday was first introduced. Also in the early 1970s, the advent of the cheap package holiday to Spain changed the English holiday trade forever, and marked the end of prosperity for many English seaside resorts.