Thanks for our bank holidays, “Saint” John…

Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons tells us about the extraordinary life of the MP responsible for our day off today – Sir John Lubbock…

Those enjoying a leisurely Bank Holiday today have a John_Lubbock72remarkable Victorian MP to thank. Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913), who died 100 years ago tomorrow (29 May), was responsible for the 1871 Bank Holidays Act, which created four Bank Holidays: Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. A prominent banker, Lubbock was Liberal MP for Maidstone from 1870 until 1880, and then represented the London University seat from 1880 until 1900. In his honour, these new holidays were sometimes referred to as ‘Saint Lubbock’s Days’.

The first new holiday to be held under the Act was in August 1871. (Whit Monday, the first holiday that year to which Lubbock’s Act applied, had already been a traditional holiday for many.) Reynolds’s Newspaper reported that ‘the name of Sir John Lubbock and the first Monday in August will henceforth be associated with pleasant recollections in the minds of the clerks of the bankers, brokers, merchants, and traders of the City of London’. Although government offices remained open, warehouses, offices, factories and many shops also closed. Four times as many trains as usual left from London for the Kent seaside towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Dover. Towns along the river Thames and attractions such as London Zoo also proved popular destinations. The newspaper was pleased to note that there was ‘not a tipsy or ill-conducted person’ to be seen among the ‘holiday folk’ returning home at the end of the day! It was not a universal holiday: in Manchester the banks and warehouses closed but the cotton mills remained open, and ‘the industrial classes generally were at work as usual’. However, the nation’s bank clerks showed their gratitude for their extra days of rest by subscribing to a testimonial for Lubbock, who used their gift to fund two school scholarships.

John_lubbock_cartoonLubbock himself would have had little difficulty in finding something to occupy his time on a Bank Holiday. An energetic polymath, he had an extensive range of interests. He was a friend and neighbour of Charles Darwin, under whose influence he took a particular interest in the study of insects. This led him to keep a rather unusual pet, a wasp, which he had caught in the Pyrenees. It lived for around nine or ten months, and is preserved at the Natural History Museum. Lubbock’s observations of his pet were included in his 1882 book on Ants, Bees and Wasps, just one of the many scientific publications he produced. He also wrote about his efforts to teach his poodle to read! He was appointed as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1858.

In 1900 Lubbock was elevated to the peerage, taking the title Lord Avebury. This reflected another of his passions: the preservation of ancient monuments, among them the stone circles at Avebury which he helped to save for the nation. His persistent lobbying on this issue was largely responsible for the passing of the Ancient Monuments Act by Gladstone’s government in 1882. Alongside his wide-ranging scientific and historical interests, Lubbock was a member of the London County Council. A keen proponent of proportional representation, he founded the Proportional Representation Society (now the Electoral Reform Society) in 1884. He has been aptly described by one of his biographers as ‘a man of universal mind’. Happy Saint Lubbock’s Day!

Further reading: Mark Patton. Science, Politics and Business in the Work of Sir John Lubbock. A Man of Universal Mind (2007)


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