Why do we have a bank holiday at the end of August? This came up in conversation in the pub the other day; I reckoned that it was something to do with the Heath government but that was just a guess because I thought I knew that that administration had designated May Day as a public holiday.
Evidently I needed to do a bit of research on this.
Some of our public holidays - Christmas Day, Good Friday - correspond with religious festivals, which is appropriate as the word 'holiday' derives from 'holy day'. The idea of a bank holiday - a day other than Sunday on which the banks don't open, effectively forcing other businesses to do the same - is a Victorian one, and they were legislated by the 1871 Bank Holidays Act. This specified that in addition to Christmas and Good Friday (which it was felt didn't have to be included as they were traditional days of rest), Easter Monday, Whit Monday (the day after Pentecost, also known as Whitsun) the first Monday in August and Boxing Day would be days on which people in England and Wales wouldn't have to work.
It is said that the MP responsible for this Act, Sir John Lubbock, chose the date for the August one because it coincided with an important cricket match. Lubbock lived in Kent, and Canterbury Cricket Week was (and still is) usually held in the first week of August, so this is just about plausible.
In 1965, the Wilson government decided to trial moving the August bank holiday to the end of August, possibly because the one at the beginning of the month invariably coincided with the traditional two-week summer shutdown of major industries. This was done on an ad-hoc basis until 1971 when the Banking & Financial Dealings Act was passed (so my guess about the Heath government was right, albeit not for the reason I had assumed). As well as officially replacing Whit Monday with the Spring Bank Holiday (fixed as the last Monday in May, the date of Pentecost being dependent on when Easter is), it specified that the August one should be on the last Monday in August as far as England, Wales and Northern Ireland are concerned. Scotland still does the first Monday in August.
As for the others, New Years' Day became a public holiday for all of the United Kingdom in 1974 (it had already been a public holiday in Scotland), and in 1978 the Early Spring Bank Holiday (the first Monday in May - to all intents and purposes, May Day; so that one was the Callaghan government) was added to the list as well.
So ... the August Bank Holiday. Possibly created so a Victorian MP could go and watch cricket, possibly switched so that it didn't coincide with a time when a lot of people weren't working anyway, and different depending on where you are in the country.