31.8.15

Bank holidays

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. 

24.8.15

London Canadian

Following on from my spotting evidence of a Canadian presence in the City, I was inspired to track down more about London’s Canadian heritage. My findings can be read on Londonist via this link:


23.8.15

The big charter

In many ways, it is a document that made history. In June 1215 in a muddy field by the Thames just outside Windsor, King John affixed his seal to an agreement known by its Latin name, Magna Carta (literally, 'big charter').

At the time, it was essentially a peace treaty; John was widely discredited by 1215, having lost Normandy eleven years earlier and subsequently levied excessive taxes to fund his unsuccessful attempts to get it back. His barons were in open revolt, and faced with the prospect of a French invasion John had little option but to agree to their demands. The charter that he sealed (not signed) regulated the administration of justice and established the principle of due legal process. 

John, of course, was not one of England's more reliable kings and he went back on his word as soon as he could. What saved Magna Carta was his death a year later; after that, a revised version was issued to win support for the new King, Henry III, who was just nine years old. Subsequent reissues in 1217 and 1225 ensured that Magna Carta was imprinted on the consciousness of the nation; among its key points were the right to a fair trial - which is still on the statute books to this day: 

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land."

This was one of the first steps taken in England towards the establishment of parliamentary democracy. Over time, it was used by those wishing to restrain royal power (those who drew up the Petition of Right and the Grand Remonstrance in the run-up to the Civil War were inspired by it, and it was cited at Charles I's trial), and it greatly influenced the American colonists' Declaration of Independence in 1776. In the twentieth century it inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its influence has been truly widespread, to the extent that it is said to compete with the English language as this country's greatest export.

To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, there is an exhibition at the British Library which includes the four original surviving copies and looks it its long legacy. It's definitely worth going to see, although it closes at the end of the month. Go now, while you still have the chance.

16.8.15

Two of London's more unexpected statues

London has many, many statues. Some are famous, some are old, and some are just plain weird. Then there are those that you wouldn't expect; did you know, for example, that London's most famous square contains the statue of a man who fought a war against Britain, and the statue of one of our least successful kings?

You may not have noticed them on Trafalgar Square, the most famous statue on which is Lord Nelson on top of his column with the four lions to guard him at the base. Then there are the two Victorian generals whose names no-one remembers (Charles Napier and Henry Havelock) and the equestrian statue of George IV; that last one was meant to have been complemented by a similar statue of his brother, William IV, but after he died there wasn't any money for an equestrian statue - the result being the famously vacant fourth plinth which has of late been occupied by various works of modern art (my favourite was the time when members of the public were able to apply for hour-long slots on it - one bloke apparently took a chair and a newspaper up with him and just sat and read the paper for his allotted time).

The two statues that I'm interested in here are right at the back, so much so that it would probably be more accurate to say that they're in front of the National Gallery rather than on Trafalgar Square (indeed, we probably wouldn't have said that they were on the square at all before the north end got pedestrianised). 

The first, up in the north-eastern corner, is of the man who fought a war against Britain: George Washington. This, which probably really surprises the American tourists who notice it, was given to Britain by the "Commonwealth of Virginia" (so it says on the plinth, a reminder that not all of the United States officially refer to themselves as states) in 1921, and it's one of many copies of the Washington statue by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon which stands in Richmond, Virginia. Apparently it came with some soil from Virginia, because the first President had vowed that he would never set foot on British soil and it was felt that erecting a statue of him in Britain would violate that promise, so the statue actually stands on American mud.



It may seem odd to have a statue of a man who fought a war against this country in the capital city's most famous public space, but there is a certain mad logic to it. After all, at the time not everyone in Britain supported war against the Colonists; in fact, it divided political opinion as much as Iraq has done in more recent times. Some thought that the Colonists were onto something with their complaints about being taxed without being represented, and reckoned that the Declaration of Independence was very much in the spirit of the Magna Carta. 

To give two examples: Pitt the Elder, the man who had led the country in the war that had consolidated British power in North America, collapsed in the House of Lords while attacking government policy towards America (quite literally the last thing he ever did, as he died without recovering) and in the Commons the famously radical Charles James Fox was hardly a lone voice (Lord North, who led that war on George III's behalf, became the first British PM to be forced out of office by a motion of no confidence, brought about by MPs opposed to the government's conduct of the war). Tellingly, Fox would go on to become a key agitator for parliamentary reform and one of his followers, Earl Grey, would be the PM when the 1832 Reform Act was passed.

Washington is not the only US president to have a statue in London; you can also find Abraham Lincoln on Parliament Square and FDR (standing up, weirdly), Eisenhower and Reagan on Grosvenor Square. 

Over in the north-wetern corner is a man dressed as a Roman soldier but, unlike the statue of the Emperor Trajan near the Tower, this one isn't a statue of an actual Roman. Depicting a statesmen or politician in Roman costume used to be a popular thing (down on Parliament Square, short-lived 19th century PM George Canning can be seen in a toga); this one dates back to 1686 and has been attributed to Grinling Gibbons, better known as one of this country's most famous wood-carvers. The plinth has a Latin inscription: "Jacobus Secundus, Dei Gratia, Angliae, Scotlae, Franciae et Hiberniae, Rex" - James the Second, by God's Grace, of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, King. Usually ranked as one of this country's least successful rulers.



The younger son of Charles I (whose statue on a traffic island just south of Trafalgar Square, the point from which distances from London are traditionally measured, looks out onto the sight of his execution), James had acquitted himself well during the Great Fire of London (he had organised the knocking down of buildings to stop the fire from spreading further) and as Lord High Admiral, but by converting to Catholicism he made a lot of enemies; in post-Restoration England, the memory of what had happened under Mary I ('Bloody Mary') over a century earlier cast a long shadow. 

There were some who, fearing that he would try to rule as an absolutist monarch, opposed the very idea of James becoming king; they were nicknamed 'Whigs' (the term derived from the word 'whiggamore', meaning cattle-driver, which had been applied to Scots who were opposed to Charles I a generation before), while those who were in favour of his remaining in the line of succession were derided as 'Tories' (which derived from the Irish toraidhe, meaning outlaw or robber); both terms were originally used as insults. 

When he ascended the throne as King James II (or VII as far as Scotland was concerned) in 1685, he had to deal with a popular but poorly-led rebellion by one of his illegitimate nephews, the Duke of Monmouth. This was defeated, but James's reign was far from stable. Charles II had been clever in his dealings with Parliament, and had hidden his true religious inclinations while taking money from Louis XIV of France in return for a promise to convert to Catholicism; James, alas, was not blessed with his brother's subtlety and he quickly alienated his (mostly) Protestant subjects by enlarging the Army and appointing Catholics to senior posts; when Parliament objected, he prorogued it.

The turning-point, though, came when his wife gave birth to a son. Until then, the Whigs had assumed that the Crown would pass to James's (Protestant) daughters from his first marriage. The birth of a son, and with it the prospect of an heir who would be raised as a Catholic, changed everything. 

(The son, by the way, he would be known to history as the Old Pretender, and his 65-year 'reign' as pretender to the throne was longer than that of any actual British monarch.)

The Protestant aristocracy now moved against James, inviting his daughter Mary and her husband, the Dutch prince William of Orange (who was also James's nephew) to reign as joint sovereigns. James tried to resist this, but he lost the support of the Army; John Churchill (the future Duke of Marlborough), the man who'd defeated the Monmouth Rebellion, now sided with Parliament in what is now known as the Glorious Revolution.

James fled the country, his apparent last act as king being the throwing of the Great Seal of England into the Thames. He would try to get his crowns back (this being prior to the Act of Union, there were three - the claim on the French one, as listed on the plinth along with his actual titles, was by this time a mere historical curiosity), but a military campaign in Ireland backed by Louis XIV was defeated by William at the battle of the Boyne - an event commemorated to this day by the Protestants in Northern Ireland.

A man who fought against the crown, and a man who wore the crown and then lost it; both adorn London's most famous square.


14.8.15

How did the Tube lines get their names?

I wondered about this myself, and decided to find out. The result can be seen on Londonist via the following link: