The hol­i­day hero

Sir John Lub­bock kept ants and fer­rets and taught his dog to read. He also in­vented the bank hol­i­day. So raise a glass to him on Box­ing Day, says MARK MA­SON

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Mark Ma­son’s lat­est book, ‘Mail Ob­ses­sion: A Jour­ney Round Bri­tain by Post­code’, is pub­lished by Orion, £12.99.

Mark Ma­son

IF YOU hap­pen to find your­self rais­ing a glass on 28th De­cem­ber this year, why not raise it a lit­tle higher in hon­our of Sir John Lub­bock? With­out him you’d be at work: Lub­bock is the man who in­vented the bank hol­i­day.

There were some Vic­to­ri­ans who, not need­ing to earn a liv­ing be­cause they’d been born into money, seem to have viewed it as their duty to en­ter­tain the rest of us by lead­ing a life as bizarre and ec­cen­tric as pos­si­ble. Sir John Lub­bock was one such. His fa­ther made a packet in the City, us­ing some of it to buy a 3,000-acre es­tate near Downe in Kent. One day in 1842 he told his seven-yearold son that there was ex­cit­ing news. John hoped he might be get­ting a pony: but no, it was just that some­one called Charles Dar­win was mov­ing to the vil­lage. De­spite his ini­tial dis­ap­point­ment, Lub­bock Jnr soon be­came a fan, then a friend, of the fa­mous nat­u­ral­ist. He helped with the il­lus­tra­tions for Dar­win’s book on bar­na­cles, and when the sci­en­tist be­came de­pressed Lub­bock was the only vis­i­tor al­lowed to see him.

The bond was rooted in na­ture. Lub­bock, you see, took the phrase ‘an­i­mal lover’ to hith­erto un­charted heights. Fer­rets, ants, bees, wasps – through­out his life he made pets of them all. Even when his com­pan­ion was more con­ven­tional – for in­stance a dog – he still had to do things that lit­tle bit dif­fer­ently. Con­vinced that his black ter­rier puppy, Van, was clever enough to read, Lub­bock placed a strip of card­board in­scribed with the word ‘Food’ over the an­i­mal’s empty bowl. To re­ceive his meal, Van had to bring the strip to his mas­ter. Of course this doesn’t in it­self prove that the dog was read­ing. But then Lub­bock did away with the bowl, plac­ing the ‘Food’ card in a line with nine oth­ers show­ing dif­fer­ent words. Van picked it out ev­ery time. He also learned to read ‘Wa­ter’, as well as ‘Bone’. And in­deed ‘Tea’: the dog, clearly tired out by all the read­ing, had de­vel­oped a taste for the bev­er­age. The sys­tem was later ex­tended so that to re­quest a walk Van had to bring Lub­bock a card say­ing ‘Out’. Sir John knew this be­hav­iour was ex­cep­tional – his wife’s pet col­lie could never read a word.

The fer­rets proved more prob­lem­atic. Buy­ing a pair from a Lon­don street ven­dor, Lub­bock was alarmed when, on the train home to Kent, the an­i­mals nib­bled through their sack and be­gan ter­ror­is­ing the other pas­sen­gers. So he locked them in his brief­case, only to dis­cover later that they had eaten his par­lia­men­tary pa­pers. (Lub­bock was the MP for Maid­stone. You could be­have like this back then and still get elected.)

On an­other oc­ca­sion Lub­bock’s brief­case was stolen, though the thief soon got rid of it when he dis­cov­ered the con­tents. No, not fer­rets – bees. So fas­ci­nated was he by the in­sects that Lub­bock kept a hive in his sit­ting room in or­der to ob­serve their be­hav­iour. To stop the bees es­cap­ing into other rooms he con­structed a tun­nel from the hive’s en­trance to an open win­dow. He at­tempted to tame twelve of the lit­tle buzzers, paint­ing the cho­sen ones green to iden­tify them. He took the same colour­ful ap­proach with his ants, who also lived in the sit­ting room. Dab­bing them with minute spots of paint to tell them apart, Lub­bock gave the ants names, and de­lighted in show­ing them off to visi­tors in­clud­ing Wil­liam Gladstone, Ran­dolph Churchill and the Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury. He even con­ducted an ex­per­i­ment in feed­ing the ants tiny drops of al­co­hol. The sober ones, he noted, would carry their drunk friends home.

But Sir John wasn’t con­cerned solely with non-hu­mans. One of his causes as a Lib­eral MP was the pro­mo­tion of bet­ter con­di­tions for work­ers, in­clud­ing the cre­ation of days when they wouldn’t have to work at all. There were ob­jec­tions from the Con­ser­va­tive leader Ben­jamin Disraeli that busi­nesses would lose money, but Lub­bock’s cam­paign proved un­der­stand­ably pop­u­lar with employees and even­tu­ally Lub­bock guided the Bank Hol­i­days Act 1871 onto the statute books, es­tab­lish­ing Easter Mon­day, Whit Mon­day, the first Mon­day in Au­gust and Box­ing Day as work-free oc­ca­sions.

All of which is thor­oughly splen­did, and an ex­cuse to this day for ex­ces­sive drink­ing and long queues in Home­base. But it doesn’t an­swer the ques­tion as to why Sir John chose the name ‘bank hol­i­day’. The rea­son was sim­ple. A vague ti­tle like ‘gen­eral’ or ‘na­tional hol­i­day’ could have been ig­nored: only by forc­ing the banks to close could you make trade im­pos­si­ble.

The move made Lub­bock a na­tional hero. One news­pa­per pro­posed the erec­tion of a solid sil­ver statue of a mon­key, in trib­ute to Sir John’s sup­port for the the­ory of evo­lu­tion. An Amer­i­can mag­a­zine wrote: ‘Sir John Lub­bock greatly en­joys his Bank Hol­i­days, and so do his sis­ters, and his cousins, and his ants.’

If only fate could have taken no­tice. It was cruel enough that the Chisle­hurst house once in­hab­ited by Lub­bock should have burned down in 1967. What was even worse was that the fire occurred on that year’s Au­gust bank hol­i­day.

Sir John Lub­bock

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.