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
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