A History of Holidays

By Tim Lambert

Early Holidays

In the Middle Ages, wealthy people went on pilgrimages for religious reasons. However, pilgrimages were not holidays – or they were not meant to be! In the 14th century, Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales about a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. In England, people went on pilgrimages to shrines in places like Winchester. Sometimes people went on pilgrimages abroad to places like Rome or Jerusalem.

Pilgrimages in England ended during the reign of Henry VIII when shrines like those of St Thomas A Becket were destroyed.

However, in the Middle Ages, there were no holidays in the modern sense. People traveled for work, for war, or for religious reasons.

However, even for Medieval peasants life was not all hard work. People were allowed to rest on Holy Days (from which we get our word holiday). During them, poor people danced and played a very rough form of football. The men from 2 villages played on a ‘pitch’, which could include woods and streams!

In the late Middle Ages, people in England began dancing around a Maypole. (Although they did not tie ribbons to the pole. That was invented in the 19th century). In 1644 during the Civil War in England, the Puritans banned the Maypole as they believed it had pagan origins. However, after the Restoration in 1660 Maypoles became common again.

In Tudor England the whole 12 days of Christmas were celebrated, (25th December – 6th January) but not every day was celebrated equally. All work stopped except looking after animals, spinning was even banned as this was the most common occupation for women, and flowers were placed around the spinning wheels. People would visit friends and it was seen as very much a community celebration. Work re-started on Plough Monday the first Monday after the 12th night.

In the late 16th century and in the 17th century it became common for wealthy young men to travel abroad on a grand tour of Europe to finish their education. A grand tour would last years and would take in the most famous places in Europe.

From the mid-17th century, stagecoaches began running between towns in England, and in the 18th century, the building of turnpike roads (which were of high quality) made travel easier.

In the 18th century, rich people visited spas. They believed that bathing in and/or drinking spa water could cure illness. Towns like Buxton, Bath, and Tunbridge Wells prospered.

In Tunbridge Wells in the late 17th century lodging houses were built near the springs, so were coffee houses where you could drink coffee. So were bowling greens and shops. Members of the royal family visited Tunbridge, which boosted its reputation.

In the 17th century, people also visited Bath and in the 18th century, it boomed. Many new houses were built. During the Summer 18th century Bath was full of rich visitors. They played cards, went to balls and horse racing, went walking and horse riding.

At the end of the 18th century, wealthy people began to spend time at the seaside. (Again they believed that bathing in seawater was good for your health). Seaside resorts like Brighton, Worthing, Margate, and Eastbourne boomed. A man named Richard Hotham deliberately created a new seaside resort at Bognor.

In the 19th century, other seaside resorts grew up at Blackpool, Southport, and Bournemouth. Brighton also flourished and by 1848 250,000 people were visiting the resort every year.

In the 18th century, it was still common for rich young men to go on a grand tour of Europe, which would last for years.

There were inns in the Ancient World and in the Middle Ages but in 1768 a new building in Exeter was the first establishment in England to have a French name – The Hotel.

Modern Holidays

However, until the late 19th century going away on holiday was only for the wealthy. Then in 1871, the Bank Holiday Act gave workers a few paid holidays each year. Also in the 1870s some clerks and skilled workers began to have a week’s paid annual holiday. However, even at the end of the 19th century, most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays.

In the early 19th century everyone had Sunday off. In the 1870s some skilled workers began to have Saturday afternoons off. In the 1890s most workers gained a half-day holiday on Saturday and the weekend was born.

In the late 19th century when some skilled workers began to have paid holidays they often went to stay at the seaside. As a result, seaside towns like Blackpool, Bognor Regis, and Morecambe boomed.

Meanwhile, The first pleasure pier was built at Brighton in 1823 and soon they appeared at seaside resorts across Britain. In many seaside towns, promenades were also built. In the late 19th century the modern seaside holiday began with seaside rock, piers, donkey rides, and Punch and Judy shows. Then in 1895, an American called Charles Fey invented the one-armed bandit.

Meanwhile, in the 1840s, the spread of railways made travel much faster and more comfortable for the rich. They also made travel much cheaper and they made days out possible for ordinary people for the first time. Meanwhile at sea steamships made foreign travel easier. By 1815 steamships were sailing across the English Channel.

Bournemouth was founded in 1836. The railway reached Bournemouth in 1870, which made it far easier to reach, and increased the number of visitors. The town grew at a phenomenal rate. In 1861 the population of Bournemouth was only 1,707. By 1881 the population of Bournemouth stood at 16,859.

In the 1840s Thomas Cook began arranging excursions by train in Britain. When the Great Exhibition opened in London in 1851 Cook arranged tours from other cities. The tours proved very popular. In the 1860s Cook arranged package tours abroad.

However, in the 19th century, foreign holidays were still only for the wealthy. In the 19th century guide books were published about cities and countries for those who could afford to travel abroad. In 1835 the poet William Wordsworth wrote a Guide to the Lakes. Railways meant more and more visitors went to the Lake District in the 19th century.

Poor people could not afford to take time off work for holidays but they could have working holidays. Many people from the East End of London went hop-picking in Kent during the season. Many people could not afford a week’s holiday by the seaside but could only afford a day out.

The first holiday camp in Britain opened in 1906. Holiday camps reached their heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s. However, they declined once foreign holidays became common.

In 1939 a new law in Britain said that everyone must have one week’s annual paid holiday. By the 1950s two weeks were common and by the 1980s most people had at least 4 weeks of annual holiday.

New Year’s Day was made a bank holiday in Britain in 1974. In Britain the first Monday in May was made a bank holiday in 1978.

Meanwhile, a completely new form of transport began. In 1919 planes began carrying passengers between London and Paris. The first plane flight in Britain was made in 1908. The first passenger jet service began in 1952.

However, in the early 20th century flight was a luxury few people could afford. Furthermore, only a small minority could afford foreign travel. However, as air travel became cheaper foreign holidays became possible for more and more people. Still, foreign holidays only really became common in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s long-distance holidays to other continents became common.

In the 1960s camping holidays became common. So did caravan holidays as more and more people could afford a car. In the 1960s and 1970s, skiing holidays became popular. Meanwhile, the traditional seaside holiday declined in popularity.

The Channel Tunnel opened in 1994 making it possible to travel from Britain to Europe by car or train.

Holidays in the future will often be taken in space. In 2001 Dennis Tito became the first space tourist when he spent a short time in the International Space Station. A the moment holidays in space are hugely expensive but they will inevitably become cheaper in the future. Holidays on the Moon will eventually become common.

Last revised 2024