Before I became an academic historian I worked mostly in retail. I enjoyed the busy Christmas period but it has to be said that shopkeepers and shop staff work extremely hard for very little pay and hardly any time off. Most of us that are lucky enough to work in education will get at least a week’s downtime over Christmas and probably quite a bit more.
This is because schools and universities close down between Christmas and New Year and there is no teaching at my place for three weeks. I will use some of this time for marking, preparation and research but will also have a week’s proper holiday as well. Contrast this with the 15 years I worked in a variety of shops when I would work till 5 or 6 on Christmas Eve and be back in on the 27 December and sometimes even on Boxing Day.
Indeed Boxing Day has almost ceased to be a day off for many workers. Traditionally Boxing Day was a time when we rewarded servants and tradespeople for their service over the past year in a custom that stretched back to the 17th century at least. Now many if not most shops open their doors at 9 am so that the British public can start to spend the vouchers and money their relatives have given them for Christmas, or exchange their unwanted presents and ill-fitting clothes.
It seems that even in mid Victorian period there was some recognition that workers needed some proper time off. In 1842 an organisation was formed to campaign for an end to Sunday trading and to regulate shop opening times. From the evidence I see in these newspapers reports, shops in London opened all hours in the 1800s, you could walk into a grocers, or haberdashery, or a cheese shop anytime from early morning to almost midnight. In fact nineteenth-century London looks a lot more like twenty-first century London than does it resemble the city of my youth.
In December 1859 a deputation from the Early Closing Association appeared at Mansion House Police Court to ask for the Lord Mayor’s support. In 1859 Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. Given that the 25 December was observed as a holiday the Association were worried that the ‘toiling classes’ would miss out on an extra holiday this year.
Mr Lilwall and Mr Winkworth (secretary and vice president respectively) reminded the Lord Mayor that in 1857 the then incumbent chief magistrate had issued a recommended that Boxing Day be observed as a public holiday. Shops and other businesses had taken up the idea and it had even been adopted by mayors across the country. The result was that shop workers, clerks, and all manner of the ‘industrial classes’ got a proper holiday from Saturday afternoon through to Tuesday morning on the 27th.
The Association urged this Lord Mayor to follow suit and urge businesses to adopt the holiday. It was hard, they said, for individual tradesmen to grant an extra day of leave and close their shops because they didn’t know what the competition was doing. It needed a voice of authority to make a declaration.
The Lord Mayor agreed with the deputation from the Association but it wasn’t sure he had either the power or the influence to instigate a holiday in London, let alone elsewhere.
But he was certainly happy to publicly ‘express his hope that the tradesmen and merchants of the city, and the bankers, as far as they possibly could, would close their establishments on the 26th inst. and so give an opportunity for rational and recreative enjoyment to those in their employ’.
He hoped that this would mean that Christmas, as one of the ‘few holidays which were generally observed in this country would not be lost’.
The Early Closing Association continued it campaign throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It took them until 1912 to achieve part of their aim, half-day closing. Some of you might remember when shops would close early on a weekday and many will recall that until the 1990s Sunday opening was rare. Nowadays shops open Sundays, all week long, from 8 to 8 and later, and some big stores are open 24/7.
Spare a thought then for those that have to man the tills and restock the shelves over the bus Christmas period who work even harder than they normally have to. They need a rest just as much (if not more) than everyone else. Perhaps its time that we made Boxing Day a proper national holiday, with all shops closing for the day. After all, do we really need ‘retail therapy’ on the morning after Christmas?
[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, December 9, 1859]