St. Monday: Ye Old holiday

Back to St. Monday?

The Labour Party announced at its annual conference in September that if it were to form a government, it would introduce a 32-hour week for workers within the next decade, a reform that many businesses are prepared to accept, a quarter of business owners having said they would consider introducing a 4-day week.

A recent study by Henley Business School saw 250 firms participate in a four-day week, and nearly two thirds of these businesses saw productivity increase. The firms’ ability to attract and retain staff had improved, too. Collectively, these firms now save £92bn each year.

Before the arrival of capitalism and its factory system rural workers were accustomed to sunrise and sunset hours, to the seasons and the vagaries of weather, along with the needs of the crop and animals. Men and women worked in direct relationship to nature. It was an irregular and informal working week. In medieval feudalism there were over a hundred holy days a year on which no work could be done, in addition, to numerous trading fairs. Those who worked enjoyed much more free time than they do today. As the dark satanic mills spread, holy days disappeared. It was the factory which brought in clocking in and clocking out. But peasants driven from their small plots of land by the Enclosures had to be broken of their independent spirit and disciplined into wage-slavery.

The new labour regime did not go uncontested.

‘Keeping St. Monday’ meant observing Monday as a holiday. Many a Tuesday was also observed as a ‘Saints’ day. A rhyme printed in 1639 gives a satirical version of the working week:

‘You know that Munday is Sundayes brother;
Tuesday is such another;
Wednesday you must go to Church and pray;
Thursday is half-holiday;
On Friday it is too late to begin to spin;
The Saturday is half-holiday agen.’

Payday was typically Saturday, and therefore workers often had spare money on Monday. They declared Monday a public holiday of sorts (often to recover from the binge drinking that was commonplace on Sunday, the day of rest). Piece work was often the norm, with workers adapting their skills to operate on flexible working periods. If they missed Monday they could make it up by working extra hard at the end of the week in order to have more free time. In London ‘St. Monday’ was commonly observed and the working week in London during the 1750s was clearly shorter than five days, but as capitalism grew in ascendency it led to an increase in annual working hours from 2,288 to 3,666.

The worship of St Monday had troubled a factory inspector called Edward White who reported in 1864:

‘In Birmingham an enormous amount of time is lost, not only by want of punctuality in coming to work in the morning and beginning again after meals, but still more by the general observance of ‘Saint Monday’, which is shown in the late attendance or entire absence of large numbers on that day. One employer has on Monday only about 40 or 50 out of 300 or 400, and the day is recognised by many masters as an hour shorter than others at each end…’

Of course, all this made efficient scheduling of work almost impossible.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the USA, said: ‘I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty… Repeal that [welfare] law, and you will soon see a change in their manners. St. Monday and St. Tuesday, will soon cease to be holidays. Six days shalt thou labor, though one of the old commandments long treated as out of date, will again be looked upon as a respectable precept; industry will increase…’

There was a financial incentive to maximise the return on expensive machinery by having long hours. Machinery does not stand `idle’ nor would the workers attending them be permitted to stand idle either. Working life was becoming increasingly regulated, and the working week was reorganised. Longer hours and unnatural shift working were implemented.

One of capitalism’s myths is that it has reduced human toil yet Kalahari Bushmen work two-and-a-half days per week and on average the working day was less than five hours. The use of the term St Monday may have faded but the custom has not entirely died off. Pulling a sickie is still common practice. With the Labour Party promise, workers are simply recovering what they had four or five centuries ago and subsequently lost.

In line with Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, socialists support the right to be lazy. So let’s drink to the health of St. Monday and in the words of Billy Bragg

I’m a hard worker,
But I ain’t working on a Monday.
I’m a hard worker,
But I ain’t working on a Monday.
A hard working fellow
I ain’t working on a Monday,
St. Monday’s still the weekend to me.


13th century – Adult male peasant, U.K.: 1620 hours
Calculated from Gregory Clark’s estimate of 150 days per family, assumes 12 hours per day, 135 days per year for adult male (“Impatience, Poverty, and Open Field Agriculture”, mimeo, 1986).

14th century – Casual laborer, U.K.: 1440 hours
Calculated from Nora Ritchie’s estimate of 120 days per year. Assumes 12-hour day. (“Labour conditions in Essex in the reign of Richard II”, in E.M. Carus-Wilson, ed., Essays in Economic History, vol. II, London: Edward Arnold, 1962).

Middle ages – English worker: 2309 hours
Juliet Schor’s estimate of average medieval laborer working two-thirds of the year at 9.5 hours per day.

1400-1600 – Farmer-miner, adult male, U.K.: 1980 hours
Calculated from Ian Blanchard’s estimate of 180 days per year. Assumes 11-hour day (“Labour productivity and work psychology in the English mining industry, 1400-1600”, Economic History Review 31, 23 (1978).

1840 – Average worker, U.K.: 3105-3588 hours
Based on 69-hour week; hours from W.S. Woytinsky, “Hours of labor,” in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. III (New York: Macmillan, 1935). Low estimate assumes 45 week year, high one assumes 52 week year.

1850 – Average worker, U.S.: 3150-3650 hours
Based on 70-hour week; hours from Joseph Zeisel, “The workweek in American industry, 1850-1956”, Monthly Labor Review 81, 23-29 (1958). Low estimate assumes 45 week year, high one assumes 52 week year.

1987 – Average worker, U.S.: 1949 hours
From The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor, Table 2.4.

1988 – Manufacturing workers, U.K.: 1856 hours
Calculated from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Office of Productivity and Technology.

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