The weekend wasn’t handed to us on a platter – it was fought for tooth and nail by the working-class.

In the Battle of George Square on 31 January 1919, thousands of striking workers clashed with police at George Square in a bloody confrontation over demands for a 40-hour week.

How often do you proclaim ‘Thank God it’s Friday!’ after a gruelling week at work? For those of us whose lives are structured into five-day work weeks, weekends are our chance to rest, pursue hobbies and leisure, and spend time with friends and family. We’ve never known anything else.  

But the weekend is a relatively modern phenomenon—and not one that was handed to us on a platter. Like many of the rights we enjoy today, the weekend had to be fought for tooth-and-nail by the working class. It would take years of struggle before the weekend as we know it today came into existence.  

In pre-industrial Britain, work was determined by seasons and daylight hours. There were no fixed working patterns, no factories to clock into, and no surveillance of every minute of the working day, as many workers—from offices to Amazon—have become used to. In many ways, workers exercised greater control over their own lives than they do today.  

Then came the advent of industrial capitalism, accompanied by collective forms of employment, the standardisation of wage labour, and the increasing demarcation between work and (limited) leisure. It was not uncommon for factory workers to be on the job for sixteen hours a day in dirty and dangerous conditions, sweating in the excruciating heat of factories built without windows or ventilation. For most, there was no alternative—they had to work whatever long hours they were given in order to survive. But the balance between such degrading work and the respite that leisure time provided was about to be contested.  

Saint Monday 

Before the standardisation of the five-day week, Mondays were the week’s highlight for many British workers. Beginning in the seventeenth century, a tradition of absenteeism on a Monday among artisan workers came to be known as ‘Saint Monday’. These workers worked long hours between Tuesday to Saturday and believed a single rest day to observe the Sabbath on a Sunday was simply insufficient. 

The apothecary and writer John Houghton described this early habit in 1861: 

‘When the framework knitters or makers of silk stockings had a great price for their work, they have been observed seldom to work on Mondays and Tuesdays but to spend most of their time at the ale-house or nine-pins… The weavers, ’tis common with them to be drunk on Monday, have their head-ache on Tuesday, and their tools out of order on Wednesday.’ 

Workers in various industries like weaving and mining were typically paid on a Saturday and therefore had spare money to spend on a Monday. Saint Mondays were fiercely opposed by factory owners and, indeed, the clergy who associated it with drunkenness and moral degradation— but it became harder and harder for the authorities to control. After starting off as a habit for a small group of better-off workers, by the mid-nineteenth century, Saint Monday spread to the mills and factories and became was a popular institution in British society. 

For some, Mondays were an opportunity to nurse a hangover from a late-night bender the night before; for others, it was simply day two. Intimately tied to it was a growing culture of commercial leisure, with music halls and theatres staging events on the day. If you weren’t inclined to party hard, you could spend the day visiting a botanical garden or a cricket match. ‘The Jovial Cutler’, an eighteenth-century folk song from Sheffield, captured the spirit of the day: 

‘Brother workmen, cease your labour, 

Lay your files and hammers by. 

Listen while a brother neighbour 

Sings a cutler’s destiny: 

How upon a good Saint Monday, 

Sitting by the smithy fire, 

We tell what’s been done o’t Sunday, 

And in cheerful mirth conspire.’ 

The Early Closing Association 

With Saint Mondays associated with boozing and bloodsports, religious institutions sought to chip away at its dominance by making the case for a half day on a Saturday to increase church attendance. Factory owners and other employers followed suit, hoping to counter the absenteeism associated with Mondays and increase productivity.  

In 1842, a formal campaign group, the Early Closing Association, was formed by a coalition of shop workers across the country. It was supported and championed by social reformers Samuel Carter Hall and George Passmore Edwards. The group had branches across the country and lobbied the government to keep Saturday afternoons free in return for a full day’s work on a Monday. The Saturday half-day for those in mills and factories was eventually made law through the 1867 Factory Act. 

In 1886, MP and founder of the Irish Home Rule League, Myles William Patrick O’Reilly, spoke in Parliament about the merits of early closing and asked for the half day to be extended to all civil servants. It benefited a range of workers, he said, including those on the railways and in the postal service, and employers praised its benefits when it came to productivity and the morale of the workforce. His words were vocally opposed by Home Secretary Hugh Childers, who claimed civil servants weren’t overworked and that a half day on Saturday would disrupt the business of government.  

But Childers couldn’t prevent what was already a cause with growing public support. Workers in different industries found ways to make their own case: shop workers, for instance, who often worked very late hours, and asked for public support by getting shopping done earlier in the day. Some businesses agreed to close earlier during the week, but the vast majority would eventually agree that early closing on a Saturday was a preferred outcome. After decades of campaigning by shop workers, the 1911 Shops Act was passed, giving a half day a week off (in addition to Sunday) for shop staff. 

Once the right had been granted a few workers, it was impossible to stop its spread—not only into other industries, but into leisure time too. The 3PM Saturday kick-offs that we’ve become accustomed to are not coincidental: this new work pattern came to shape and develop the football craze of the 1890s, with most factories closing at 1 or 2PM. Most sought-after entertainment offerings were shifted from Mondays to Saturday afternoons, establishing the half day as the norm. 

The Modern Weekend

By the early twentieth century, trade unions were taking this further, campaigning for a full two-day weekend in the form of a forty-hour working week comprised of five eight-hour days. This demand became a feature of many industrial disputes. 

For example, in January 1919, thousands of demobbed servicemen in Glasgow were flooding into a labour market where there simply wasn’t enough work to round. Glasgow was at the time a centre for heavy goods manufacture. The Scottish Trade Union Congress and the Glasgow Trades and Labour Council sought to reduce the industry’s working week from 54 to 40 hours to allow what work there was to be shared out more fairly. Resistance to this proposal from factory owners led to the 40-hour strike, perhaps Clydeside’s most famous confrontation. 

40,000 workers from the Clyde’s engineering and shipbuilding industries took part. They were eventually joined by workers from the local Port Pundas and Pinkston Power Stations, cutting electricity supplies throughout Glasgow. Thousands of miners from the nearby Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire pits would soon follow. In a matter of days, a full-blown general strike was taking place in Glasgow, with flying pickets led by recently discharged servicemen occurring across the city. 

Some estimate that nearly 100,000 people were present during the demonstration on the 31 January for a 40-hour week—the infamous Battle of George Square. It came to be known as Bloody Friday due to the heavy-handed response from the government who sent troops and tanks to disrupt the rally. A police baton-charge resulted in many injuries, including that of David Kirkwood, later an Independent Labour MP, who was knocked unconscious. 

The strike was unsuccessful, but some concessions were made with striking workers from the engineering and shipbuilding industries returning to a 47-hour working week instead of the 57 hours they were subjected to before. More than that, the strike had a political impact in Glasgow, with the Independent Labour Party winning 10 of its 15 constituencies at the 1922 General Election. 

One of those elected was George Buchanan, a Scottish patternmaker and trade union activist in Glasgow who never forgot his roots. In May 1925, he spoke passionately in support of the Hours Of Industrial Employment Bill which sought to shorten the working week for all workers: 

‘I have seen men at work and I have seen boys serving their time standing at the bench unable to keep their eyes open in order to perform their daily toil. I would ask the opponents of the Bill to remember these facts when they are talking as to the economic position.  

Have they ever worked in a shipyard and seen what goes on? Have they been there at six o’clock in the morning? We hear a great deal of the trials and troubles of commerce. How would honourable members like to be in a shipyard at six in the morning on a bitter frosty day, with the cold eating into your very bones, and with no nourishment, having left the house before you could even get a decent meal, and work from six in the morning, before you had broken your fast, until 9 o’clock.  

I have seen men in the shipyards who could not eat their breakfasts because their stomachs were empty, and they were not able to digest their food when they received it. That was not an uncommon thing, and yet we hear of engineering employers and some members of this House who would drive us back to those old days, if they dared.’ 

Specific companies, too, played major roles in increasing the spread of the standardised working week. In 1933, Boots the chemists had surplus stock at a new factory. The standard practice at the time was to lay workers off to offset the lack of demand; Boots, instead, decided to reduce the working week, allowing workers to have a 48-hour weekend in order to spare redundancies. An enquiry led by Richard Redmayne later found that the workers were happier, had better health, and were less likely to be absent.  

Calls grew for this practice to become standard. Trade unions increased their membership by three million during the Second World War and emerged from it with their political and social status enhanced. This was accompanied by the spread of recognition agreements across different industries in the postwar period, which enabled trade unions to dictate minimum standards with their employers, including demands for a two-day weekend. In the years that followed, trade unions negotiated sectoral agreements and, in post-war Britain, the two-day weekend became the norm. 

The weekend was not benevolently bestowed from above. It’s the product of incremental changes, won in a series of victories through resistance enacted by the labour movement. Broad coalitions with religious institutions and sympathisers in Parliament and other places of power were key—including in the European Union, which instituted the Working Time Directive setting a 48-hour maximum week in 1993—but the driving force for the weekend, like many other rights and freedoms we have today, was the organised working class. 

This week, a pilot of the four-day week declared a ‘major breakthrough’ as 56 of the 61 companies that took part kept the change. Workers reported feeling less stressed and sleeping better, and employers reported higher rates of retention. The Trades Union Congress has backed the shift to a four-day week. The organised labour movement is going to be no less vital in further reducing the working week in the future than it has been in the past. As the government seeks to clamp down further on the renewed strength of that labour movement, it’s time to reignite that fighting spirit. 

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