The Industrial Revolution saw capitalism’s iron discipline imposed on a pre-industrial workforce. Previously, time had been structured not by clocking-in at factories or shifts down the mine, but by collective or self-directed labour revolving around the cycles of seasons and daylight. Pre-capitalist workers were also accustomed to kicking back at fairs, sporting events, and festivals which could go on for days.
E.P. Thompson, tracing this economic and cultural transformation in his essay ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’, argued that this earlier lifestyle — bursts of work interspersed with longer and more frequent periods of rest and leisure — may have been more logical and beneficial than the externally controlled and alienated routines we have grown used to.
Wage labour entails a delicate trade-off between freedom and financial obligation, and unreasonably demanding workloads have always risked a severe toll on the physical and mental health of workers.
As industrialisation entrenched a six-day week, with only Sundays and sporadic holidays like Christmas Day officially free, the pressure and intensity of industrial work found expression not just in organised conflict over wages and conditions but in more spontaneous forms of defiance driven as much by desperation as by apparent irresponsibility.
In the mines and ironworks of nineteenth-century South Wales, workers frequently downed tools and set off on days-long drinking sprees, sometimes having to be physically dragged back by employers’ agents.
Our ancestors’ right to time off work was more positively asserted by the pre-industrial custom of ‘Saint Monday’, which saw eighteenth-century artisans, having spent Saturday at work, habitually allow themselves Mondays off to recover from Sunday’s excesses.
Early industrial workers continued to observe this tradition, providing themselves with a justification for collective absenteeism based in popular cultural memory. Some, though not all, employers were prepared to tolerate it on the same basis.
Cultural references to Saint Monday often drew on its parody of religious holidays, which gave it a corresponding, subversively sacred position in the working-class calendar. An 1830s French print entitled Le Grand Saint Lundi: Patron Saint of Drinkers gently mocks traditional devotional images by showing Saint Monday presiding over a scene of artisan revelry like an Industrial Age Dionysus.
Besides looking backwards to pre-industrial folk culture, the wry veneration of Saint Monday perhaps also anticipates the irreverent resistance expressed in Situationist slogans like ‘Never work!’ and other forms of opposition to a life based around the dogma of work.
Despite employers’ complaints about its impact on productivity and Victorian culture’s increasing horror of ‘idleness’ over industriousness, nineteenth-century workers maintained Saint Monday as a day for leisure, sport, and culture, thronging music-halls and theatres, as well as political meetings and social clubs.
An 1851 writer described London’s botanical gardens on Mondays as full of ‘well-dressed, happy and decorous’ working-class patrons, while an 1855 print showing a mass picnic at Hampton Court is entitled Saint Monday, or the People’s Holiday.
As a more regulated working week and weekend developed — due not least to the organised efforts of trade unions — the observance of Saint Monday declined. Meanwhile, other customary holidays like Whitsun or Wakes Week were repurposed to take advantage of the greater availability of rail travel, with local workers day-tripping or holidaying as a group to new seaside resorts like Blackpool, Morecambe, and Scarborough.
Saint Monday allowed workers the right to autonomous free time in which they were not defined by their jobs. By contrast, modern working patterns absorb and intrude upon more and more of our non-working lives.
From exhausting overtime and the juggling of gig-economy jobs, to the anxiety of zero-hour contracts and the mental impact of unemployment, the common factor in having too much or too little work is lack of control over the balance of labour and leisure. The reaction of governments and employers around the world to Covid-19 has already demonstrated starkly that working patterns are not set in stone.
Saint Monday — a break from the daily grind which was declared by workers, not benevolently bestowed from above — reminds us that the forces capable of reshaping working life include workers ourselves.