‘busman’s holiday’: meaning and origin

The phrase busman’s holiday originated in British English and denotes a holiday or other period of leisure time in which a person does something of a similar nature to his or her normal occupation.

In this phrase, which dates back to the time of horse-drawn omnibuses, the noun busman denotes an omnibus driver, also an omnibus conductor. The following, from The Essex Standard (Colchester, Essex, England) of Saturday 5th July 1834, contains one of the earliest occurrences of busman:

Mr. Wheeler, Secretary to the Ladies’ Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, having, from motives of humanity, started an omnibus with four horses, to run from Bryanston-square to the Bank, has received the following characteristic epistle from one of the “Bus” men plying on the same road:—“I say you, Muster Wheeler, ve dont like your consarne at tall, ve dont. So you must put four hanimals in your Bus; vell ve are obliged to vork with two hanimals, but you must not have four, only like us drive two, or ve vill give your Hosses a Slie Nick and do them up. I vill lay a crown ve kno you vants all the road to yourself, but it vont do.— Yours, Ed. Bell.”

 

EARLY OCCURRENCES OF THE PHRASE

 

The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the following advertisement, published in The Era (London, England) of Saturday 13th October 1888:

“Two Lovely Black Eyes.”
MR. CHARLES COBORN,
now at
THORNTON’S VARIETIES, SUNDERLAND.
“Oh! what an alteration.”
Packed Houses Nightly.

Just concluded fortnight’s holiday, running about Scotland with my friend Frame and his Concert Party, taking checks, selling programmes, pulling down fit-up 1, singing a song or two, and, altogether, spending a thoroughly enjoyable “’busman’s holiday.” Eating like a plague of locusts, and back again (after a lapse) upon the old teetotal lay, which I find suits me much the best. I can strongly recommend it.

1 In theatrical slang, fit-up denotes a stage or other theatrical accessory that can be fitted up for the occasion.

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from A Talk with Mrs. Bancroft 2, published in The St James’s Gazette (London, England) of Thursday 16th February 1893:

On Saturday Mrs. Bancroft once more returns for a space to the stage—in “Diplomacy,” at Mr. Hare’s theatre. A representative of this journal who called upon her sends us the following report of the conversation which he had with the distinguished actress:—
“And so, Mrs. Bancroft, you have got tired of playing and are going back to work again?”
“Yes; it is a sort of busman’s holiday; but I am not going back to work, only to play another way. I am going to play my old part en amateur, just because Mr. Hare is a very old and valued friend, and perhaps because they chanced to fix the opening night on my lucky day.”

2 Marie Effie Wilton, Lady Bancroft (1839-1921) was an English actress and theatre manager.

 

ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE

 

This is the origin of the phrase, according to the English actor and music-hall entertainer Albert Chevalier (1861-1923) in On Costers and Music Halls, published in The English Illustrated Magazine (London: Edward Arnold) of April 1893:

I should be ill if I went away for a month’s holiday, perfectly unhappy, perfectly miserable. I shall indeed take a holiday soon, probably on the Continent; but it will be a “Busman’s Holiday.” The bus-driver spends his “day off” in driving on a pal’s bus, on the box-seat by his pal’s side; and I know that night after night, all through my holiday, I shall be in and out of this hall and that theatre, never happy except when I am watching some theatrical piece or Variety entertainment.

The following passages from two interviews of London omnibus-drivers support the origin given by Albert Chevalier:

1-: The first interview was published in The People. A Weekly Newspaper for All Classes (London, England) of Sunday 30th December 1883:

“Don’t you get any holidays?” I ask.
“I can take a day now and then, but I lose my day’s pay. I don’t work every Sunday, though. Sometimes I do. When I do take a holiday I generally stay quiet, and rest myself. Some men go to the country, or ride on a friend’s ’bus all the day; but I find I want a rest sometimes.”

2-: The second interview was published in The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England) of Saturday 2nd June 1888:

“A considerable proportion of the drivers take a day once a week; some men will go in for a couple of days once a fortnight.”
“And how do the ’bus-drivers spend their holidays?” the interviewer asked.—“Some of them lie in bed all day, undoubtedly; while quite a large number of them go round to chat with ‘old pals,’ as they call their ancient friends in the same occupation. Many spend the day on the box seats of ’buses on various routes, alongside of old friends.”

The following, from The Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Tuesday 7th August 1894, evokes a slightly different way for London omnibus-drivers to spend their days off:

When an actress takes a holiday she goes to the theatre. A newspaper man haunts other newspaper offices, it is said. And assuredly the ’bus-driver’s highest aspiration for recreation is to climb from his perch on to the roof of the ’bus, and survey mankind from the proud elevation of an ordinary passenger. If there is any doubt upon this point, let the ubiquitous London Correspondent speak and for ever silence the sceptic. He has met a ’bus-driver taking his holiday, and behold! he was on the top, enjoying a garden-seat. He wore a holiday air, and a flower in his coat. His hat had been newly ironed, and shone with a gloss that no hair-oil could produce. Further than all this, he was a philosopher. Most ’bus-drivers are philosophers, though their system of thought generally has a kink in it such as would not recommend it even to Kant. It was so with this particular ’bus-driver. He took his holiday as a non-paying passenger, and he derived his pleasure from a malicious contemplation of the fact that the other driver, who held the reins, was enduring all the vexations that himself had to put up with. Let us set forth his moral obliquity, as communicated to the London Correspondent. “If you drove an omnibus, as I do, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, you would find the biggest rest you could get is to sit on a ’bus all day and see other chaps doing your work. If you want a drink you can get down and have it without being afraid of the timekeeper seeing you; if a passenger speaks to you you can tell him to go to the d——, which you daren’t do when you’re driving. You can smoke all day, whether the passengers like it or not; you can laugh if the ’bus runs over a dog, knocks down an old woman, or runs foul of a lamp-post—it’s the odd man who’s doing your job who’ll be stopped, not you. I tell you it’s the finest and cheapest change in the world.”

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