This phrase is used to describe someone who is on holiday but is actually engaged in doing what they normally do during their working week or rather than putting their feet up, are engaged in some form of work. So, if I was a doctor who took time off to do some voluntary medical work, then I may be described as having a busman’s holiday.
For such an innocuous phrase, its origins seem steeped in controversy but I think I have been able to navigate my way through the many twists and turns to arrive at the definitive version. Bus is an abbreviation of omnibus which was the name given to a large, enclosed, usually sprung, horse-drawn vehicle. In London George Shilibeer in 1829 introduced a horse-drawn service between Paddington and Regent’s Park which ran to a strict timetable and could carry up to 22 passengers. The carriage was drawn by three horses and there was a driver and a conductor, our busmen. By 1832 the monopoly of hackney carriages was broken and by 1834 there were 620 licensed horse vehicles plying their trade through the streets of London.
The bus became a popular means of transport in London and it prompted some wag to pose the humorous question, “what does a busman do on his day off? He takes a bus ride with a pal, of course”. This quip, mildly amusing by Victorian standards, seems to fit our purpose. On his day off, the busman would travel around London like any other denizen of the metropolis, on a bus. The joke may have slid off into well-merited obscurity, but the term and the concept has remained with us.
In 1893 in the English Illustrated Magazine, an actor described his forthcoming holiday arrangements. “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…I shall never be happy except when I am watching some theatrical piece”. The London Chronicle reported in 1913 an encounter with a happy bus conductor. Why was had he done to make himself happy? “Why what he always does when on a day off!…for the man gets on the top of another man’s bus and has a good long ride into the country and back. It cured him of his insomnia, he said”. According to an edition of Punch from July 1920, the habit of doing what you do for day job on your day off was not restricted to busmen. It was a custom adopted by cabbies.
There are some more fanciful theories as to the origin of the phrase. Busmen were supposedly so attached to their team of horses that on their day off, they would visit the stables in the morning to see that they were harnessed properly and in the evening to ensure that they had not been abused. Another reported that the more caring drivers would spend their day off riding on the bus observing the relief driver’s treatment of the nags.
That may be the case but I think all we need to believe is that on their days off, busmen would use the cheapest and most popular form of transport, something which inspired a whimsical retort and gave birth to a phrase which over time was extended in its usage to other occupations. And the phrase did travel, appearing in Sydney’s Sunday Times in 1896, the Auckland Star in 1902 and crossing the pond in 1909.
As I have retired, there is no risk of a busman’s holiday for me.