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Empire Night

 

EMPIRE DAY
May 24
As a kid at school in the 1950s we used to celebrate Empire Day. The most notable event on the day was the appearance of a brightly coloured aluminium bottle top, bearing the British Union Jack, on our free school milk. To us the day was closely associated with Bonfire Night. WF

Here is an extract of an address in the Daily Telegraph, May 1924.

 


BONFIRE NIGHT or CRACKER NIGHT
5th November.
When I was a kid in the 1950s Bonfire or Cracker night was one of the highlights of the year. It was customary for the children of the street to build a bonfire out of just about anything flammable. There was great rivalry between streets to see who could build the most impressive bonfire. We lived on the beach at Brighton-le-sands and the entire strip of the beach was dotted with bonfires, often over ten metres tall. We also added a 'Guy Fawkes' effigy to the top, often in an old wooden chair. The bonfires were guarded and everyone dreaded the possibility of sabotage ñ a premature burning in the middle of the night. When the big night came all the kids brought their bags of crackers and the whole beach had a party atmosphere that is missing in these later days.

GUY FAWKES DAY

Cracker night was also celebrated with pranks ñ especially placing 'double bungers' (an extremely loud firework) in letterboxes. One unsavoury prank involved placing dog poo in a brown paper bag, placing it on someone's doorstep, lighting the paper and then ringing the doorbell. The theory being that the householder would open the door, see the burning bag and stomp on it (and the dog poo). Argh childhood fun! - WF


Oh please remember the 5th of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
I have no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot
Holler boys, holler boys
God save the king
Holler boys holler boys
God save the queen.

    From R Ridley's grandmother.


 Summary of source material

 

The Origin

 

The notion of making 24 May (Queen Victoria's birthday) a celebration of empire originated in Canada by the head mistress of a school in the late 1890s. Empire Day was celebrated by children in schools by patriotic exercises, readings and addresses. This idea was followed up in Britain and a resolution was made to spread the movement throughout the Empire.

 

In Australia from May 1905, the premiers agreed to the official observance of the day by all.

 

Empire Day was celebrated by patriotic gatherings, public luncheons, church services and special ceremonies in all state schools in the Commonwealth. It came to be the main annual event for the release of fireworks, as it fell in mid-winter- a more suitable time for the lighting of bonfires and firework displays than the traditional Guy Fawkes Day.

 

As attachment to the empire waned, so too did the significance of Empire Day, and in 1958 its name was changed to British Commonwealth Day. In 1966 it changed again, this time to Commonwealth Day, and the date moved from 24 May to11 June to coincide with the 'official' birthday of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

 

Full source

Introduction

The following is an extract of an address in the Daily Telegraph, May 1924.

'Friday next, May 24, 1924, will be Empire Day. It is a new institution amongt he British race, but it has come to stay. The first recognised celebration inother of our lands than this was in 1903, and the first here in 1905. Each yearhas shown a marked extension, and indeed, a rapid growth of the movement. It will soon cover every part of the vast dominions of the King. The British Empire League in Australia has from the first warmly advocated such a day.

The suggestions by the league for the celebration this year are:

1 The display of the Union Jack and other British flags on buildings, shipsetc.

2 The wearing on the day of a loyal badge or emblem in the button-hole or inthe dress.

3 Patriotic meetings of citizens, at which suitable addresses should be givenand songs sung.

4 Appropriate music on the day by bands, etc., in parks and other publicplaces.

5 Celebrations by schools, and saluting the flag etc.

6 Luncheons, or banquets by public bodies, etc.

7 Concerts, in which the songs shall be of a British and patriotic character.

8 British greetings among individuals, and from place to place.

9 Empire Day thanksgiving services in churches.

It will be observed that the day should be for all citizens, and not forchildren only. The good Earl of Meath's idea of an Empire Day for schools wasmost excellent, but why should the celebration be confined to about one-sixthof those under the flag? Why ignore the adult population? A citizens' EmpireDay has been our Australian idea from the first, and it has been promulgatedfrom Sydney to England, and other parts, and with much success. I trust thatthe larger, truer and nobler conception of the day may be in the minds ofall.

Care should be taken to keep it free from all party entanglements. Men and women of every school of thought should be enabled to celebrate it together with one heart and with rejoicings as under one flag. Catholic and Protestant, Liberal, Progressive and Labour parties should all on this day forget their differences and stand together. It should be a kind of Christmas Day as to peace and goodwill within the whole British family ...

An Empire Day in lands so scattered as ours is needed. It is very differentwith a compact nationality of one area, as its unity is ever present. But withthe British, on whose dominions the sun never sets, it is very desirable thaton one day in the year, at least, they may realise their oneness, andsolidarity. It should increase their loyalty to their one King and to oneanother. This brotherhood can be better understood and conceived when all,though oceans may divide them, can on the same day, with one heart, join in thesame celebration ...'(1)

From Empire Day by Canon F. B. Boyce, Founding President of the British EmpireLeague of Victoria.

 

The Origin

The notion of making 24 May (Queen Victoria's birthday) a celebration of empireoriginated in Canada in the late 1890s. An Empire Day for children had beenstarted by the head mistress of a Canadian school who proposed that such a dayshould be celebrated in schools by patriotic exercises, readings and addresses.This idea was followed up in Britain by Reginald Brabazon, the twelfth Earl ofMeath, who resolved to spread the movement throughout the Empire. On 21 July1902, a cable appeared in the Sydney papers: 'The Earl of Meath has suggested that an Empire Day holiday should be observed'. This idea was championed by theBritish Empire League of Australia and its president, Canon Francis BertieBoyce.(2)

Unbeknown to Boyce and other members of the league, however, the Empire Dayproposed by the Earl of Meath was for schoolchildren only. It was Boyce'sletter to the Times, 11 April 1903, which first brought forward the proposalfor a citizen's Empire Day for children and adults alike:

An Empire Day would be essentially a Briton's Day ... May 24th, the birthday of Queen Victoria, stands out as especially suitable. The great extension of herreign is in itself a fact that links her memory with the object ... But with open minds let us rally to any day appointed ... I greatly hope that the authorities in London will take steps and, in consultation with theself-governing countries, arrange for a day. I am very confident that such anational holiday circling the earth with Britain's drum beat would be helpful and increasingly so as the years rolled on in holding a race together. In loyalty to the Throne and Empire the day would annually appeal to all whom loved the old flag. Is not sentiment among peoples often more powerful thanlaw? Friends afar ask for action from London.(3)

The movement for an Empire Day for all citizens was advocated by members of the league and from 1903, under the leadership of Boyce, the league actively workedfor the adoption of an Empire Day in Australia. The prime minister (who wasalso a vice-president of the league) presented a convincing case at thepremiers' conference in 1905 for declaring the 24 May as a day of imperialcelebration. Subsequently, from May 1905, the premiers agreed to the official observance of the day by all. However, the expressed wish of the British EmpireLeague of Australia for the proclamation of a public holiday was not a point onwhich they would be persuaded.(4)

Empire Day was celebrated by patriotic gatherings, public luncheons, church services and special ceremonies in all state schools in the Commonwealth. Itcame to be the main annual event for the release of fireworks, as it fell inmid-winter- a more suitable time for the lighting of bonfires and fireworkdisplays than the traditional Guy Fawkes Day.(5)

As attachment to the empire waned, so too did the significance of Empire Day, and in 1958 its name was changed to British Commonwealth Day. In 1966 it changed again, this time to Commonwealth Day, and the date moved from 24 May to11 June to coincide with the 'official' birthday of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

 

Endnotes

1 F. B. Boyce, Empire Day, Sydney, 1927, p. 24.

2 ibid., p. 5.

3 ibid., p. 3.

4 Stewart Firth and Jeanette Hoorn, 'From Empire Day to Cracker Night', in P. Spearritt and D. Walker (eds), Australian Popular Culture, George Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1979, p. 19.

5 The Australian Encyclopedia, vol. vi, The Grolier Society of Australia, Sydney, 1962, p. 518.