Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Empire Day

You could be forgiven for thinking that Empire Day was an English institution, established in those glory days when Britannia ruled the waves.

In fact it wasn't officially recognised in Britain until 1916, some seventeen years after it was first celebrated in the dominions.

Empire Day is credited to have been the brainchild of Lord Meath. However, it appears that the Education Department of Ontario might have had the idea first.

In 1899 the Canadian government announced the establishment of Empire Day to be celebrated by schoolchildren on May 24th, Queen Victoria's birthday.

In a letter to the Times newspaper dated April 25th 1899 Lord Meath expresses his support of a day "to be spent in instructing the scholars in matters appertaining to the Empire by means of lectures, recitations, etc and part in pleasant exercises of a patriotic character..."

A year later and Ferdinand Faithfull Begg, Scottish stockbroker and politican, introduced a Parliamentary Bill to discuss a new national holiday.

The original proposal was for a holiday on the first Monday in October as it was felt there were already too many holidays in May and an October Bank Holiday would nicely break up the long stretch between August Bank Holiday and Christmas.

By 1902 Natal was already celebrating Victoria Day on the old Queen's birthday and the governments of Malta, Ceylon, India and Burma confirmed support of the proposed Empire Day.

In 1904 Lord Meath was still working to get the holiday recognised despite the creation of the League of the Empire Movement two years earlier. An editorial in the Times commented: "It is felt that England should not be behind the Colonies and dependencies in the matter."

However in 1906 it was reported that 7,500 schools in the UK had celebrated Empire day and some 20,000 altogether had applied to the League for suitable literature such as a lecture given by Mr. W.K. Stride entitled "A Trip Around the Empire."

Alongside the serious instructional material the day was celebrated with a play or pageant, children dressed in costumes of the member countries. Empire Day soon became a feature of the school calendar for children growing up in the interwar years.

In 1958 Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day and since 1973 has been held on the second Monday in March.

The Queen attends a service in Westminster Abby and records a Commonwealth Day message for the member states.

Frances Bevan

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