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When the globe was in the pink and children all had a holiday on Empire Day

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 27, 2014

  • Souvenir brochure for Empire Day 1927, celebrating Diamond Jubilee of Canada's Confederation

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THOSE of a certain age may recall school geography lessons when a vast swathe of the globe was coloured pink. In those days millions of schoolchildren across the world looked forward to May 24 – otherwise known as Empire Day.

Originally, the date was chosen as it was Queen Victoria's birthday. In 1877 the elderly monarch took the title of Empress of India. By the time Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the Empire encompassed a quarter of the globe. The Queen/Empress was promoted as a benign mother to all her many peoples in the pink parts of the atlas.

These days we view our imperialist past very differently, abandoning the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia for something that had domination at its core. The notion of empire belongs firmly in the past and thankfully we have moved on.

World War Two revealed how imperialism could turn into sheer evil under the Nazi regime. When the shocking images from Belsen appeared, nothing could be the same again. The war changed everything and imperialist nations had to review relationships with their colonial territories, many of whom sought independence.

So in 1958, Empire Day was re-branded as British Commonwealth Day. By 1966 it was called Commonwealth Day and moved to June 10, our present Queen's official birthday. In 1977 it was changed to the second Monday in March. The celebrations had long since ceased, the day now marked by a multi-faith church service in Westminster Abbey, attended by Commonwealth representatives, heads of state, including the Queen. With a nod to its beginnings, the service also includes 1,000 school children.

Today the sun has long since set on the British Empire. We live in and celebrate a multi-cultural society and Empire Day is a largely forgotten event. Yet, to our forebears, it was simply the way things were and had been for a very long time. Children, in particular, enjoyed it because they got a chance to dress up and have a half-day holiday.

Across the far flung outposts of Empire children were encouraged to salute the union flag and sing patriotic songs like the National Anthem and Jerusalem. They would hear stories about heroes of the British Empire, such as General Wolfe of Quebec, Clive of India and Gordon of Khartoum. No doubt they'd be fidgeting, looking forward to being let out of school early so they could join in the parades, May Pole dances and parties to celebrate the day. Empire Day grew out of the Empire Day Movement at the end of the 19th century. The idea of setting aside a day to celebrate the Empire was first raised in 1894 by the Canadian branch of what was then the Royal Colonial Institute, now the Royal Commonwealth Society. Clementina Fessenden, wife of the Ontario Minister of Education, suggested a plan for children to commemorate the Empire on one day each year. Her plan soon became a Canadian national event.

As news of the Canadian celebrations spread around the Empire, other nations wanted to join in. In 1903 the British League of Australia wrote to TheTimes suggesting that Empire Day be celebrated by adults as well as children. In Britain the Earl of Meath ran a self-financed campaign for the day to be celebrated throughout the Empire.

The day was "to remind children that they formed part of the British Empire, and that they might think with others in lands across the sea, what it meant to be sons and daughters of such a glorious Empire." The punchline was that "The strength of the Empire depended upon them, and they must never forget it." In the UK it was not until after Queen Victoria's death that Empire Day was celebrated, the first Empire Day occurring on May 24, 1902, the old Queen's birthday. It was not recognised officially as an annual British event until 1916 on the back of heightened patriotic feeling during World War One. Across the Empire many schools had been celebrating it long before then.

An extract from a New Zealand school for 1910 records what children were told: "This is the Union Jack; and now that Empire Day has come round once more, you will hear its history. It is really a coloured picture from a history book, telling of things that happened long before you were born."

Australian children had even more reason to enjoy Empire Day. In common with other nations flags were flown, speeches made, parades and parties held and half day holidays taken. Best of all it was also "Cracker Night", the Aussie equivalent of our Bonfire Night. When darkness fell, everyone gathered for bonfire parties. May nights can be chilly in parts of Oz, so adults came with warm blankets and flasks of hot drinks for the kids, or something stronger for themselves.

British celebrations mostly involved school kids dressed in Sunday best bib and tucker. Girls pestered their mothers for frilly white frocks and pretty hair ribbons. On the way to and from school, you'd hear chants of "Remember, remember Empire Day, the 24th of May". Or, more commonly:

24th of May, Empire Day,

If you don't give us a holiday,

We'll all run away!

Sometimes the children were dressed in costumes of different countries, giving dance displays in the playground. They often performed a special song for the day, one version proclaiming:

Brightly, brightly, sun of spring upon this happy day,

Shine upon us as we sing this 24th of May.

Shine upon our brothers, too,

Far across the ocean blue,

As we raise our song of praise

On this our glorious Empire Day."

In 2006 Gordon Brown proposed that Remembrance Day should be set aside as a day for celebrating "Britishness" and historic patriotic achievements.

For many it sounded a bit too much like the old fashioned Empire Day. Many others felt it was an inappropriate hijacking of Remembrance Day, and best left alone.

Perhaps, another reason why the idea turned into a damp squib was that we all have different views about our nation, and what "Britishness" – if it exists – really is.

As for me, I say "Vive la difference!"

While we're on the subject, is the choice of 14th July – Bastille Day in France – as the date for the new "Black Country Day" purely coincidental? In the immortal words of Messieurs Aynuk and Ayli, long live "Libertay ...Egalitay ... Fraternitay ...Cuppa Tay!"

Just kidding – I know it's also the date when Newcomen gave the world its first ever steam engine – putting the Black Country at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

More on all the forthcoming events and celebrations nearer the time.

Did you celebrate Empire Day? Tell us your memories. Write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or email editor@blackcoun trybugle.co.uk or log on to wwww.blackcoun trybugle.co.uk

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