Empower the children!
The twelfth Earl of Meath, Reginald Brabazon, was largely behind the establishment of this custom and although it was first celebrated in 1902, it soon became a main fixture of schools across the country. They observed the occasion with special events and these became a regular feature of the school calendar. Often it was taken officially or otherwise a half day holiday for schools:
“The twenty-fourth of May, The Queen’s Birthday; If you don’t give us a holiday, We’ll all run away.”
Another rhyme recorded at Boothby Pagnell near Grantham, Lincolnshire recorded:
“The 24th of May, Is our Royal Empire Day, Our Union Jack, Red, White and Blue, We all salute today”
The date is easily explained as being Queen Victoria’s birthday, but as a correspondent of Sutton (1996) notes an alternative name arose:
“the day was known as Daisy Day. You fastened a daisy to your dress with a red, white, and blue ribbon and wore it to school”
Queen Victoria’s favourite flower was a daisy. Opie and Opie in the Lore of the Playground note that a Staffordshire school teacher would noted that some of his children ‘wear red, white and blue and a daisy.’
Schools appeared to be the main celebrant of the custom, for example in Nottingham, the Evening Post of 1937 notes that all 120 of those schools controlled by the then educational committee in Nottingham, celebrated the day in some form ranging from Mass at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic school at the Cathedral to Maypole dancing and national dances at Arboretum Open air school. In Underwood, Nottinghamshire, a report in the Eastwood and Kimberley Advertiser describes what took place in 1908:
“The day was observed at Underwood mixed schools by the decoration of the school with flags, mottoes etc. The children had special lessons on matters relating to the Empire delivered to the Upper Standards V VI and VII by the headmaster Mr F. E. Lowe and the Lower Standards II, III and IV by the Principle Assistant Mr T B. Nix. Afterwards the children were drawn up in the playground in the form of a solid square under the baton of the headmaster sang the songs ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save the King” in the presence of a good crowd of spectators. Afterwards the children gave hearty cheers for the King and the Flag and dispersed for an afternoon’s holiday”
In Surrey, Reigate children too would go to the castle and sing patriot songs as they waved flags. Doel and Doel (1992) inform us that at Headley, Surrey the children would be entered by a hurdy-gurdy surmounted by a live monkey in the rectory gardens. Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar (1996) reports a Gainsborough informant notes:
“We always wore a daisy to school on Empire Day, it being ‘A Colour Day’. We had a party to celebrate the event, and the food tied up with the colour of the day: green and white for daisy day. We ate green jellies, cakes with green and white icing on them, cucumber sandwiches were popular, everything fitted in with the colour for the day. Our teacher helped us to make crepe paper hats in the colour, some of the girls had green and white paper dresses on. There were stories about ‘the Great British Empire’ and a map of the British Empire was put on the wall; all that was British was coloured pink.”
Often visiting lecturers would appear in assembly. Most though had talks from the local vicar or headmaster and mistress. An interesting example being from Claremont school for boys, Nottingham suggesting how attitudes may have been changing, where the Rev Lysons:
“stressed the importance of character in building up and maintaining the Empire. The coronation oath made necessary the self government of the Dominions and freedom was the watch word of the Empire. He appealed to the boys to use their opportunities to develop character, so that they might be ready to carry on the great traditions of the Empire, and to live and work for the Commonwealth of Nations. Selections were given by the school orchestra….and patriotic songs were song by the school choir..During the day a floral token on behalf of the schools was laid in the ‘Soldiers corner’ of the General cemetery by the school captain…in respect for all who have done so much for the future of the citizens of this Commonwealth of nations and for the world.”
Processions would occur, in Lolworth, Cambridgeshire Porter in her Cambridgeshire folklore in 1966 notes that the children would process, singing and bearing flags to the Huntingdon road, after which they were given oranges.
Red white and who!
Mention Empire Day today and few will know it. It appears to have declined during the Second World War, the focus appeared to be changing and interest was on recognising the conflict and its outcomes. Although in some places, Empire Day was still celebrated until at least the 1950s, its underlying theme of subjugation was perhaps ‘too close to home’ considering what had been fought over, a celebration of based on territorial expansion was no longer seen as appropriate. Therefore it was not surprising, it was replaced by Commonwealth Day in 1958 and then 1966 the date was moved to the 10th June the official birthday of Elizabeth II, and again in 1977 to the second Monday in March and as far as I am aware it is no longer celebrated. Instead, St George’s Day has become the focus for patriotism and jingoism.