Even though she was long dead, Queen Victoria’s birthday (May 24, 1819) fell on a Sunday in 1914 and that meant that Empire Day was celebrated in Victorian schools on Friday 22 May.
The common arrangement across all public schools in Victoria saw the morning devoted to lessons or talks on the Empire, and the afternoon to extra-curriculum activities.
The following account of Empire Day 1914 is based on a series of articles that appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative at the time. The schools involved in the articles were: North Devon State School, Yarram SS, Hedley SS, Carrajung South SS, Bulga SS and Binginwarri SS. This is certainly not the complete list of public schools in the shire at the time, and Hedley SS was not even in the Shire of Alberton, but the reports taken collectively certainly give a lively account of what Empire Day looked like in state schools at the time.
Commonly, there were several days of preparation and on the day the school was decorated with flags, bunting and floral displays. In the morning, special guests – local councillors, the Shire President, clergymen, school committee representatives, visiting dignitaries etc – would attend and present stirring speeches on the theme of the British Empire. For example, at North Devon, Cr. Barlow spoke about the Union Jack … the emblem of unity, peace and honesty. He reminded the boys that the red of their flag stood for bravery. At Yarram SS that same morning, the Rev. Geo Cox (Church of England) spoke on the “Symbol of Empire” and his religious confrere, Mr Rymer, covered the topic of “Freedom within the Empire.” While at Bulga SS, the President of the School Committee (Mr S Wills) addressed the children on … their duties, as children of the Empire.
In some cases the children read their own reflections on the Empire and there were also special topical lessons. For example, at Yarram the staff had prepared lessons for the day covering: “Why we keep Empire Day,” “The Royal Family,” “The Union Jack,” “The Australian Flag,” “The Possessions of Britain” and other topics of a suitable nature.
There was also plenty of singing and recitation. At Bulga SS the children sang “Rule Britannia” and “The Sea is England’s Glory” ( J W Lake, 1885) and keeping up the nautical theme they also recited, “Jack the Sailor”. Here is the first verse of The Sea is England’s Glory which you would have heard had you been there that day:
The sea is England’s glory!
The bounding waves her throne;
For ages bright in story,
The ocean is her own.
In war the first, the fearless
Her standard leads the brave,
In peace she reigns so peerless,
The Empress of the wave!
To modern ears the lyrics might sound jingoistic or at least embarrassingly simple, but at the time the British Navy was the most significant asset in Australia’s external defence policy.
The other key piece of formality in the morning was the ritual of saluting the flag and singing the national anthem: At noon the Union Jack was saluted and the usual oath recited, after which cheers were given for the King, the Empire, the Flag and for “Australia, our Own Land” (Yarram SS)
If the morning was given over entirely to outpourings of imperial loyalty and scripted lessons on Australia’s place and destiny within the Empire, then the afternoon was a far less formal affair. The most common pursuit was a sports carnival with a picnic or special lunch to precede it.
One variation on the children’s afternoon entertainment saw their parents also participating in in the sports with their own events. For example, at Carrajung South SS, the afternoon crowd swelled to some 300 people as parents joined. The same applied at Binginwarri SS, and at Hedley SS the parents appeared to take over because while the children’s sports ran from noon to one o’clock, the parents’ events started immediately after and ran through to dark.
There were variations. Yarram SS did not go down the path of the sports carnival. Instead they opted for a skating afternoon at the Mechanics Institute. Some of the children brought their own skates, while others were provided with those so generously lent by the Yarram Town Band Committee.
With all these events involving parents and others, Empire Day reached well beyond the local school to the wider community. Moreover, in many locations the activities went well past the normal school day. Admittedly Yarram SS finished its celebrations at the child-sensible time of 5 o’clock but other communities continued well past dusk. For example, at Carrajung South SS A dance was held in the school that night to terminate the days enjoyment, when about 40 couples tripped the light fantastic... At Binginwarri SS the dancing went to midnight. At Hedley SS the community organised a major bonfire with fireworks, before the dance; and the dancing did not end until 2.00am the next morning.
Empire Day in 1914 across the Shire seems to have been a rather relaxed celebration. There was a balance between the formality of the local primary school’s focus on both the central place of the Empire in every aspect of Australia’s national life, and every child’s corresponding duty to the Empire, and a more relaxed opportunity for people, not just the children, to come together, have some fun and celebrate the sense of belonging to the greatest empire on earth. Most importantly, there was no sense at all that the Empire itself was under dire threat from external forces or a major war was about to engulf Europe.
However there were challenges to the Empire and while it would have gone unsaid at the celebrations in all the schools on Friday May 22, the most significant threat came not from without but from within. It was, of course, the ever-present question of Ireland. Consider the timing. The Home Rule Bill was passed by a substantial majority in the House of Commons on May 25 1914, the day after Empire Day.
Ireland then was an Imperial flash point even before the War began. It was the one part of the Empire that did not share the narrative on the greatness of the Empire and its manifest destiny. Further, the fundamental issue of Home Rule was not settled before the War began. It was merely put ‘on hold’ but it was clear to all that it was by then a compromised package.
While there was a significant separation between what was happening in the United Kingdom and what was happening in Australia, the conflict from ‘Home’ – whether England or Ireland – did play out in various forms in the new Commonwealth of Australia.
Specifically in relation to the celebration of Empire Day, it is worth looking at how parallel tensions ran in Australia at the time. Empire Day was seen by the Catholic Church hierarchy in Australia as a distinctly British celebration. Its implementation from 1905 had been driven by the British Empire League and it was viewed with deep suspicion by the Catholic Church. In direct response, from 1911 the church hierarchy directed that May 24 was to celebrated as Australia Day. The day would be one where ‘patriotism’ was equated with commitment to Australian nationalism. The flag would be unfurled and a special Australian National Hymn was to be sung. There was also the option of a holiday with entertainment for the children. May 24 happened to be not only Queen Victoria’s birthday but also the feast day of Our Lady Help of Christians, the patron of Australia.
It is not clear how keenly the Australia Day celebration was taken up by the Catholic schools across the Nation but, not surprisingly, merely the suggestion of opposition to celebration of the Empire prompted incandescent outrage. The Argus on 29 May 1911, p.6 reported a speech by O R Snowball MLA, who was also Grand President of the Loyal Orange Council of Australasia. His comments are informative because they tend to confirm Catholic fears that the version of the Empire promoted by the likes of the British Empire League was decidedly Protestant. Snowball stated categorically, The Empire rested on Protestantism. … He trusted that the Protestant people would more and more realise that it was not material wealth, but sturdy Protestantism, and its observances and spirit, which had made and would maintain the empire. It was because the Lord God of Hosts was with us.
But not only was the Empire a Protestant creation, the Catholic Church was its mortal enemy. Even then, in 1911 – three years before the War! – the claim that WW1 was a Vatican plot was being floated:
It was common knowledge that the aims of the Roman Catholic Church were a danger to our national life. He hoped that Protestants would deal with that church in the way it deserved. The head of that church in Australia had declared himself in unmistakable terms that he would have none of this empire celebration recognised by his church. This church was a great standing menace to the British people. German hostility to Britain was being engineered by the Vatican which hoped to set the two great Protestant powers at each other’s throats next year. That would never be. (Applause.) Protestants need not charge the Roman Church with disloyalty it charged itself, and declared itself. It was a treacherous influence which would tear down our flag and trample it underfoot.
So in the lead-up to WW1 there were major tensions over such as the celebration of Empire Day and Home Rule for Ireland, and sitting behind these flash points there was the more fundamental issue of whether Protestantism, the natural religion of the Empire, was also therefore the proper religion of the Nation; and even behind this there were other concerns: for example, was it possible for the new Commonwealth to have any distinctive identity outside the Empire. But none of this was evident in the reporting of celebrations for Empire Day in the Shire of Alberton in 1914. There is no reference to tension of any kind. The day was simply an unqualified celebration of the British Empire and a chance to have some fun.
It is also worth pointing out that the lack of Catholic primary schools in the Shire at the time meant that great majority of Catholic children were exposed to the same strong messages on the Empire. For children across the Shire it had been a near universal experience for many years, even before the formal introduction of Empire Day in 1905. Catholic children had been schooled, in the state sector, to honour and identify with the Empire. Most of the young men from the Shire, both Protestant and Catholic, who enlisted in the AIF over 1914-1918 had been well and truly taught all the prescribed lessons on both the the glory of the Empire and the loyalty they owed it.
As a final observation, it is hardly surprising that the Catholic Australia’s National Hymn did not take hold as any sort of national anthem. It just swapped the jingoistic British Empire for a higher order, but far too ethereal, Heavenly Empire. The following version was published in the Freeman’s Journal (Sydney) – later the Catholic Weekly – Thursday 11 May 1911, p25. It ran to seven stanzas with the three below recommended.
God bless our lovely morning-land!
God keep her with enfolding hand
Close to His side,
While booms the distant battle’s roar,
From out some rude, barbaric shore,
In blessed peace for evermore,
There to abide!
Love lives in promise otherwhere,
But we are brothers – in the care
Of one birthright;
One God above, one home below,
One foot against our country’s foe,
And – if needs be – one ringing blow
The wrong to smite.
God bless thee, lovely morning-land,
God keep thee with enfolding hand
Close to His side!
Make thee the home of liberty,
While sweeps the Murray to the sea,
And lifts a proud front dauntlessly,
The Great Divide!
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
‘Empire Day. Yarram’, 27 May 1914, p.2
‘Empire Day. Bulga’, 29 May 1914, p.2
‘Binginwarri. Empire Day’, 3 June 1914, p.4
‘Empire Day. Hedley’, 3 June 1914, p.2
‘Empire Day.Carrajung South’, 5 June 1914, p.4
‘Australia Day. Ne Temere Decree. Mr. Snowball’s Criticism’, 29 May 1911, p.6
Freeman’s Journal (Sydney)
‘Australia Day’, 11 May 1911, p.25