59. Empire Day celebrations 1915

This post looks specifically at Empire Day celebrations held in Yarram in May 1915. The appeal of the (British) Empire was the fundamental plank in the politics and culture of Australia in the early 20C. Australia’s involvement in WW1 makes little sense without this understanding of what the Empire meant at the time.

The staging of celebrations for Empire Day 1915 in the Shire of Alberton created controversy. Prior to the War, celebrations for Empire Day had been generally restricted to the local schools – see Post 3: Empire Day 1914. Often there would be some sort of community celebration – typically a sports competition – added to the school activities, but the focus was definitely the local school, or more precisely the local state school. However, there was a view in May 1915 that because of the War, the day should receive far more public attention, and that while the celebrations at the schools should proceed as normal, there should also be the opportunity for the wider community to come together, at night, and take part in a ‘demonstration’ of loyalty to the Empire.

The significance of celebrating the first Empire Day of the War was noted across all newspapers at the time. The Australasian (29/5/15 p.25) declared:

The significance of Empire Day has never been realised to the same extent as it was this year, when in no exaggerated figure but in sober truth it may be said that the United Kingdom, the Indian Empire, and the overseas dominions are literally fighting for the Imperial existence.

The Argus featured verse written specifically for the occasion. It laboured the themes of resolute determination and the resigned acceptance of suffering and loss on a massive scale, all for the higher good of the Empire. It even had images from what could have been Arthurian England. The work is included as an appendix.

In Yarram, the local paper, Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, backed the move to have the special demonstration of public loyalty on Empire Day. Its editor, A J Rossiter, was personally involved in the planning and he ensured that the proceedings were reported extensively in the paper. The celebrations were held on the night of Monday 24 May and the detailed reporting appeared in the paper on Wednesday 26/5/15.

The local identity most keenly advocating the idea of  the special celebration was Rev George Cox, the Church of England minister in Yarram. Cox was very influential in the local community. He had been born in Edinburgh and his commitment to the Empire was total. From the pulpit he was a fervent patriot. (See Post 26. Soldiers of Christ). He himself would go on to enlist in the AIF, even though he was in his mid forties and married with children. Over his 5 years in Yarram, Cox served on many local committees including the Red Cross, the Recruiting Committee and Belgium Relief. He was on the executive of the local Rechabite Lodge. In 1911, he had set up a society to record the history of the district (South Gippsland sub-centre of the Historical Society), the first such local history society in Victoria.

Cox was also on the committee of the local school (Yarram SS) and in that capacity he persuaded the committee to send a formal letter to the Shire of Alberton asking it to take the lead in planned community celebrations for Empire Day. However the Shire was not keen on the proposal. It appeared content to stay with the traditional school-focused arrangement.  Following the ‘rebuff’, Cox went ahead and formed a small committee so that the ‘grand public demonstration’ he envisaged could go ahead. Rossiter made sure that this piece of local politics was reported in the paper (26/5/15):

The fact that the Alberton Shire Council did not concede to the request to join in a grand public demonstration in no way deterred those who had the scheme in hand from giving effect to it. The Rev. Geo. Cox … having met with what he considered a rebuff, called townsmen together, and a committee was formed, with the result that “the day” was celebrated in a fashion that became loyal Australians.  … Yarram residents gathered together on Monday night to publicly demonstrate their loyalty, and celebrate Empire Day with feelings of pride and cheerfulness.

The committee working with Cox comprised William F Lakin (bank manager, Yarram), Thomas Whitney (manager of the South Gippsland Creamery and Butter Factory, Yarram), George Frederick Sauer (draper, Yarram), Alfred Edmund Paige (head teacher, Yarram SS) and Ben Percival Johnson (solicitor, Yarram). Members of this group also officiated at the farewells organised for soldiers. They would also serve on the various recruiting committees set up over the coming years.  After Cox himself – as indicated, he enlisted in late 1915 and left the district – the most influential person in this group would prove to B P Johnson.

On the night, the ‘Mechanics’ Hall’ was full – by 8 o’clock every seat was taken . The venue was decorated appropriately:

Never has the hall looked so gay with bunting. The large Agricultural Society’s Union Jack formed a complete background to the stage, and in the hall the flags of Australia, France, Belgium, Russia, Italy and Servia were conspicuous, Japan being represented by chrysanthemums. From the centre of the ceiling lines of smaller flags were run to the four corners of the hall, and in the right hand corner of the hall the name “Lusitania”  was inscribed on a placard in black letters.

The chairman for the night – Thomas Whitney, manager of the local butter factory  – presented a lengthy history of the Empire Movement and Empire Day. Keen to emphasise the role that belief in the Empire could play in daily life, he even went into the specifics of the 4 planks of the Empire Movement – Responsibility, Duty, Sympathy and Self-Sacrifice – and continued on with its fifteen propositions:

1. Love and fear God.  2. Honor the King.  3. Obey the laws.  4. Prepare to advance the highest interests of the Empire in peace and war.  5. Cherish patriotism.  6. Regard the rights of other nations.  7. Learn citizenship.  8. Follow duty.  9. Consider duties before rights.  10. Acquire knowledge.  11. Think broadly.  12. Practise discipline.  13. Subdue self.  14. Work for others.  15. Consider the poor and suffering.

The mix of religious conviction, Christian practice and civic responsibility serves as a reminder of how Protestantism was the religion of the Empire (See Post 16. Righteous war and religious renewal, September – October 1914).

Whitney declared that if people were prepared to embrace the propositions then Australia would be a greater nation, and, in that time of peril, he urged all present to recommit to the guiding principles of the Empire Movement over the coming year. Australia’s history – that of the young, emerging nation – was bound to the Empire’s longer and grander history.

The following resolution was passed by acclamation:

This meeting of citizens of Yarram and district, affirms its confidence in the solidarity of our Empire and the integrity of our cause, and while expressing its unbounded admiration of the gallantry of our representatives at the front, and its deepest sympathy with those bereaved, urges upon all our people to rise to a realisation of our Empire as exemplified in the conduct of our men upon both land and sea.

Much was made of the glorious history of the Empire and its fundamental role in Australia’s own history and development. Whitney even saw the Empire, under God, stretching back one thousand years:

There was something about the British Empire which appealed to Australians, and in the present crisis, a sense of its power and grandeur was felt by all. It sent a thrill of independence through us, and we gloried in the legacy which our forefathers had left us; they who had shed their blood to overcome every hindrance which beset them. The flag that had braved all breezes and all wars for the past thousand years would still keep flying, and vindicate our right to the Divine possession. (Applause).

There was a full program of ‘patriotic airs’ to accompany the speeches – Kipling’s Recessional, England Calls for Men, Your King and Country Want You, Motherland, Army and Navy, To the Front, The Minstrel Boy, and even the Marseillaise –  and Rev. Cox had penned additional verses of the National Anthem for the occasion. One of these verses was printed by the local paper and sung by everyone there:

Australia’s sons uphold
Gallant and strong and bold, God keep our men.
May they victorious be, Whether on land or sea, At all times kept by Thee, God save our men.

A highlight of the night involved a performance by the school children from Yarram SS:

A pretty scene was presented when over thirty Yarram school children marched on to the stage, each carrying Union Jacks. The girls were attired in white frocks, and the boys wore red, white and blue ties. The popular songs “Red, White and Blue” and “Sons of the Sea” were given with considerable vim, the choir and audience taking up the chorus.

At interval, the local Red Cross put on a demonstration:

The interval was filled in very nicely with a demonstration by the St. John Ambulance trainees, who adjusted a “broken” leg, “fractured” collar bone, and “fractured” jaws in professional fashion, the patients looking not at all perturbed in the absence of anaesthetics. … A case of “fractured thigh” gave opportunity for the use of the new stretcher, while the other patients were assisted by various means of hand carrying. The Rev. Geo. Cox had charge of the ambulance trainees, and with his accustomed thoroughness had a telephone rigged up on the stage for demonstration purposes.

Overall the night was declared a great success, as a public demonstration of support for the Empire in its time of peril. However the proceedings may have proved too long and tedious for younger members of the audience because at one point the stage was plunged into darkness when children ‘meddled with the footlights and caused a fuse to blow out’. The fault was quickly fixed.

By this stage of the war it was not possible to have any sort of civic function and not at some point call for more volunteers. That night, Whitney had spoken for too long and several of the later speakers had to either shorten or cancel their prepared efforts. However, one speaker who definitely did feature after the interval was local solicitor, B P Johnson. As indicated, Johnson was probably the most important public speaker over the entire period of the War. He was heavily involved with the various recruiting committees and campaigns, and that night he was given time to call for more enlistments. He argued that Australia had not yet sent its quota for the Empire – on the basis of Australia’s population he gave this quota as 300,000 men – and that too many locals were hanging back refusing to go. He singled out the footballers as the classic example of the very types who should enlist. Johnson finished his appeal with what had become by then standard recruiting flourishes:

Only those who do their duty know true happiness. If a man fell, how can he die better (Applause).

Empire Day celebrations in 1915 highlighted how people in the Shire of Alberton viewed and interpreted the War through the lens of the Empire. The planning and management of the celebrations also underscored the role of the professional, managerial and propertied class in controlling the narrative of the war. It was this group of townspeople who, literally, held the stage. As will become evident in future posts, the same group of townspeople would come to drive the business of soldiers’ farewells, recruiting campaigns and, in time, the push for conscription.


Empire Day, 1915

Not with the pomp and circumstance of yore,
Not with the flaunted pride of other days,
Not with the joy-bells pealing from the shore
To sound their placid note of self-sung praise

But rather as some knight who in the fray
Halts for a moment at a wayside shrine,
And bows his helmed head to humbly pray
For God’s good guidance in his task divine.

Mother, we stand before you! At your call
We struck for Empire, and we struck for right;
Not ours to falter – better far to fall
And win a hero’s guerdon in the fight.

Not for a moment will we sheathe the sword
We wield for freedom in its hour of need,
Duty and honour call with one accord
To prove our plighted word by dauntless deed.

And if the cost demanded by the cause
Means that we sacrificed a nation’s brave –
Then must we sacrifice, and only pause
To lay our tribute in their glorious grave.

Thus by the flag which proudly floats above,
Thus by the valour of an unshed tear,
We’ll prove to all the world our loyal love,
And make each day an Empire Day this year!

The Argus, Tuesday 25 May 1915, p 8


The Argus

The Australasian

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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