Thursday, 24 May 2012

Empire Day 24th May

An HMV gramophone recording of the Empire Day Message to Children
of the British Empire from HM King George V and Queen Mary, recorded
at Buckingham Palace London in 1923
[From my own collection]

The 24th May once marked "Empire Day" throughout New Zealand and the British Empire. The first such commemoration took place in Great Britain on the 24th May 1902, being Her Late Majesty Queen Victoria's birthday.

H.M. Queen Victoria  by Alexander Bassano, 1882
At this time the British Empire was truly at its zenith.
[Source : Wikipedia]

Originally considered with children in mind…“[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.” [and that] “The strength of the Empire depended upon them, and they must never forget it.”

Flags of the Empire with the British Flag in centre
[Source : State Library of Victoria]

Empire Day quickly grew, being celebrated by countless millions of children and adults alike, both in Great Britain and around her vast Empire, truly an opportunity to demonstrate pride in being part of the great British Empire. Empire Day quickly spawned the "Empire Movement" under the auspices of Lord Meath, with the emphasis still being very much on children.  

Adults and children celebrating Empire Day at Stratford New Zealand
24 May 1903, taken by James McAllister.
[Source : Alexander Turnbull Library]

New Zealand first celebrated "Empire Day" on the 24th May 1903 with "The double purpose of keeping fresh and green the memory of a most illustrious reign [of Her Majesty Queen Victoria] and rejoicing in the consolidation of our great Empire".

[Source : "Our Flags and Their Significance" by KC Byrde, 1920]

In 1907 children attending Auckland public schools celebrated Empire Day by saluting the flag and by listening to patriotic addresses. Elsewhere in the city veterans and volunteers paraded and held a military tournament. A 'patriotic concert' took place in Wellington. The southern town of Invercargill went as far as to observe Empire Day as a general holiday.

HM King George V & Queen Mary speaking to
the children  of the British Empire, recorded at
 Buckingham Palace in 1923.
[From my own collection]

In 1910 "The New Zealand School Journal" inspired its young readers with these words :

"Children of the Empire, clasp hands across the main,
And Glory in your brotherhood, again and yet again;
Uphold your noble heritage - oh, never let it fall - 
And love the land that bore you, but the Empire best of all"

The Empire Day Message to Children of the British 
Empire from HM King George V and Queen Mary, 
recorded at Buckingham Palace in 1923.
(this is the same recording as held in my collection)   

In 1919 Schools in the Dominion moved Empire Day commemorations to the 3rd of June, being the official birthday of King George V. By the 1930's "The New Zealand School Journal" had ceased to print an issue commemorating "Empire Day". Nor had the idea of a general public holiday taken hold, being inconveniently close to the King's Birthday holiday.

[Source : Abagond]

In 1931 the United Kingdom Parliament passed the "Statute of Westminster" which established legislative equality for the self-governing Dominions of the British Empire. While loyalty to Great Britain itself remained high, the unravelling of the British Empire after World War Two, emerging nationalism, and the desire to alter New Zealand's constitution without reference to the British Parliament prompted adoption of the Statute in 1947, becoming the last of the Dominions to do so. 

Empire Day Celebrations Wellington New Zealand, taken 24 May 1940.
Mr Leonard Tripp, the President of the Royal Empire League, reading a
 message from former Governor General Lord Bledisloe, taken in front of
 the statue to Queen Victoria. Note the wreath to be laid by the memorial.
[Source : Alexander Turnbull Library, Evening Post Photo] 

We would no longer be known as the "Dominion of New Zealand" but as the "Realm of New Zealand", being able to fully direct our own foreign affairs and military. New Zealand citizens no longer travelled on British Passports. It also legally separated the British Crown from a New Zealand Crown, thus King George VI became" King of New Zealand" just as Queen Elizabeth II is today "Queen of New Zealand". 

In 1958 New Zealand appropriately renamed "Empire Day" as "Commonwealth Day", shifting it to the 11th of March. The Governor-General of New Zealand Lord Cobham noted that "The British Empire had now given way to the noble concept of a Commonwealth of free peoples".

Note : Historic gramophone recordings should now only ever be played by means of a modern electronic 78rpm capable turntable and stylus rather than by using steel needles which will incrementally and permanently damage the records.

Bibliography :

- Wikipedia


  1. It was absolutely appropriate that Empire Day be renamed Commonwealth Day, as you say "in accordance with the new post-colonial relationship between the nations of the former empire". In Australia we don't have Commonwealth Day, as such, but we certainly do have Queen's Birthday long weekend.

    The only thing I miss about the old Empire Day was cracker night. The best night of the year for children.

  2. Another great article, Don.

    By the way, I'm not sure if it's entirely your sort of thing but I've given you the One Lovely Blog award over at my own blog, as I so enjoy reading your posts.

  3. How did I not know about this. Note in diary for next year! David.

    PS - Found it interesting to note our flag has red stars whilst Australia white stars. Had not noticed the difference in colour before, only the extra one. Why the colour difference?


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