First person || Memories of Empire Day || Judith Law

Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)

Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)

A friend of mine sent me a cutting from the newspaper “The District Reporter” printed in Narellan back in 2001. It features the history of Empire Day. I was interested to learn that in the late 1890’s, Canada conceived the idea of celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday in the classroom. Primarily due to the efforts of Canon Francis Bertie Boyce this day has been observed in Australia since 1905. Canon viewed the Empire as a beneficent force which could help to unite the world under just and moral law.

It was at the suggestion of the Premier of NSW, J.H. Carruthers, that the Premiers’ Conference of February 1905 agreed that May 24, which was the late Queen Victoria’s birthday, (Pictured left)  should become a public holiday to be known as Empire Day. For almost four decades Empire Day reigned as the major event of the school calendar especially public schools. It was even popular in Catholic schools although the emphasis of Empire Day was more about Australia for Australians.

In 1958, Empire Day was changed to British Commonwealth Day, and in 1966 it was once again altered to Commonwealth Day. This was the same year the observance date was moved to June 11, the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth although her majesty’s actual birth date is April 21, which may coincide with Easter thereby resulting in too many public holidays in April.

When reporter Jan Ross also wrote of the excitement of collecting dead branches and old tyres to fuel the traditional bonfires, she could have been writing about my own childhood memories of Empire Day when children used their pocket money to buy crackers which included the unforgettable penny bungers, Catherine wheels, jumping jacks, sparklers, tom thumbs and flower fountains.

Family friends and neighbours would gather around the bonfire at night and the children would let off their crackers amid screams of delight and fright while trying to escape the dreaded jumping jacks, which had a mind of their own. My mother made lolly bags out of red crepe paper on the sewing machine, and filled the bags with sugar coated old-fashioned boiled lollies, which are also part of a past era.

The millions of dollars spent on fireworks in Sydney for the Olympics and New Year celebrations will never replace my memories of Empire Day celebrations before they banned fireworks and lighting fires in one’s own backyard.

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