The Story of Empire Day

In 1890, Reginald Brabazon, 12th Earl of Meath, was invited by a clergyman acquaintance to address the young men of his congregation. The boys had been lured by the promise of “a half-crown spread for a penny” and the vicar was anxious to find a speaker who might be interesting enough to hold their attention. In an age before the phenomenon of the teenager was recognised, he was having trouble connecting with his youthful audience. After tea and cakes, the Earl decided he would entertain them with tales he had himself enjoyed, of the men who had been awarded the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny. His choice of subject was spot on; the boys were enthralled but it soon became clear that, not only had they never heard about the Indian Mutiny, but nor did they know anything about India.

Meath, Empire map

Lord Meath was appalled. After enquiring with the local schoolmaster he discovered that most pupils’ knowledge of history did not extend beyond Henry VIII.  How, he queried, “could one expect to make patriotic citizens of boys whose knowledge of the Empire stopped four centuries and more before their own time? They knew nothing of Great Britain’s relations with India, with America, or the later swelling Imperial note which resounded through the world, to make Britain not only the greatest political fact but the greatest political fact in the farthest-flung Empire the world has ever seen.”

Meath, an ardent Imperialist wanted the nation’s youth to share his enthusiasm, and, after discovering the situation was similar around the country, made it his personal crusade to educate and disseminate the idea of Empire to a rising generation. Setting up an office in his home, funding his campaign with an annual budget of £5000 provided by his wealthy wife and working with two secretaries, he set to work, lobbying high profile M.Ps. By 1896, he was proposing an Empire Day, first adopted by the province of Ontario the following year.

Meath suggested May 24th, the birthday of Queen Victoria, as the most suitable day to celebrate. It would be a public holiday for all school children around Britain, “with the exception of a couple of hours in the morning, to be spent in exercises of a patriotic and agreeable nature and in listening to lectures and recitations on subjects of an Imperial nature.”

Sphere, Daily Graphic, Wonder Book of Empire

Sir Philip Game during his speech in the Martin Place in Sydney at the celebration of the Empire Day of Combined Patriotic Societies of N.S.W. Next to him in vestment, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, left in the background, the main post office building. Above the people there is a banner with the words 'Empire Day Demonstration'.

The official adoption of Empire Day around the world was gradual. In 1905, Australia recognised the May 24th celebration. In 1916, when Britain was in the tightest grip of war and a reinforcement of national patriotism was called for, King George V officially sanctioned the observance of Empire Day by ordering the Union Jack to be flown from public buildings on that day. Lord Meath however had been encouraging it far longer, though not everyone was as enthused about the idea as he was.  An opinion piece in The Bystander from 1913 had a cynical tone: “Empire Day is over and thousands of little Englanders have once more been reminded there is such an institution as the British Empire. Presumably it is with a view to blaring this fact into their ears that the excellent Lord Meath keeps the celebration so noisily going.” In 1922, the Government of India also officially adopted Empire Day though again, it had been celebrated in that country since 1907.

kneeling with flag, celebrationsOnce established in the mother country, Empire Day was a major event. In 1928, The Sphere magazine reported that 5,000,000 children took part, and in Hyde Park, 100,000 attended a celebration in Hyde Park where they were led in patriotic singing by Dame Clara Butt and the massed marching bands of the Guards played “appropriate songs”. Children in towns and villages around the country would enjoy their day off school, many dressing up in costume, sometimes to take part in a pageant of British history. Invariably, among the fancy dress costumes, there would always be at least one Britannia.

certificate, massed choir

fancy dress, buy empire

Through our eyes, looking back to over a hundred years ago, with the British Empire a dim and distant memory even for the older generation, Empire Day, with its meetings, songs and lectures sit uncomfortably with our current views and concerns over our Imperialist past and the growth of nationalism in the post-Brexit era. Subliminal brainwashing and patriotic jingoism? Or a celebration of the bonds between nations in an Empire where the sun never set? Lord Meath certainly believed it was the latter, and the movement’s motto; “Responsibility. Duty. Sympathy. Self-Sacrifice” indicated there were worthy motives behind the pomp and pageantry of Empire Day. Lord Meath died in October 1929, long before the Second World War and the final dismantling of the Empire he had done so much to promote. In its place, the Commonwealth, founded in 1949 and with King George VI, and now our present Queen as Head. With its programme of initiatives to promote peace, development and justice, the Commonwealth, currently with 53 member states, is a force for good. Commonwealth Day is held in the second week of March, and is therefore further disconnected from the Empire Day in which it is rooted. Nevertheless, pride and participation in the concept of Empire was an integral part of being British in the first half of the twentieth century and on this day a century ago, children across the world would have been looking forward to a day off school.

 

 

 

 

Suffragettes on the Road to Democracy

In 1817 Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher, argued that women should have the vote. It would be another 101 years before they got it. Increasing the number of male voters was controversial enough. In 1831, when the House of Lords rejected a reform bill, there were riots in British cities, buildings were set on fire, and the effigy of a bishop was burnt in a Huddersfield street, before the First Reform Act was passed the following year resulting in a very small increase to the male franchise.

In Bristol, where only 6000 of the 104,000 population had the vote in 1830, a crowd protest against the House of Lords defeat of the Reform Bill by burning 100 houses Date: 31 October 1831
In Bristol, where only 6000 of the 104,000 population had the vote in 1830, a crowd protest against the House of Lords defeat of the Reform Bill by burning 100 houses Date: 31 October 1831

In the 1860s, John Stuart Mill, another utilitarian thinker and MP for Westminster, began to champion female enfranchisement, the lack of which he considered in his 1869 essay ‘The Subjection of Women’, a severe impediment to the progress of humanity. His plan was to change just one word in the legislation of the 1867 Second Reform Act, from ‘man’ to ‘person’, but he lost this vote by 194 to 73. The 1867 Act gave more men the vote as did that of 1884, but women were still excluded.

Punch Cartoon depicting, 'John Stuart Mill's logic, Franchise for females; "Pray clear the way for these- Persons" Date: 1867
Punch Cartoon depicting, ‘John Stuart Mill’s logic, Franchise for females; “Pray clear the way for these- Persons” Date: 1867

By the end of the 19th century, women, some of whom had earned university degrees and entered various professions, and many of whom were fulfilling valuable roles in society, were still being treated like second-class citizens. To add insult to injury, they were expected to pay their taxes just like men.

In 1903, frustrated by the lack of progress, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union. After a few years of campaigning, little progress had been made, and the government under Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith were dragging their feet. Women taking part in peaceful deputations to the Houses of Parliament were arrested, and matters quickly escalated, with members of the WSPU resorting to window-breaking, painting-slashing and other subversive activities. The 2nd April 1911 census night saw suffragettes all over the country sleeping rough to keep their names from being recorded. If the votes of women didn’t count, then they themselves shouldn’t be counted either, they reasoned.

Emmeline Pankhurst speaks in Trafalgar Square, 13th October 1908; suffragette prisoners released from Holloway in a procession of WSPU carts, 31st July 1908; suffragettes Edith New and Mary Leigh in an open carriage after release from prison for breaking windows at 10 Downing Street, 22nd August 1908
Emmeline Pankhurst speaks in Trafalgar Square, 13th October 1908; suffragette prisoners released from Holloway in a procession of WSPU carts, 31st July 1908; suffragettes Edith New and Mary Leigh in an open carriage after release from prison for breaking windows at 10 Downing Street, 22nd August 1908

By 1914 things were at a stalemate, but the First World War became an unlikely ally in the fight for the female vote. Most women patriotically put their campaigning to one side and turned their energies towards the war effort, nursing the wounded, working in factories, on public transport, on the farms, and generally keeping the country going.

Women working in traditionally male roles during the First World War: cleaning casks at a brewery, driving a tram, and at a gas works
Women working in traditionally male roles during the First World War: cleaning casks at a brewery, driving a tram, and at a gas works

As if in reward for their wartime work, in early 1918 legislation giving women the vote at last went through, while the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament, Nancy Astor, did so in 1919. Restrictions which gave the vote only to women over the age of 30 who were householders, married to a householder or holder of a university degree prevented all-out celebration, but this was remedied in 1928, when the qualifying age was brought down to 21. Political equality with men was at last achieved.

Property-owning women over 30 voting in the general election, 14th December 1918; women aged 21 to 29 voting for the first time in the UK on 20th May 1929, finally achieving equal voting rights to men
Property-owning women over 30 voting in the general election, 14th December 1918; women aged 21 to 29 voting for the first time in the UK on 20th May 1929, finally achieving equal voting rights to men