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.





Sprucing Up – The History of the Christmas Tree

Bringing home the Christmas tree

On 23 December 1848, The Illustrated London News published an engraving by J. L. Williams of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their five children gathered around a twinkling Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.  The publication of the picture was to mark the defining moment for the Christmas tree and within a short few years, it had, despite Dickens dismissing it as, “the new German toy,” become a widely adopted and accepted part of festive celebrations in Britain.  But the history of the Christmas tree stretches far further into previous centuries.  Allow our timeline to take you on a pine-scented journey back in time.

Christmas Tree

8th century – European legend attributes the origin of Christmas trees to the English St. Boniface, aka Winfrid of Crediton, a missionary in Germany.  Its rather grisly genesis stems from Winfrid’s chopping down of a tree before a crowd of barbarians, used previously as a site for human sacrifices.  According to legend, the blood-stained tree, “fell like a tower, groaning as it split asunder” but close by, a young fir tree stood miraculously unharmed leading Winfrid to lecture his audience, “This little tree, a young child in the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight”


1533 – There is a belief, particularly in Germany, that Martin Luther invented the custom.  One Christmas Eve he was so apparently moved by a firmament of shining stars that he recreated the spectacle for his family by standing a young fir tree in their darkened house and placing candles on its branches.

1605 – The earliest authentic record of Christmas trees as we known them today is in a manuscript in which a Strasbourg merchant wrote, “At Christmas, they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets etc.”

Martin Luther with his Family and their Christmas Tree

1737 – A member of the University of Wittenberg describes a country lady who distributed little trees bearing lighted candles to children, together with gifts laid beneath them.  Later in the century, Samuel Coleridge visited Germany and was intrigued by the delight his hosts took in their Christmas tree, which he described as, “a pleasing novelty”.

1800 – Queen Charlotte, German wife of King George III, hosts a children’s party at which a large yew tree is centre stage, decorated with, “bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins, in papers, fruits, and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles.”

Decorating the Christmas tree, 1938.
– In the household of Queen Caroline, maligned consort of George IV, Germans set up Christmas trees bright with candles and hung with presents for English children of the palace.

1840 – A thriving market for pine-tops are sold at a market in Manchester by German immigrants.


1841 – Prince Albert introduces a bedecked tree into seasonal royal festivities writing, “Today I have two children of my own to give present to who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas tree and its radiant candles.”

1845 – First illustration of a Christmas tree in The Illustrated London News on 27 December 1845 accompanying a report on a celebration given by the London Mission Society at the Temperance Hall in Cripplegate for the benefit of 400 London children.  Their enjoyment “was crowned especially by the exhibition of a German Christmas tree, or Tree of Love, which was erected upon the stage of the Hall.”

Christmas tree at the Temperance Hall, 1845

1848 – One of the ILN’s most famous pictures is published in its 23 December issue and leads to the popularisation of the Christmas tree.  The engraving is accompanied by the following explanation of the tree as, “that which is annually prepared by her Majesty’s command for the Royal Children.  Similar trees are arranged in other apartments of the Castle for her Majesty, his Royal Highness Prince Albert, her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent, and the Royal household.  Her Majesty’s tree is furnished by His Royal Highness Prince Albert, whilst that of the Prince is furnished according to the taste of her Majesty.”

Queen Victoria's Christmas tree

1851 – Although Christmas trees have been introduced to America by German immigrants in Pennsylvania, the tradition becomes widespread in this year when a woodsman called Mark Carr begins selling trees from Catskills at what will become Mark Carr’s Corner in New York.

1854 – A giant Christmas tree is erected at Crystal Palace.  Christmas trees for sale in Covent Garden market pictured in The Illustrated London News.

Christmas trees in Covent Garden Market, London

1864 – William Chambers writes of the Christmas tree, “the custom has been introduced into England with the greatest success”

1914 – On the Western Front in December 1914, small decorated Christmas trees are used as signs of a temporary truce by German soldiers.


1930 – Artificial Christmas trees were made from dyed goose feathers in 19th century Germany, but in 1930 a British-based Addis Housewares Company created the first artificial Christmas tree made from brush bristles. The company used the same machinery that it used to manufacture toilet brushes.  (Aluminium foil Christmas trees appear in America in 1958).

1947 – A large Christmas tree is gifted to Britain by the city of Oslo as a token of gratitude for British support to Norway during the Second World War.  Given annually, the tree is the central focus of Christmas carol-singing in Trafalgar Square every year.


2017 – Mary Evans Picture Library has almost 2000 pictures on their website charting the legends and history of Christmas trees

Christmas Tree Shopping