May 24 was Queen Victoria’s birthday. After she died in 1901 it was proposed that the date become a formal celebration of the British Empire and all that it stood for. Loyalty to the Empire, patriotism and the duties of citizenship were paramount. Empire Day was to have a chequered history.
Australia first introduced Empire Day in 1905, although it was celebrated in Britain from 1902. May 24th, 1905 fell on Wednesday. Under the provisions of the Bank Holiday Act the following Monday was observed as the official holiday when most of the flag-waving was scheduled to take place. Schools and Sunday schools arranged sports and picnics for their pupils. At this time it was not compulsory for businesses to close for the holiday although many in Ipswich did. About 100 workers at the Railway Workshops took the day off with many turning up for work as usual. As with Public Holidays today, many residents fled the city enjoying a mini-break.
From the beginning, schools in Queensland were ordered to promote British unity and loyalty via celebration of the day. To secure the British Empire in the future, school children were exhorted to increase their loyalty to the King and carry on the noble work of Empire. This message was wrapped up in flag ceremonies, speeches, essay competitions, and a holiday from school when all the formalities were over.
Rosewood State School observed Empire Day in 1906 with an address by the headmaster and planting of 25 silky oaks trees. The following year celebrations in the Ipswich area included a Highland gathering at Boonah. Organised sports, races and concerts were commonplace.
In 1908 Lieutenant R. Foreman, assisted by his son and another man, organised a 21 gun salute in Brown’s Park at North Ipswich. Firing commenced at 6am on Empire Day and continued for almost 21 minutes. Following this spectacle, 3 cheers for King, Empire, and Lieutenant Foreman were given.
Empire Day 1913 was not observed as a general public holiday. Instead, it was decided that the King’s birthday (3 June) would become the new holiday. Schools and their students continued to honour the British Empire and British way of life through the first half of the 20th century, although commemoration in the general community ranged from being “restrained” in 1925 to virtually forgotten by 1938. British inspired clubs like the Caledonian Society and St George Society were still recognising Empire Day and celebrating at club level into the 1940’s. In 1947 the Empire Day Movement, chaired by Mr E. Pike urged businesses to fly the flag and decorate Ipswich store windows for the big day. By the end of the 1950’s Empire Day was really a thing of the past.
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