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Empire Day: A special school event and one that we should never forget

PUBLISHED: 10:53 11 September 2018 | UPDATED: 10:53 11 September 2018

Pictures of Empire Day celebrations in Norfolk schools over the years. Picture: Archant Library

Pictures of Empire Day celebrations in Norfolk schools over the years. Picture: Archant Library

Archant Library

Derek James takes a look back at Empire Day, the special school event that he believes should not go forgotten.

Pictures of Empire Day celebrations in Norfolk schools over the years. Picture: Submit/Archant LibraryPictures of Empire Day celebrations in Norfolk schools over the years. Picture: Submit/Archant Library

The long hot summer is over. The boys and girls are back in school but it’s not, and shouldn’t be, all work and no play. Special events are all part of our schooldays but there is one celebration which doesn’t happen anymore and is largely forgotten.

They were the most colourful gatherings of the school year which involved mums, family members, friends and teachers all putting in an awful lot of work making fantastic costumes so their offspring could represent countries all over the world.

This were the Empire Day celebrations which were huge events in schools, large and small, across Norwich and all over Norfolk and the rest of the land.

They were also great geography and history lessons as the children learnt about these countries, large and small across the world, and what life was like for the people.

THORPE HAMLET EMPIRE DAY 1937.  Pictures of Empire Day celebrations in Thorpe Hamlet, 1937. Picture: Submit/Archant LibraryTHORPE HAMLET EMPIRE DAY 1937. Pictures of Empire Day celebrations in Thorpe Hamlet, 1937. Picture: Submit/Archant Library

It was Reginald Brabazon, the 12th Earl of Meath, who came up with the idea of celebrating an Empire Day.

During the latter part of the 19th century this travelling diplomat had watched as children at a school in Canada marched singing the national anthem and proudly waving the union flag.

Reginald had friends in powerful places and it was finally agreed to celebrate Empire Day on May 24 which also happened to be Queen Victoria’s birthday.

It was decided to form the Empire Movement to promote the “training of all children in all virtues which conduce to the creation of good citizens: Responsibility, Sympathy, Duty and Self-Sacrifice.”

THORPE HAMLET EMPIRE DAY 1937.  Pictures of Empire Day celebrations in Thorpe Hamlet, 1937. Picture: Submit/Archant LibraryTHORPE HAMLET EMPIRE DAY 1937. Pictures of Empire Day celebrations in Thorpe Hamlet, 1937. Picture: Submit/Archant Library

How the people, and especially the children, loved Empire Day.

Several years ago I spoke to Stephanie Ward who lived in Australia. She popped in to see me with pictures and memories of the celebrations at Thorpe Hamlet school in the 1930s when she was little Stephanie Curtis.

“There were lovely times. The headmistress was Miss Brittan and we had a teacher called Miss Flowers who helped make our red, white and blue outfits from crepe paper,” she said.

In 2002 Jean Pond of Norwich and Hilda Whitham of Edgefield wrote about their wonderful memories of Empire Day.

Empire Day celebrations at Heigham Street School, 1928. Picture: Mrs L Staff/Archant LibraryEmpire Day celebrations at Heigham Street School, 1928. Picture: Mrs L Staff/Archant Library

Jean was a pupil at Bull Close Infants in the city where one of the city fathers, the Lord Mayor or Sheriff, would arrive in their traditional costumes to meet and greet the children.

They sang:

Today we bring our flags to school

And proudly march along

Empire Day celebrations in Norfolk schools over the years. Picture: Archant LibraryEmpire Day celebrations in Norfolk schools over the years. Picture: Archant Library

For this you know is Empire Day

And joyfully we sing our song.

For weeks before this day they had rehearsed the country dance of Rufty Tufty and the milkmaid bonnets had been made by the people at the nearby blind school in the city.

It was a day of pageants, fun and games with the official announcement from the city father in attendance that for the rest of the term, Thursday afternoons would be a holiday...an announcement greeted with loud cheers.

Empire Day celebrations at a school in Watton, 1907. Picture: Archant LibraryEmpire Day celebrations at a school in Watton, 1907. Picture: Archant Library

Empire Day was a major celebration between the wars but by the 1950s the Empire was shrinking as countries got their independence and it later became known as Commonwealth Day.

Our photographs give you a glimpse of just how our children all those years ago just loved Empire Day.

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