When ‘sons and daughters of the Empire’ celebrated

People of Waterlooville celebrating Empire Day on May 24, 1903. Pictures: Paul Costen.
People of Waterlooville celebrating Empire Day on May 24, 1903. Pictures: Paul Costen.

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These two photographs from 1903 show the people of Waterlooville celebrating Empire Day.

It was May 24 and this was only the second year that the day had been marked.

People of Waterlooville celebrating Empire Day on May 24, 1903. Picture: Paul Costen.

People of Waterlooville celebrating Empire Day on May 24, 1903. Picture: Paul Costen.

The idea of a day that would ‘remind children that they formed part of the British Empire, and that they might think with others in lands across the sea, what it meant to be sons and daughters of such a glorious Empire’ had been considered as early as 1897.

Children were also reminded that ‘the strength of the empire depended on them, and they must never forget it’.

The image of a motherly Queen Victoria, Empress of India, as its paramount ruler would be shared by an Empire spanning almost a quarter of the entire globe.

But it was not until after the death of Queen Victoria January 22, 1901, that Empire Day was first celebrated. The first took place on May 24, 1902, the Queen’s birthday.

Although not officially recognised as an annual event until 1916, many schools across the British Empire were celebrating it before then.

Each Empire Day, millions of school children from all walks of life across the length and breadth of the empire would salute the Union Flag and sing patriotic songs like Jerusalem and the national anthem.

They would listen to tales of ‘daring do’ from across the Empire, stories that included heroes such as Clive of India, Wolfe of Québec and ‘Chinese Gordon’ of Khartoum.

But the real highlight of the day for the children was that they were let off school early to take part in parades, maypole dances, concerts and parties.

Empire Day remained an essential part of the calendar for more than 50 years. In 1958 Empire Day was re-badged as British Commonwealth Day, and in 1966 it became known as Commonwealth Day.