A forgotten anniversary

Empire Day (24 May), celebrated widely in New Zealand from 1903, was a major event in the viceregal calendar.

The Message of the Flag

Our Union Jack, on Empire Day
Floats proudly in the breeze;
Not here alone, but far away
In lands across the seas.
Wherever British children dwell
Or British folk may be,
On Empire Day our flag shall tell
That we are Britons free...
’Tis thus it speaks, our Union Jack
Its message from the mast
To follow in the noble track
Of heroes in the past

New Zealand School Journal, Part III, June 1922

Why Empire Day?

Empire Day had, as the Oamaru Mail remarked on the eve of New Zealand's first such celebration, 'the double purpose of keeping fresh and green the memory of a most illustrious reign and rejoicing in the consolidation of our great Empire'. The reign commemorated was that of Queen Victoria, who died on 22 January 1901.

Canada had observed Victoria Day since 1901. In Britain, Lord Meath, an absentee Irish landlord and imperial zealot, enlisted the day in his crusade to ensure that 'from their earliest years the children of the Empire should grow up with the thought of its claim upon their remembrance and their service'. Almost single-handedly, Meath (who also presided over the Duty and Discipline Movement) created 'an imperial mutual admiration society', the Empire Day Movement.

It found a receptive audience in New Zealand, where imperial confidence was high and many were happy to cultivate the image of Queen Victoria as a benign, motherly figure. Evidence for that can still be found in our main centres, where expensive statues of the Queen/Empress still lord it over prominent public places.

When did we celebrate Empire Day?

24 May, Queen Victoria's birthday, was Empire Day. Most people welcomed this link to 'Queen Victoria the Good' in the era when the celebration of the sovereign's birthday changed with each new monarch.

Children of the Empire

'Children of the Empire, clasp hands across the main,
And Glory in your brotherhood, again and yet again;
Uphold your noble heritage - oh, never let it fall -
And love the land that bore you, but the Empire best
of all'

Edward Shirley, 'Children of the Empire', New Zealand School Journal, Part I, May 1910

This was fine during the reign of Victoria's son Edward VII (1901-10). But 24 May was inconveniently close to the 3 June birthday of her grandson, George V (1910-36). People tended to combine the two, causing the New Zealand Herald to grumble that 'Empire Day has so far failed to become a universal and general holiday'. In 1919 officials announced that Empire Day would be observed on the King's birthday, following the practice of schools for much of his reign. By 1936 the Evening Star was lamenting that 'not even Civil Servants keep it as a holiday'.

Empire Day recovered its separate identity after 1936. The New Zealand elite, like their Empire/Commonwealth counterparts, maintained an observance that J.O. Springhall considers 'came to serve a religious function in an increasingly secular world'. Indeed, 'as the power of Empire waned between the wars, the strength of public interest in ceremonies like Empire Day seemed to increase'.

Empire Day begins, 1903

If it can be arranged without unduly dislocating trade and unnecessarily duplicating holidays, there is every reason why the fundamental political relationship of the British peoples should be popularised by the general celebration of Empire Day.

New Zealand Herald, 24 May 1912

Our first Empire Day was a day late. In 1903, 24 May fell on a Sunday. In Auckland, the King's Empire Veterans held separate Protestant and Catholic church parades that day, but the main events took place next day, which was a public holiday.

The laying of the foundation stone for what is now the Ranfurly Veterans' Home in Auckland provided the day's highlight. The home was Governor Lord Ranfurly's pet project.

This local version of London's Chelsea Home for Pensioners would help individual war veterans while symbolically renewing imperial ties of affection. Ranfurly personally chose the site - 'not too near a public house yet not too far and within easy communication' - and laid the foundation stone at noon on 25 May 1903. This event, like others that day, drew heavily on recent memories of the South African War.

Empire Day observances varied around the country. In Christchurch, a large statue of Queen Victoria was unveiled in Market (now Victoria) Square. Ballantynes department store advertised that it would close at 1 p.m. 'Seats have been provided inside the enclosure for old colonists who have applied for tickets', the Press reported. In the evening, Christchurch people had a wide choice of entertainment: performances of Rickards' Variety Co. at the Theatre, the Imperial Biograph at Canterbury Hall and Deans' Vaudeville Co. at the Oddfellows' Hall, as well as the United Cricket Club's annual ball and the Volunteer Garrison officers' annual dinner. The scientist Alexander Bickerton put on an Empire Day fireworks display at Lancaster Park.

What they did on Empire Day

Into one imperial whole
One with Britain heart and soul,
One life, one flag, one fleet, one throne.

New Zealand School Journal, Part III, June 1917

The parades, building openings, flag salutes and earnest speeches of 1903 set the pattern for later Empire Days. At Oamaru schools that year, pupils marshalled at the flagstaffs to hear patriotic speeches. Bugler Annand sounded a salute and 'the rest of the boys uncovered', then were sent on their way after hearing patriotic speeches from the head teacher and a member of the board. Their Maheno counterparts had a lolly scramble before taking the day off.

In 1907 Auckland public schools also celebrated by saluting the flag and listening to patriotic addresses. Elsewhere in the city, veterans and volunteers paraded and held a military tournament. In Wellington, Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward and Governor Lord Plunket spoke to schoolchildren, and 'lady members' of the Navy League decorated the city's Queen Victoria statue with flowers. In the evening the Wellington City Council and the Navy League joined forces to stage a patriotic concert. Invercargill observed the day as a general holiday.

In 1913 there were few more industrious imperialists than the Dunedin branch of the Overseas League. League members organised a big bonfire on Waverley Point, one of many lit to ring the globe on Empire Day, as well as a concert at His Majesty's Theatre.

Children and Empire Day

So we'll do our best while we're children
To grow up kind and true,
To keep up the fame of our Empire's name
And the old Red, White and Blue.

'Our Flag', New Zealand School Journal, Part I, June 1921

Children were key targets for Empire Day. Lord Meath's Empire Day messages encouraged them to celebrate the history of British royalty or the Empire. 'Remember brave warriors, pioneers, sea captains, “Queen Victoria the Good”’, he urged in 1912.

Think of the Empire as one big happy family, younger children were told. 'Britain is like a mother with many children who have gone from her into other countries to earn their living', the School Journal advised. 'She still loves them; she sends them many kind messages, and helps them in every way she can. And the children, the people far away from her, love her in return ... This little mother and all her big children we call the Empire, and we keep up Empire Day just as we might keep up our mother's birthday in the family, to show that we are still her loving children'.

In 1909, the School Journal likened colonials to swallows leaving their nest, flying overseas and then returning. That swallows were northern rather than southern hemisphere creatures did not worry Journal editors; dormice and other foreign critters infested their magazine.

Older children got a less homely homily. In 1912, Classes V and VI were warned that if 'citizens of the British Empire lose their simple and hardy ways of living, and become lovers of ease, the Empire will pass away'.

Occasionally, darker family secrets were shared. 'While we call to mind to-day the great multitude of brave men and women who sowed that we might reap', the School Journal told pupils, 'it is well that we should remember that the British Empire has sometimes grown by ways of which we are not proud'. That meant slavery and the Opium Wars.

Here, as elsewhere in the Empire, educators often diluted or resisted imperialism's propagandists. The School Journal kept printing articles about royalty, but by the 1930s the special 'Empire Day Numbers' had been dropped.

Lord Bledisloe and Empire Day

There is no part of the British Commonwealth to which separatism is more fatal or familiarity more essential than this sun-kissed Dominion of sturdy Britons and loyal natives, which finds a market for its exports almost exclusively in the Motherland.

Lord Bledisloe, 'Empire Readjustment', in Ideals of Nationhood, 1935.

Empire Day was a special cause of Charles Bathurst, Lord Bledisloe, our governor-general between 1930 and 1935. A president of the Empire Canners' Association, he championed imperial trade and Empire preference. Bledisloe's concept of 'Nation in Empire' tried to reconcile a strengthened understanding of New Zealand culture and history with membership of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Buy New Zealand goods, he told housewives during the Depression, but if that was not possible, buy British. An Empire that traded together stayed together.

After Bledisloe returned to Britain in 1935, he became president of the Empire Day Movement. For many years New Zealand newspapers printed his Empire Day messages.

After the Second World War, a reinvigorated Empire Day Movement stepped up its work in British schools and instituted an Empire Youth Sunday Movement. But Bledisloe's death in 1957, and the unravelling of the Empire, took the wind from its sails.

Empire Day's end: the rise of the Commonwealth

For, notwithstanding many pious and platitudinous observations to the contrary, the 'post-Britannic, 'de-Britannicised' Commonwealth was not the fulfilment, but the antithesis (indeed, negation) of empire - a voluntary organisation run by a secretary-general and pledged to promote equality, rather than a mandatory organisation presided over by a king-emperor and pledged to uphold hierarchy.

David Cannadine, Ornamentalism, 2001

For many years, New Zealand governors-general presided over an Empire Day dinner and ball at the Hotel Cargen, Auckland, organised by the Royal Empire Society, the Victoria League and the Committee of the Patriotic Societies of Auckland. The evening's festivities drew modest press coverage, as much, it must be admitted, for the costumes of ballgoers and their revival of minuet dancing (popularised here in the 1920s by Lady Alice Fergusson) as for the content of the speeches.

After the Second World War, Empire Day dances returned to the Hotel Cargen and Governor-General Lord Freyberg took the opportunity to deliver some of his hardest-hitting speeches. But India's independence in 1947 underlined the fact that the Empire was approaching the end of the road. Prime Minister Sid Holland may have been a 'Britisher through and through' who talked about the 'dear old Empire', but in 1946 his predecessor Peter Fraser had told civil servants to stop using even the word 'Dominion'. Older New Zealanders still talked of Empire out of habit, but for younger Kiwis this was just the name of old theatres and halls.

Empire Day segued into Commonwealth Day in 1958, when 100 people gathered around Queen Victoria's statue in Albert Park to hear Governor-General Lord Cobham say that 'the British Empire had now given way to the noble concept of a Commonwealth of free peoples'. The Empire Day dinner and ball were as successful as ever, but soon the Royal Empire Society would become the Royal Commonwealth Society.

Further information

This web feature was written by Gavin McLean and produced by the NZHistory.net.nz team.



  • Gavin McLean, The governors: New Zealand's governors and governors-general, Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2006
How to cite this page

'Empire Day', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/empire-day, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-May-2024