Tonight we have a rather magnificent Empire Day Certificate from 1940:Empire day was 25th May, Queen Victoria’s birthday, and was celebrated across the Empire as a way of bringing the different countries together and to 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.”, and that “The strength of the Empire depended upon them, and they must never forget it.”
This theme is reflected in the certificate with small shields to represent each of the major commonwealths and dominions:
Note that each shield depicts the flag of the era and is surmounted by an animal associated with that country.
The certificate was given to children who helped provide comforts to servicemen during the Second World War by the Overseas League: Similar certificates had been produced in the Great War. Empire Day took on special significance in wartime and the King addressed his people across the globe:
It is not mere territorial conquest the enemy is seeking. It is the overthrow, complete and final, of the Empire and of everything for which it stands, and after that the conquest of the world
Empire Day was very much focussed around the young and was celebrated in schools as far away as Canada and New Zealand. George McFarlane recalls in his book ‘Behind the Rehetoric’:
Another highlight of the school year was Empire Day, 24th May, improbable as it may seem today. The tradition was for a couple of students to speak on a patriotic topic as a lead up to addresses by the Headmaster and the President of the Parents and Citizens Association. Empire Day 1939 is fixed in my mind as is my short speech, “Patriotic Literature of the British Empire”. Not only did I benefit from the experience of speaking from the stage but also from the discipline of doing some library research about such works as Spencer’s “The Fairie Queen”.
Another child of the war remembers:
On the last day at school before Empire day we had a parade, children dressed in the national costumes of the empire, well as close to them as it could be got, and proudly marched around the school hall in front of our parents, lots of flag waving and the national anthem sung with great gusto. Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day in the 1950s and the date has moved around a few times over the last seventy years. In 2018 Commonwealth Day is 12th March, sadly it is largely forgotten by most and it seems unlikely that many schools will celebrate it with the gusto of their forebears.