Looking Back - Let’s think about our National Day

By Leo Billington

Looking Back 2023-02 -  Portrait of Queen Victoria

On Friday May 26, 1905, Empire Day was first celebrated in Morwell and Yinnar.

Empire Day was instigated to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday, which was actually May 24. Nevertheless, a birthday had to be celebrated in a big way so it is written that the day “was introduced to promote loyalty among the dominion countries of the British Empire.”

School children were the target market and teachers were encouraged to “promote special steps to develop a feeling of pride in the British Empire and the achievements of the British race.”

Through direction of the Victorian state government, a type of program was distributed – an all-day affair with a morning consisting of short addresses, some recitations and patriotic songs. Naturally these included ‘Rule Britannia’ all of which was generally followed by a half-day holiday to signify Australia’s strong ties the British Empire (or, as many in those early days, spoke of “the Mother Country”).

Bonfires and fireworks in the evening often completed a wonderful occasion.

The last Empire Day celebration in Australia took place in 1958.

Let us go back to Yinnar first. The Morwell Advertiser, Friday May 26, 1905 provided a comprehensive coverage of Empire Day that ‘was celebrated in a manner not likely to be forgotten for a long time, being quite a "red letter" day. A picnic, which proved one of the most successful and enjoyable that has ever taken place in Yinnar, was held in Lavina Park, which was kindly placed at the residents’ disposal by Mr Coleman.’

There were foot races, with prizes awarded, for married ladies, married men, young ladies, and bachelors. A bun eating contest apparently drew a massive audience with Tommy Vagg being declared the winner. Buns were covered with treacle and suspended by string from a pole. A high jump competition and an infamous three-legged race added extra fun.

An evening concert was held in the Yinnar Mechanics Institute Hall – singing, dancing, games, and whatever else – amidst decorations of flowers and flags and plenty of food. The night was concluded with a hearty rendition of the National Anthem and cheers.

Morwell’s first Empire Day seemingly “passed off very quietly in Morwell” Morwell Advertiser, Friday May 26, 1905. The weather was pleasant, delightful with local residents using their afternoon holiday in various ways including fishing and shooting rabbits mainly. A football match with a Traralgon team excited some and an evening euchre party and dance was held in the Mechanics Institute Hall. A house warming function was held at the Methodist Parsonage.

Remaining with the main objective to have school children develop a feeling of pride in the British Empire and the achievements of the British race, Morwell’s school children were given a half-day holiday. Before being dismissed from school (formerly known as Commercial Road State School), they were assembled to salute as the Union Jack was hoisted upwards. With hands placed on their left breast, they recited:

" I love God and my country; I honour the flag, will serve the King, and cheerfully obey my parents, teachers and the laws."

Cheers were then given for the King (Edward VII) followed by the first verse of the National Anthem:

God save our gracious, King,
Long live our noble King,
God save the King.
Send him victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the King.

The local paper added that “At the North Hazelwood and other schools the children also sang patriotic songs.”

As a contrast, on May 25, 1906, Morwell State School pupils remained in classrooms with one special occasion before midday where “a selection of patriotic songs” was rendered. At noon, the Union Jack was raised, and in the afternoon, “the children were dispersed to do whatever pleased them.” That is, the children remained at school.

Our local community remained loyal to the Mother Country in those early years.

The Royal Patriotic Fund (RPF) was created in 1854 by Queen Victoria to assist families of British soldiers sent to war, and others from the dominions. In January 1900, at what was heralded an “enthusiastic meeting” of the Morwell and District Patriotic Fund and knowing there were local young men involved in the South African wars, £42.9s 6d was raised to be sent abroad.

The Reverend Frewin from Morwell’s St Mary’s Anglican Church said this wonderful collection “will intensify the affection of the Motherland for her colonies.”

Alexandra Park  is, or was, the narrow strip of land (now under railway reconstruction work and a skateboard rink) between the railway line and Commercial Road, in vicinity of Commercial Road Primary School. This area was the site of Morwell's first bowling club (1913), and swimming pool (1925). This convenient, though narrow open area was called “Alexandra Park”, so named after Queen Alexandra, consort of King Edward VII, although she never visited Australia.

Looking Back 2023-02 - Commonwealth Day Flag

We pushed onwards seemingly to “intensify the affection of the Motherland for her colonies.” With political correctness in 1958 Empire Day was re-badged as British Commonwealth Day, and still later in 1966 when it became known as Commonwealth Day. The date of Commonwealth Day was also changed to June 10, the official birthday of the former Queen Elizabeth II. However she was born on April 21 1926. In Britain, the weather during April is generally cold, and she could not let her subjects stand out in the cold to cheer her on. Hence, she celebrated her official birthday for the nation on another day in June.

Many readers will recall marching along Commercial Road to commemorate Commonwealth Day. School children were the prime target market once again albeit, for instance, the Morwell Fire Brigade was a strong supporter of these annual processions.

Banner for Empire Day

On one occasion in June, their display highlighted our community “served through five reigns.” That is, Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, King George V, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. The other photograph depicts a moment in Morwell’s history celebrating our connection to the Mother Country with a huge procession in the main street.

The first “Australia Day” was actually held on July 30, 1915 to raise funds for the World War I effort. It wasn’t until 1935 that all states adopted a common date and name for Australia Day to be held on January 26. It took until the 1940s for Australia to get its national holiday in place and it wasn’t until 1984 that the National Australia Day Committee was federally funded.

Looking Back 2023-02 - Fire Truck in procession in Morwell
Caption as per the original article
One suspects it actually refers to the coronation of Elizabeth II - ed

In recent years there have been growing calls for Australia Day to be held on a different date, to encompass a wide range of contentious occasions.

In closing however, there needs to be a reminder of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 – marking for the first time, that the term 'Australian citizen' had been used in any legislation, including the Constitution. The Act created the new status of "Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies" (CUKC) for people born or naturalised in either the United Kingdom or one of its colonies. Provision was also made in certain circumstances for citizenship to be acquired by descent from a CUKC, or by registration.