Batley Empire Day Pageant
Place: Mount Pleasant Athletic Ground (Batley) (Batley, Yorkshire, West Riding, England)
Number of performances: 2
24 and 31 August 1907 at 2pm
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Hirst, George
Names of executive committee or equivalent
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
Names of composers
Numbers of performers3500
These were children from local schools
Estimated profits were £2501
Object of any funds raised
Hospital extension fund
Linked occasionEmpire Day
- Grandstand: Not Known
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: 12000
Between 10000 and 12000 saw the pageant.
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
There were sports held in the field before the pageant.
Key historical figures mentioned
- British Empire Song
- National Anthem.
- ‘Britannia Rules the Waves’
- ‘Red, White, and Blue’
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Leeds and Yorkshire Mercury
Book of words
Other primary published materials
A Memento of Empire Day at Batley, 24 August 1907. Farsley, 1907.
References in secondary literature
- Thompson, Andrew S. Empire Strikes Back: The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Abingdon, 2005. At 120.
Archival holdings connected to pageant
Sources used in preparation of pageant
An Empire Day celebrated on Queen Victoria’s birthday had been suggested by Reginald Brabazon, the seventh Earl of Meath in 1896, ‘to nurture a sense of collective identity and imperial responsibility among young empire citizens’, though this had only caught on in 1902.3 The day sought to educate children of the importance of the Empire and their duties towards it, and Meath bankrolled the organisations to the tune of £5000 a year until his death in 1913.4 By 1907 it was estimated that 12544 out of 20451 elementary schools celebrated the day in some form.5
The date of Empire Day, though nominally 24 May, seems to have been a moveable feast, attested by the Batley Empire Day celebrations held at the end of August held in aid of the local hospital extension fund and organised by local schools. The Leeds Mercury noted that the children ‘will wear, as nearly as possible, the dress worn in the colony they represent’.6 Batley was a smoky northern industrial town, and Empire Day, whilst being dwarfed by other larger events such as in Sheffield, was a chance to rise above its squalid surroundings: ‘However much the town might be engrossed in in it on ordinary occasions, Batley showed on Saturday that it possesses a soul far above shoddy. We have heard some such slighting reference as “a shoddy town – shoddy men,” but Batley’s pageant was far removed from being a shoddy affair.’7 The action was as follows:
There was first a procession to the ground, and this served to show how excellent were the character costumes, and how complete the representations. The streets were thronged with admiring crowds, who were by no means insensible either to the prettiness or the comicality of the pageant. As to the prettiness, there were Queens, Princesses, and Goddesses, who would have done credit to Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Enthroned in floral bowers, with fair attendants and train bearers, they formed sweet pictures that did one good to behold. Lower in rank, but equally fair, were the Flower Girls of Australia, the Mountain Girls of Wales, the Irish Coilleens in cloaks and hoods of bright red and blue, and the Scotch lassies, with their baskets of herring. The children entered thoroughly into the spirit of the thing, and their conduct was praiseworthy throughout the ordeal, which must have been very trying to some of the young mites who took part.8
Though there were a number of historical elements, representing the history of each colony, the focus seems to have been relatively contemporary, featuring children dressed as vanquished warriors such as Zulus, Maoris, and Kaffirs, ‘“veteran” soldiers of four years and upwards’, as well as ‘New Zealand “lambs” (not frozen), with fleecy coats and caps with ears’, and the fearsome ‘“All Black” footballers who feared no team save Batley, and comic characters galore’.9 Whilst the paper revelled in the imperial display, it stressed that the children featuring in the pageant ‘had not the slightest suggestion of jingoism or of sinister meaning.’10 This statement is in itself a significant hint at wariness towards the worst excesses of imperial sentiment which greeted the end of the second Boer War and the famous ‘Mafficking night’.
The scene was repeated the following week, which was again ‘a tremendous gathering’. However, although the ‘display of costumes was again very attractive…the dullness of the weather detracted considerably from the brilliance of the scene’.11 Nonetheless, some 10-12000 spectators (presumably parents of schoolchildren) attended the event, which made around £250. Similar pageants were held to commemorate the virtues of Empire, such as the Grand Empire Pageant, near Lincoln (1909), organised by the Primrose League. Whilst Edwardian Empire day quickly became another ‘invented tradition’, the great slaughter of the First World War, and the growing clamour for self-rule of colonies, put a solemn note into Empire Day celebrations after 1918.12 Many scholars have questioned the educational and civic value of Empire Day, and precisely what young children understood from such a presentation.13 Empire Day lingered on in a relatively low-key fashion, increasingly challenged by teachers, Local Education Authorities and even schoolchildren. It became Commonwealth Day in London in 1934, and taking on the name across Britain and the empire after 1958.14 The Batley Empire Day Celebrations of 1907, in a town that despite its connection to the imperial wool trade (hence the lambs) had relatively little direct connection to the Empire, was an exemplar of the strange manner by which people who were unlikely to participate in the empire project, and never to see any of it (aside from on the silver screen or in picture books), connected, albeit ambiguously, to the wider idea of the British Empire.
- Leeds Mercury, 2 September 1907, 2.
- Andrew S. Thompson, Empire Strikes Back: The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Abingdon, 2005), 120.
- Jim English, ‘Empire Day in Britain, 1904-58’, Historical Journal, volume 49, no. 1 (March 2006) 248; Thompson, Empire Strikes Back, 118.
- Thompson, Empire Strikes Back, 118-9.
- Ibid, 120-1
- Leeds Mercury, 3 August 1907, 3.
- Leeds and Yorkshire Mercury, 26 August 1907, 5.
- Leeds Mercury, 2 September 1907, 2.
- English, ‘Empire Day’, 258, 262-3.
- Thompson, Empire Strikes Back, 120-1; Bernard Porter, The Absent Minded Imperialists (Oxford, 2004).
- English, Empire Day’, 269, 274.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Batley Empire Day Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/986/