This film is held by the BFI (ID: 9025).


A record of the Preston Empire Day celebration of 22 May 1909.

A title introduces 'Preston Empire Day May 22nd 1909. Promoter of the Empire Day Movement Right Hon. The Earl of Meath K.P., P.C.'. Boys in sailor uniforms and girls in white dresses take part in a parade watched by crowds. The children represent different parts of the Empire. First, the Irish carry banners proclaiming 'Erin Go Bragh' and 'Cead Mille Failte', while children wear kilts and dress in historical military costume to represent Scotland ('Let Glasgow Flourish'). The St George's Flag precedes children dressed as policemen, while another child carries a large model cotton reel reading 'Success to Cotton'. Some children in blackface feature as part of the South African parade, followed by displays for New Zealand and Australia, for which a banner reads 'Bond of Union'. Canada comes next - 'Heaven bless the maple leaf for ever' - followed finally by India. The camera displays the Union Jack and then cuts to shots of the crowds and dignitaries, including the Earl of Meath. The scale of the display is revealed, as the children perform a series of choreographed routines.



The Times, in its account of Empire Day 1909, reported that ‘there was a gathering of about 20,000 people at an Empire celebration held at Preston on Saturday afternoon, and in which over 4,000 school children took part’ (The Times, 24 May 1909, 15). The celebration included a speech by Lord Meath, otherwise known as Reginald Brabazon, who had founded the Empire Day movement in 1903, which preceded the first Empire Day in May 1904 (Mackenzie, 1986, 168).

In 1909 The Times published a substantial Empire Day supplement – as it would every year, on all but three occasions, until 1927 – celebrating what is ‘now an established festival throughout the British world’ (The Times, 24 May 1909, 13). In particular Lord Meath sought to present Empire Day as a festival within schools. In 1908, 1036 schools in London were said to celebrate this ‘great patriotic day’ and in a letter to The Times in 1909, Lord Meath outlined the necessary arrangements for schools wishing to take part in the 1909 celebrations (English, 2006, 249). ‘There are still large numbers of schools throughout the United Kingdom’ he wrote, ‘which possess no flagstaff and no Union Jack, the scholars of which will therefore be unable to salute the latter on the national festival. Many schools have no portrait of His Majesty the King and no large Empire wall-maps … and are without copies of the “Empire Catechism” and other songs (The Times, 27 April, 1909, 8). Meath would subsequently claim that in 1909 ‘this national festival was observed, throughout the Empire, in some 55,000 schools, with an attendance of about 7,500,000 scholars, whilst over 7000 sermons, on the higher aims of the movement, were delivered on “Empire Sunday”’ (The Times, 3 May 1910, 4). Historian Jim English, in noting the ‘potency’ of Empire day to ‘inspire children and adults alike’, argued that ‘celebrations spilled out into adult society so that Empire Day in the community was often far more conspicuous than the festival within the schools’ (English, 2006, 248).

Yet for all the popular support Empire Day – a half-holiday for school children – evidently received, it was not officially recognised by the government. In 1909, the Liberal Government rejected a bill to make Empire Day a public holiday, prompting a Times editorial to note that ‘although His Majesty’s present advisers refuse to honour it and seem to fear its influence, it will be celebrated today with widespread, if unofficial enthusiasm, throughout the country’ (The Times, 24 May 1909, 13). Jim English explained this decision in part by suggesting that ‘certainly the government would have been aware of the propaganda value of Empire Day to the Conservative Party’ (English, 2006, 259). In 1909 the education committee in Derby also declined to sanction Empire Day, denouncing it as the ‘thin end of militarism’, while Lord Meath, in his speech at Preston, strongly criticised a decision by the War Office to forbid the Harrow School Cadet Corps from taking part in the London Empire Day celebrations (The Times, 24 May 1909, 15). Empire Day was officially recognised by the government in 1916.

Filmed footage of the Empire Day played throughout the Empire. Bioscope noted, for example, that ‘the Empire Day pictures at the Sebright are a great and attractive draw’ (Bioscope, 3 June 1909, 21). The film of Preston’s Empire Day played at the local Palace and Picturedrome in Preston a few weeks after the event. The local listings in Bioscope on 10 June noted that ‘Mr Will Onda’s good programme includes Preston’s Empire Day, Oh! Rats, Romance of a War Nurse, Italian Cavalry, On the Western Frontier, etc’ (Bioscope, 10 June 1909, 46). Will Onda was the stage name of Hugh Rains, a music hall entertainer and founder of Preston Film Service. Onda, a film pioneer in Preston, made local interest films, which he distributed throughout the North of England. This practice of local filmmaking was an important aspect of the early film industry – the best-known examples today are those of Mitchell and Kenyon – though it was already slightly past its peak by 1909. It is likely that Preston’s Empire Day was one of Onda’s own productions. 



Preston’s Empire Day serves both as a fascinating example of local filmmaking, apparently produced primarily for the audiences depicted on screen, and as a historical document of early Empire Day celebrations. In its representation of Empire Day, the film highlights the scale of the event, as in the aerial shots of the display, as well as the role of pageantry and the flag in promoting and defining the Empire, but also features the regimentation and even solemnity of the occasion.

The film shows the displays of each country before presenting a shot of the Union Jack and then of all the children performing together, a structure that promotes the notion of unity in diversity and of imperial cooperation. Included within this display is South Africa, at a moment when her position within the Empire was widely debated. The displays themselves, which incorporate a succession of national stereotypes, offer insights into the perception of these countries within the British popular imagination.

The final lengthy choreographed sequences endorse an image of regimented discipline among the performing school children. This emphasis on discipline and character draws parallels with the emerging Scout movement – Scouting for Boys was published in 1908 – in which Lord Meath was closely involved. Meath, a member of Baden-Powell’s advisory board, wrote an article in 1909 entitled ‘What the Boy Scout movement may do for Britain’ and subsequently argued that ‘the Scout movement provides just the discipline which our lads require’ (Meath, 1928). The scouts marched at the Empire Day parade in Hyde Park in 1909 and the film would suggest that Empire Day was an attempt to create a new generation of imperial workers based on military ideals of discipline and collective identity. In particular, the final sequences place emphasis on the children’s bodies, representing the building of young bodies for the empire and the positioning of these individual bodies within a collective identity.

Tom Rice (August 2008)


Works Cited

English, Jim, ‘Empire Day in Britain, 1904-1958’, The Historical Journal, 49, 1 (2006), 247-276.

Mackenzie, John M., ‘”In Touch with the Infinite”: The BBC and The Empire 1923-1953’, Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986).

Earl of Meath, ‘What the Boy Scout Movement may do for Britain’, Windsor Magazine 31 (December 1909).

Earl of Meath, Brabazon Potpourri (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1928).

Porter, Bernard, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

‘Empire Day’, The Times, 27 April 1909, 8.

‘Empire Day’, The Times, 24 May 1909, 13.

‘Empire Day’, The Times, 24 May 1909, 15

‘Empire Day’, The Times, 3 May 1910, 4

See also

‘Empire Day Celebrations’, Preston Guardian, 29 May 1909, 9, 11, 12, 15, 16.

 ‘Preston Empire Day, May 22nd 1909’ (Preston: Toulmin, 1909), held at Preston Harris Library, Lancashire. 




Technical Data

Running Time:
7 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
638 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
ONDA, Will
ONDA, Will