Recalling those Empire Day happy times at St Augustine’s in Norwich

St Augustine’s School Empire Day in 1933. That’s Hazel Betts on the front row representing South Afr

St Augustine’s School Empire Day in 1933. That’s Hazel Betts on the front row representing South Africa. - Credit: Archant

She was Miss South Africa in the glorious Empire Day celebrations at St Augustine's in Norwich and more than 60 years later she was made an MBE – that's little Hazel in the front row.

Hazel Betts.

Hazel Betts. - Credit: Archant

Stories about life in the parish during the First World War and the men who went off to war a century ago prompted memories of school days in the 1920s and 30s for Hazel Betts, now aged 93... she was made a Member of the British Empire by The Queen in 1995 for her wonderful community work in Old Catton.

Readers of a certain age will remember Empire Day celebrations in the schools in the days when Britain had an empire reaching around the world.

Hazel left school aged 14 in 1935 and thinks she was 12 when this picture was taken by Neal & Bacon of Norwich – those photographers did well out of Empire Day.

They were among the biggest events of the year which involved mothers and other members of the family spending hours and hours making costumes for their offspring to wear... representing parts of the world belonging to the British Empire – from Canada and Australia to South Africa and India.... and the rest.

As the empire slowly disappeared so did the celebrations but there was a time...

The idea of an Empire Day came from Reginald Brabazon, the 12th Earl of Meath, a diplomat with a warm heart who had seen children at a school in Canada in the late 19th century marching around, singing the national anthem and holding the British flag high.

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He was friendly with those in power and the idea for celebrating Empire Day on Queen Victoria's birthday, May 24, was adopted by our schools in 1904... the whole idea being to make children aware of their responsibilities as citizens of the British Empire. Songs were sung and there were often mounted displays of goods produced across the empire.

The displays nearly always involved a pageant when the boys and girls dressed up in various national costumes representing the many countries, large and small, which were all part of the empire.

And often the Mayor (later the Lord Mayor) of Norwich along with the Sheriff would pop along to give the children the civic seal of approval. Pictures were taken, and small hands were shaken.

Between the wars, in the 1930s, many schools had new-fangled wireless sets and on May 24 in 1935 a special Empire Day programme was broadcast which began with an oration from First World War hero Admiral Jellicoe followed by a speech from the Canadian Prime Minister, R B Bennett.

Some schools also had a half-day holiday so the children went home after the celebrations – making it more popular than ever.

Following the Second World War the Empire got smaller, becoming the Commonwealth and the grand celebrations faded away.

• Do you have memories or photographs of Empire Day celebrations at your school or in your community? If you do please email me at or drop me a line at Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE.