The first Dominion Day in 1907 was a holiday for public servants. All government offices closed to mark the occasion. An aluminium Dominion Day medal was struck for every school child in New Zealand.
The government wanted to make 26 September a public holiday, but employers wouldn’t play along. There was intercity bickering about the date as some people thought that an existing statutory holiday should be used rather than introducing another public holiday. Some Aucklanders wanted Auckland Anniversary Day (in January) made Dominion Day as the weather was bound to be better.
As the Dominion’s capital, Wellington put on a big show all day and into the evening on 26 September. In the middle of the morning, a Guard of Honour marched from the Mount Cook Barracks to Parliament House. The 25-member Garrison Band played lively marching tunes, and some people had erected streamers and emblems of New Zealand in their windows.
At 11 a.m. on the steps of Parliament the governor, Lord Plunket, invited Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward to read the proclamation of dominion status. He did so, and shouted out, ‘Three cheers for the King’ (the response was ‘hearty and unanimous’, according to the Evening Post). This was followed by cheers for the governor, Ward, and the new Dominion of New Zealand.
The military and the school cadets paraded, and Maori performed a haka. It was all over in just 15 minutes. The crowd, which was not large, set off for Newtown Park where it watched a military review featuring 1600 men. The governor inspected the troops, and more speeches were made. Dignitaries had lunch at Government House.
Ward also issued a message to the people of New Zealand. He spoke of preserving ‘the purity of your race’ and urged ‘equal opportunity to all’. ‘Trust the future of our Dominion not to increasing wealth, but rather to an ever higher manhood and womanhood, to a wider enlightenment and humanity disciplined by the needs of industry, by temperate living, and by those healthy and beneficent tasks that beget advancement and which should be the price of promotion in a free country.’
That evening, Parliament adjourned early so politicians could enjoy an oyster supper. Parliament Buildings put on a grand show. What is now the Parliamentary Library shone like a beacon. Bright lights across the front of the building spelt out ‘Advance New Zealand’ and the words ‘Colony 1840’ and ‘Dominion 1907’.
Elsewhere, mayors or town clerks read the proclamation at 11 a.m. Some places had good-sized crowds for their official ceremonies, concerts, children’s fêtes and other events. Military parades were popular. Up to 3000 people turned out in Auckland to watch one such parade.
Shops and businesses closed in some centres, but not all, and half-day holidays occurred in various towns. Many shops in Auckland stayed open.
Other places ‘declined the government’s invitation to be enthusiastic’. In 1907 the Otago Daily Times called the day ‘a finger-post in the history of this land, but it is no land-mark'. At Foxton, the town clerk read the proclamation to a solitary reporter and a local; a dozen people turned out in Feilding. There were ceremonies, flags, streamers and displays in Christchurch (where shops shut for a full or half day), but many people simply headed to the beach or out of town.
One Aucklander was so enthusiastic about New Zealand’s new status that she or he wrote a poem and sent it to the prime minister, who read it to Parliament:
Where the spacious blue Pacific
Feels brisk freshness from the Pole,
Where bright Nature, so prolific,
Seems to breathe with freer soul,
There the Isles of newer Britain
Brave the main with budding hope,
While their story, yet unwritten,
Grows with fast augmenting scope.
Once Australia stretched her aegis
Far across the sundering waves,
Claimed these shores as rightful lieges,
Thought to rule o’er Maori braves.
Other aims and new decisions
Gave them independent life;
Yet their youth say no fair visions
Through the battling mists of strife.
Newer times bring bold advancement;
Brighter minds give larger views;
Clearer prospects gain enhancement
For the strength of growing clues.
Here a healthful young Dominion,
Through our guardian’s fostering care,
Favoured by the World’s opinion,
Wins applause from everywhere.
There are strong young limbs for striving,
There are hearts that love the right,
And the future ere arriving
Glistens with the prospect bright.
These fair Isles that face their ocean
With a bold and noble view
Shall uphold the sure promotion
Of the upright and the true.
May the new Dominion flourish
With the progress time will bring,
And a knot of heroes nourish
For the Empire and the King.