Rise of the Commonwealth

'For, notwithstanding many pious and platitudinous observations to the contrary, the 'post-Britannic, 'de-Britannicised' Commonwealth was not the fulfilment, but the antithesis (indeed, negation) of empire - a voluntary organisation run by a secretary-general and pledged to promote equality, rather than a mandatory organisation presided over by a king-emperor and pledged to uphold hierarchy'.

David Cannadine, Ornamentalism, 2001.

For many years, New Zealand Governors-General presided over an Empire Day dinner and ball at the Hotel Cargen, Auckland, organised by the Royal Empire Society, the Victoria League and the Committee of the Patriotic Societies of Auckland. The evening's festivities drew modest press coverage, as much, it must be admitted, for the costumes of ball-goers and their revival of minuet dancing (popularised here in the 1920s by Lady Alice Fergusson), as for the content of the speeches.

After the Second World War, Empire Day dances returned to the Hotel Cargen and Governor-General Lord Freyberg took the opportunity to deliver some of his hardest-hitting speeches. But India's independence in 1947 underlined that the Empire was approaching the end of the road. Prime Minister Sid Holland may have been a 'Britisher through and through'... [who] talked about the 'dear old Empire', but in 1946 his predecessor Peter Fraser had told civil servants to stop using even the word 'Dominion'. Older New Zealanders still talked of Empire out of habit, but for younger Kiwis this was now just a name on old theatres and halls.

Empire Day segued into Commonwealth Day in 1958, when 100 people gathered around Queen Victoria's statue in Albert Park to hear Governor-General Lord Cobham say that 'the British Empire had now given way to the noble concept of a Commonwealth of free peoples'. The Empire Day dinner and ball were as successful as ever, but soon the Royal Empire Society would become the Royal Commonwealth Society.

For information on Commonwealth Day (now 11 March) see: http://www.commonwealthday.co.uk

How to cite this page: 'Empire Day's end', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/empire-day/empire-days-end, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012