Cobham Conservation and Heritage Trust

Newsletter Extras - Empire Day at Painshill (May 2014)

First started in 1920 as a national event to commemorate Queen Victoria's birthday, it was to be observed annually on May 24th, and the Union flag was to be flown on all public buildings that day. Children at all schools would salute the flag, express their loyalty to Queen & Country and show pride in being a member of the Commonwealth. There were to be no lessons that day, only events to stimulate interest, fun and entertainment. These could take the form of maypole dancing, concerts, parties or talks about great people such a Clive of India or other known national leaders.

When I was a pupil at Cobham Senior Boy School the format never varied. It was assembly at 9am then roll call, after which we were dismissed to play and told to reassemble in the middle of the playground, in block formation at 10am.

During playtime teachers hoisted the flag, dragged the piano out on to the playground, and a few chairs were placed behind the flag pole. Then prompt at 10 o'clock Joe Whitely (teacher and pianist) would take his seat followed by Reverend John Du Val' Brunton (Vicar), Mrs Gordon Clark (School Governor), Capt Percy Ellis (sec British Legion and ex grenadier) and finally the teachers who would take up position behind the flag pole.

At this point Joe would give us a chord and we sang Jerusalem followed by two or three other patriotic songs. Then Capt. Ellis, dressed in a dark grey suit, black bowler hat, with an impressive row of medals dangling on his chest, plus a rolled up umbrella in his left hand, would step smartly forward to take up position two paces in front of the flag pole. Another chord from Joe and we were ordered to turn right, the Capt. would then smartly swing the umbrella under his left armpit and stand to attention. As we marched past the flag we saluted and the Capt. returned the salute. Having circled the playground, it was then a prayer from the vicar followed by the national anthem, and it was all over. We were dismissed and told to reassemble at the same place at 12 noon.

Enthused now by the morning's event, at mid-day we were off, full of eager anticipation and in pairs we walked to Painshill for the party and organised games on the lawns. At 3pm the sides of the marquee were opened and we filed in for the most luscious sandwiches, cakes and cold drinks. Oh, what a treat for so many hungry kids!

With the tea party over it was then three cheers for Mrs Combes. Hip Hip Hooray!.. and we were off for our final treat. Just before the two lodges tables had been set up on the driveway laden with bags of goodies, one for each child. In each bag was an apple, an orange, a bag of biscuits and a bag of sweets. Wow! What a day. What a treat.

Front of Painshill HouseThis very old photograph is the front of Painshill House. It is not very clear as it is thought to have been taken on a glass plate which was used before film became available, but it shows the front of the house normally only seen by the public in the distance from the river.

Political correctness won the day in 1958 when the Empire Day was re-badged Commonwealth Day. It has been relegated to the second Monday in March and almost forgotten. Great pity, for it meant so much to children in my school days.

Frank Bryan

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