Commonwealth Day as we know it began as the Empire Day Movement at the end of the late nineteenth century.
The idea of a designated day each year to celebrate the Empire was first put forward in 1894 by the Canadian branch of the Royal Colonial Institute (now the Royal Commonwealth Society). Clementina Fessenden, the wife of Ontario Minister of Education, Senator George W. Ross, promoted a scheme for children to commemorate the Empire on one day each year. The proposal to turn this into a national event was put to a meeting of the Canadian Education Association in 1898 and passed unanimously.
The news of the observance of an Empire day by Canadian schoolchildren stirred the emotions of many others around the Empire, including the British Leagues of Australia, who, in a letter to The Times in 1903, not only backed the idea, but suggested that Empire day be celebrated by everyone, not only school children.
In the United Kingdom, The Earl of Meath led a self-financed one man campaign for Empire day to be celebrated throughout the Empire. His work was successful, and, during the First World War, official recognition was given to Empire day in Britain. Its first national observance took place on 24 May 1916, when over 70,000 schools and institutions such as the Stock Exchange saluted the flag and sang the national anthem.
In January 1921, feeling that he had taken the Empire Day Movement as far as he could, Meath formally invited the Royal Colonial Institute to assume control of it. The movement was accommodated in the Institute’s building on Northumberland Avenue and directed by a committee composed of members of the Institute and of Meath’s original team. Sir Lawrence Wallace acted as Chairman and Meath himself chose to occupy the position of Vice-Chairman. Meath became the movement’s first President from 1927 to 1929, after which he was replaced by Admiral Earl Jellicoe.
April 1949 heralded the birth of the modern Commonwealth when Heads of State from Australia, Britain, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs met in London to decide what could be salvaged from the wreckage of Empire. As a result, in 1958 Empire Day became known as British Commonwealth Day, before finally becoming Commonwealth Day in 1966. That same year, the date of Commonwealth Day in the United Kingdom was temporarily set as 10th June, to coincide with the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II.
During the 1975 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, the Canadian delegation proposed that a “simultaneously observed Commonwealth Day would focus attention upon the association and its contribution to a harmonious global environment.” The date was settled at the following Senior Officials Meeting in Canberra, Australia, in 1976. With a deliberate focus on reaching a young audience, the second Monday in March was selected for Commonwealth Day so that the majority schools around the Commonwealth would be in term-time. As such, 1977 marked the first simultaneous observance day across the entire Commonwealth.
Today, Commonwealth Day is celebrated every year throughout the Commonwealth in variety of ways. The centre piece of the celebrations is the Commonwealth Day Observance in London. The multi-faith service, which takes place at Westminster Abbey, is attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth, the representatives of Commonwealth countries in London, the Commonwealth High Commissioners and 1,000 school-aged children.
The Observance features hymns, readings and performances which reflect the vibrancy and diversity of the modern Commonwealth. From 1994, the Commonwealth Day Observance has taken a different theme, in accordance with the annual theme for the Commonwealth. Furthermore, though Commonwealth Day remains the centrepiece of the Commonwealth calendar, since 2008, there has been a greater emphasis on Commonwealth Week as a whole due to the sheer number of activities and celebrations.
The Commonwealth Day Observance is delivered by the Royal Commonwealth Society, under the auspices of the Council of Commonwealth Societies (CCS). The CCS is a membership organisation and is tasked with supporting and coordinating Commonwealth-wide celebrations.