This film is held by the BFI (ID: 62125).


Empire Day Pageant at the Southern Railway Servants' Orphanage at Woking. Children dressed in scout and guide uniforms parade with groups representing different countries of the Empire.

The display begins with a man and woman - dressed as Walter Raleigh and Britannia - walking towards a stage with scouts and guides either side of them. The man bows before Britannia, who then sits on a throne. Groups of children march as the adults sit and watch. Each country is represented by a boy carrying a banner - the first says 'Canada' - followed by a boy and girl dressed and carrying food emblematic of that country. The film next shows 'India', and then 'New Zealand' - in Maori costume - followed by 'South Africa' and 'Australia'. Scouts and guides follow each country. 'Central Africa' and 'West Indies' are both represented by three figures 'blacked up' in what is perceived as traditional local costume. Each country then lines up behind its banner, as a band begins to play. The representatives come forward in turn and present their food to Britannia. The film shows the boys and girls lined up in procession, before offering a succession of lengthy shots of the crowds. Further shots of the procession and crowds follow - introducing the dignitaries at the front - before Britannia and Walter Raleigh leave the stage and walk across the field, followed by the various countries.



The Southern Railway Servants Orphanage opened in 1885 in Clapham, where it housed ten children of Southern Railwaymen. The institution moved to Woking in 1909, with a new home – created at a cost of £24,000 – catering for 150 children in a seven and a half acre site (Screen Archive South East). At a ceremony in 1907, the President of the Orphanage, Sir Charles Scotter, delivered an address, in which he explained the operations of the orphanage. ‘No other railway company in the Kingdom had a separate orphanage for its servants’, he stated, ‘the management of the institution was entirely in the hands of the men themselves, and it was maintained entirely by the pence which the men contributed and by voluntary contributions’ (The Times, 2 October 1907, 2).

In addition to the funding from workers’ pay and from collecting dogs at railway stations, the orphanage raised money at local events, such as flag days and, in this case, Empire Day. The home was seeking further development at this time – a new wing accommodating 100 children opened in 1935 – and it is probable that this film would have been screened locally to potential donors (The Times, 22 July 1935, 9).

Empire Day began in Britain in 1904, but by 1933 there was, according to historian Jim English, ‘a rising tide of dissent and dissatisfaction in regard to Empire Day’ (English, 2006, 275). The Times began its editorial on Empire Day in 1933 by acknowledging that ‘the changing circumstances of the British Empire may involve some changes in the feelings of those who have celebrated Empire Day from its inception’ (The Times, 24 May 1933, 17). English similarly recognised that as ‘a different concept of empire was being propagated, which saw imperialism as a form of benevolent paternalism rather than a mission of aggressive conquest’, attitudes towards the day shifted. The experiences of World War 1 made it ‘impossible to sustain the jingoistic fervour’ previously associated with the day, as many now criticised the militaristic elements of the celebration. Furthermore, the event was increasingly viewed in political terms as a propagandist tool for the Conservative Party and other imperialists, and as such was strongly opposed by the Communist Party and elements of the Labour Party (English, 2006, 275). However, The Times concluded its editorial by stating that ‘certainly everyone that celebrates Empire Day to-day can do so with the conviction that, though the tasks of the Empire may have become more complicated and though the spirit of the Empire can no longer be satisfied with the waving of a flag, yet the essential unity of the Empire was never more important nor its power for good so great’ (The Times, 24 May 1933, 17).

In 1932 the Women’s Committee of the Fellowship of the British Empire launched ‘Empire Meals on Empire Day’, a campaign intended to get all households within the Empire ‘to eat home and Empire foods only on Empire Day’. The campaign was continued in 1933, encouraging hotels, clubs and restaurants to serve meals of ‘Empire origin with first preference to Home products’ (The Times, 8 April 1933, 8). 



Although little is known about the production and exhibition of this film, there are strong indications within the film that this was a professional production intended for local exhibition to potential donors. First, in its structure and editing, A Pageant of Empire offers a chronological account of an Empire Day, opening with Britannia and Raleigh’s entrance to the stage and ending with their departure. It was filmed by more than one cameraman – a cameraman is seen in shot at one point – and presents the action from a variety of different angles. This may suggest that the Southern Railway Servants’ Orphanage commissioned a professional company to make the film, while the lengthy shots of the individual audience members suggests that this was intended for local display, to show, in part, to those featured within the film. The film would therefore serve as part of a donor drive at a period of development at the orphanage. The children are very publicly on display, both to the audience at the parade and those viewing on film, as the film illustrates their discipline and development, while presenting them, not within the orphanage – which is not shown – but at a ‘fun’ outdoor event.

Jim English argued that a consideration of Empire Day ‘provides a useful index to chart the gradual fragmentation and decline of imperial consciousness between the wars’. Yet did the pageantry and representation of Empire shift in accordance with these changing public attitudes towards the Empire, and towards the day itself? A simple comparison with the 1909 film Preston’s Empire Day suggests only subtle shifts in the display. In both pageants, scouts and guides parade as representatives of the different countries, while flags are prominent on the stage (the Union Jack is displayed on Britannia’s shield in A Pageant of Empire). Once more the pageant takes the form of a military procession, as the groups march to and from the stage and line up in order. The militaristic elements are less clearly marked in A Pageant of Empire, and certainly the camera places less emphasis on the children’s bodies. Also, the children do not carry patriotic slogans on banners, such as ‘Erin Go Bragh’, yet this may merely reflect the larger scale and ambition of the 1909 event.

The countries themselves are again represented by traditional signifiers of national identity, indicating the perception and representation of the colonies within the popular imagination. In A Pageant of Empire children appear in blackface to represent Central Africa and the West Indies, with the Africans presented in a leopard skin outfit, while the West Indians wear baggy striped clothing. The display in 1933 also now uses food to represent the countries, while the colonies – subservient to Britannia and seated at her throne – deliver food to Britain. This indicates an increasing emphasis on imperial co-operation in the production of food and goods. The Empire Marketing Board was established in 1926, to a large extent to develop and market foods produced within the Empire. Empire Marketing Board films, such as One Family (1930), emphasise imperial co-operation in trade and food production, while these ideas were embraced within Empire Day during the previous year, with the launch of the ‘Empire Meals on Empire Day’ campaign.

Tom Rice (August 2008)


Works Cited

English, Jim, ‘Empire Day in Britain, 1904-1958’, The Historical Journal, 49, 1 (2006), 247-276.

‘The Southern Railway Servants Orphanage at Woking’, Screen Archive South East, accessed at on 18 September 2008.

‘London And South-Western Railway Servants' Orphanage’, The Times, 2 October 1907, 2.

‘Empire Meals on Empire Day: Campaign to be Continued this Year’, The Times, 8 April 1933, 8.

‘Empire Day’, The Times, 24 May 1933, 17.

The Times, 22 July 1935, 9.




Technical Data

Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain