26th January 2020

The Evolution of Australia Day.

Celebration in the colonies:

Around the colonies that would eventually become the nation of Australia, the practice of patriotic celebration varied. Not surprisingly, “Anniversary Day” was celebrated from early in the history of New South Wales. For example, it was reported that on the 26th January 1826 “upwards of 90 gentlemen dined together, that being the anniversary day of the founding of the Colony. At noon of the same day thirty-eight guns from the Fort announced the number of years the Colony had been in existence.” (1)

In West Australia, Anniversary Day (later Foundation Day) was celebrated on the 4th June to celebrate the day in 1829 when Captain Charles Freemantle annexed the territory to the Crown.

From 1851 Separation Day was celebrated annually on 1st July in Victoria to commemorate the formal separation of the colony from New South Wales, until supplanted by Federation in 1901. The 11th November was also celebrated, being the day news reached the colony of the Act of British Parliament that enabled separation.

In the 1850s ‘Moreton Bay Anniversary Day’ celebrated its discovery. Now, Queensland Day is celebrated on the 6th June, as the anniversary of the day in 1859 Queen Victoria gave consent to the establishment of a colony at Moreton Bay separate from that of New South Wales. (However, in 1860 there  formal celebration of Queensland Anniversary Day  occurred on the 10th December on the anniversary of Governor Bowen arriving in Brisbane for a civic reception.)

The colony of Tasmania did not seem to celebrate a local day, possibly because it became self-governing in stages from 1851 to 1856.

South Australia celebrated Foundation day on the 28th December, to commemorate the proclamation of the Colony in 1836.

Empire Day:

In 1911 trouble was brewing. The New South Wales Roman Catholics were suggesting that the celebration of Empire Day on the 24th May be replaced by a celebration of Australia Day. (Empire Day had been celebrated in Australia on that date for 10 years.) In reply, the Dean of Newcastle stated that “this was nothing more than a subtle attack on the connection between Australia and the Mother Land. Bad indeed would it be for Australia if they ever forgot that their forefathers came from the womb of the Motherland.” (2) None-the-less, the Roman Catholics celebrated the first Australia Day in their schools on the 24th May in 1911, and continued this for the next 3 years. The discussion around the need for a national day was becoming hijacked by sectarianism. In 1912 the newspaper The Catholic Press declared that “it is, indeed, curious … that Australians who desire to honour their own flag should be taunted with disloyalty to the Empire … Empire Day and its toadyism, and that servile spirit which was undoubtedly born in the chains that rattled the first salute to the Union Jack on the shores of Port Jackson, are giving way to a clean and healthy Australian patriotism …” (3)  Others argued that there was no need for an ‘either-or’ approach, that celebration of both Empire Day and Australia Day had value.

Towards Federation:

The movement toward federation inspired discussion around which would be a suitable date to hold a national holiday. In 1885 the Australian Natives Association lobbied that Foundation Day (January 26th) should be chosen for a Federation Day holiday. (4) Indeed, it was observed as a public holiday (or bank holiday) in some colonies during the nineteenth century. However, in South Australia, this did not occur until the 30th January 1911. (5)

The question arose as to which was the most appropriate date; 26th January (Anniversary Day, 18th January (Captain Phillip’s arrival in Botany Bay), or the 28th April? (the date of the landing of Captain Cook) (6) Some thought Anniversary day “unsavoury”; that the anniversary of the “foundation of a nation by of overseas convicts is scarcely a fitting subject for enthusiasm.” (7) The birthday’s of Queen Victoria or King Edward VII were both seen as possibilities, however “the main thing to be considered … is the sentiment behind the day, not the day itself”. (7) Another date mooted was August 23rd, the day Captain Cook took possession of the land. (8) Federation Day (Jan 1st) was also seen as a fitting date. (9) A writer in 1875 thought the discovery of gold in New South Wales (12th February 1851) a fitting day for a national celebration! (10)

The first nationally recognised Australia Day occurred as a patriotic fund raiser under the cloud of war on the 30th July 1915. It was repeated on 28th July 1916 and in July/August in 1917 and 1918. With the end of the war, this fundraising day was suspended.

In 1919 a three-day-long celebration of Australia Day was held from 25-27th January in New South Wales and an Australia Day thanksgiving service was held on London on the 26th. However, the New South Wales Catholics were again celebrating it on Empire Day in May.(11)

It wasn’t until 17th May 1936 that January 26th was gazetted in Canberra as Australia Day. It was at that time still known as Anniversary Day in Sydney and Foundation Day elsewhere. (12). Less than two years later the first “Mourning Day” conference was held by the Aborigines Protection Association to “mourn over the frightful conditions under which aborigines have existed and are existing today on this continent which once belonged to our forefathers.” (13)


1. The Australian 2nd Feb 1826 p.3

2: The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser 10 Feb 1911 p.2

3. The Catholic Press 25 April 1912 p.28

4. The Ballarat Star 24th Dec 1885 p.3

5. The Pioneer 28 Jan 1911 p.3

6. Evening News 1 June 1912 p.7

7. Barrier Miner 1 June 1911 p.2

8. The Gundagai Independent and Pastoral, Agricultural and Mining Advocate 27 May 1911 p.2

9. Canowindra Star and Eugowra News 2 June 1911

10. The Herald 13th Feb 1875 p.2

11. Freeman’s Journal 22 May 1919 p.15

12. Northern Standard 19 May 1936 p.10

13. The Canberra Times 27th Jan 1938 p.1



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