I am an Aussie who voted for a republic, but despite this I have a nostalgic affection for Empire Day. It was celebrated during my 1950’s Tasmanian childhood on May 24th, Queen Victoria’s birthday.
A bag of boiled lollies was distributed to each of us after we stood around the flag pole at the West Ulverstone Primary School and sang the national anthem. Of course the anthem was then God Save the Queen. Free lollies….oh the joy! When Empire Day changed to Commonwealth Day we only got an apple…so disappointing. Friend Sue King reminds me that we were given a half-day holiday, and that there was a ditty that went;
24th of May, Queen’s birthday…if you don’t give us a holiday we’ll all run away!
Something even more exciting to look forward to on the Saturday following Empire Day was… cracker night! It was great having a bonfire in May rather than the UK’s November 5th, because it got dark really early. We still gave a nod to Olde England by putting a ‘guy’ on top. We Australians are quite comfortable with cultural confusion, what with Santa arriving in sweltering heat.
Of course sometimes it rained, and my siblings and just made do with shovelful of coals on the back lawn. Or, to Mum’s horror, lit our sparklers from the open fire in the dining room and ran outside with them. But usually it was a family bonfire in the backyard. When Mum and Dad weren’t listening we used to chant a wicked little rhyme;
Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put a scarecrow on the top,
Put the teachers in the middle and we’ll burn the bloody lot!
On two memorable occasions we had a huge community bonfire. One was held at our place, when Dad burned a lot of old stumps. My abiding memory of the night is that Bunny Ralph (aged 11) tried to kiss my sister Robbie (aged 11) and that Bunny’s father brought along some giant, deluxe crackers that all failed to ignite. The romance between Bunny and Robbie was a fizzer as well.
The other combined South Road cracker night was held in the gravel pit between our place and our neighbours, the Dobsons.
Fathers were inclined to take the lighting of skyrockets as a patriarchal privilege.
We usually bought a mixed bag of crackers for ten bob (ten shillings) from Coles, in Reiby Street, Ulverstone. The names of them were exciting in themselves; Roman Candle, Golden Rain, Rising Moon, Flower Pot, Catherine Wheel, Snow Shower, and the list goes on. We supplemented the main bag with extra Tom Thumbs, Sparklers and Double Bungers.
The only crackers I wasn’t too keen on were Jack- Jumpers. They flew around everywhere and could ‘bite’ you, just like the vicious, giant ants they were named after. In the hands of little boys they were terrifying.
On the morning after bonfire night the yard was full of tattered red paper from blown up crackers, and there was a lingering smell of gunpowder. We usually found a few 6d bombs that had failed to ignite after we threw them. These we broke in half’ and lit for a big FIZZZZ. I remember once the powder shot out the end and burned my hand, but I didn’t dare tell Mum.
Otherwise the only accident we had involved my older brother, Laurie. Early on in the evening, a spark flew into his cracker bag and began to ignite everything in it. His skyrocket shot across the ground and hit the wall of the barn. My sister and I thought it was hilarious…. until we had to share ours with him.
As teenagers, my sister and I began to lose our delight in cracker night. Wobbling down Ulverstone’s main street in our mini skirts and stiletto heels became a nightmare when larrikins ran amok with throw-downs and jack-jumpers. If a spark had landed in our heavily lacquered beehive hairdos we would have been blown sky high.
Some of those huge ‘bombs’ had the force of small hand grenades, and could cause serious damage. In the end there were just too many destroyed letter boxes and serious injuries. The sale of fireworks to the public was banned in most parts of Australia.
I know we are famous for our New Year fireworks in Sydney, but to me they are not nearly as exciting as cracker night was. See, that’s what getting old does to you.
I recently discovered that my older brother Ken had a starring role at cracker night in the little village of Abbotsham, near Ulverstone, in 1952. I must ask him if he remembers.
FEEL FREE TO LEAVE A MESSAGE IN THE BOX BELOW. DON’T FORGET TO COMPLETE THE ANTI-SPAM SUM, THOUGH.