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!

Boiled lollies on Empire Day
Teeth rotters, but much loved.

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.

Crackers bonfire night Empire Day
Kids and crackers.

Fathers were inclined to take the lighting of skyrockets as  a patriarchal privilege.

Place in bottle, light blue touchpaper and stand well back

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.

Fireworks Crackers Empire Day
A lovely collection!

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.

Jumping Jack crackers
My nemesis!

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.


Bonfire for Empire Night story
The best old bonfires.

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.


  1. Great story.

    My brother Craig and I would spend a fair part of the May school holidays collecting anything flammable to build a huge bonfire at ‘Brookvale’ Castra Road. Plus we would clear fell the entire swamp of tea trees. And we had the obligatory scarecrow-like Guy Fawkes on top. Ahead of bonfire night we would assemble a small artillery of 1 penny, 3p and 6p bungers. How we are never injured or maimed was just good luck.

    • Pauline

      Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a comment, Deon. Oh dear yes, those 6p bungers were like small sticks of dynamite!

  2. A great story. Brought back vivid memories of the annual Abbotsham bonfire held at MacPherson’s property near the cricket pitch. We spent weeks collecting fuel and old tyres in preparing for the event, and supper in the barn followed. Next day we would go out into the wet grass hunting squibs 🙂

    • Pauline

      Thanks Heather. Yes, hunting for the squibs was nearly as good as the bonfire itself! Great days.

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