Australia Day (26 January) is the official National Day of Australia, observed with public and family events, official community awards and citizenship ceremonies, but did you know the first Australia Day was held in July 1915 as a fundraiser for the First World War?
The first ‘Australia Day’ was organised by a woman from Manly whose four sons were serving in the Australian Imperial Force.
Ellie Wharton Kirke wrote to a Sydney newspaper in January 1915, suggesting to the Premier that ‘a day be set apart for the benefit of the wounded, and that it should be called Australia Day’.
At the time, the date we now call Australia Day, 26 January, was known as Foundation Day.
Her call was taken up with great enthusiasm as the gloom of Gallipoli was being channelled into a spirit of enlistment—and public giving.
Newspapers throughout the country challenged their communities to contribute funds for troops serving overseas.
The Scone Advocate reported in early July 1915: ‘Thousands of our brave Australian boys are sleeping their long sleep in a hostile land, and thousands more will come back to mother, wife, sister, or sweetheart maimed for life. They have done their duty, are we doing ours? £2000 wanted from this district before 30th. Will we get it? Yes, of course, we will.’
Foreshadowing Anzac Day marches, returned servicemen proudly marched down streets … and Australians bought patriotic tokens.
Foreshadowing Anzac Day marches, returned servicemen proudly marched down streets, as reported by The Sydney Mail: ‘These boys in brown have made the name of Australia ring throughout the world … however the call might come, there are [more] reserves of this same class of soldier to fill up the gaps.’
Women paraded in national dress and bands gave open-air concerts. Booths sold home-made goods and Australians bought patriotic tokens such as ribbons, badges, handkerchiefs, matchboxes and buttons.
Mrs Wharton Kirke aimed to raise £250,000 but nearly £840,000 was gathered in New South Wales alone.
The following year, her eldest son Errol, 28, was killed at Pozières and she became an advocate of conscription: ‘My first-born son gave his life leading a charge at Pozières in August after two solid years without one week’s furlough. Why? Because there was no one to take his place. Will you help save my youngest boy and every mother’s who is there by voting ‘Yes’?’
Australia Day was officially moved to 26 January in 1935.
A year later Ellie Wharton Kirke received an Order of the British Empire. She placed ‘in memoriam’ notices for her son every year until she died in 1945.
Bart Ziino. ‘I feel I can no longer endure; families and the limits of commitment in Australia, 1914-19.’ Endurance and the First World War: Experiences and Legacies in New Zealand and Australia. Eds. David Monger, Sarah Murray and Katie Pickles. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.