This blog was written by Alex Fisher, Archives Officer.
On the 8th March 2021 we will celebrate Commonwealth Day. This annual event brings together the people of the 54 countries that form the Commonwealth.
The idea originated from Lord Meath in 1905 and the day was first known as Empire Day. However, its name was changed to Commonwealth Day in 1958 in recognition of the shifting political landscape.
“I am glad to be able to tell the House that, with the concurrence of other Commonwealth Governments and of the Empire Day Movement, it is proposed to change the name of Empire Day forthwith to Commonwealth Day. I am sure this change will be widely welcomed as representing the general feeling in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries on this matter.”
Harold MacMillan (Prime Minister), 18 December 1958,
In celebration of Commonwealth Day we are casting a spotlight on the records of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). Founded as the Empire Parliamentary Association (EPA) in 1911, it was renamed in 1948. Originally formed with just six member branches (Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK), the Association grew in its first 30 years to encompass over 20 parliaments and legislatures. Today more than 165 legislatures are connected with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and it remains an active organisation tasked with developing, promoting and supporting Parliamentarians and their staff within the Commonwealth.
Comprising over 260 files, the records of the CPA have been grouped into two categories.
By highlighting just a small selection of the documents within this collection we can explore the activities of the CPA in the twentieth century.
CPA/1/14: Report of Sir Howard D’Egville upon his visits to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ceylon, and other dominions
Sir Howard D’Egville served as Secretary General of the CPA from 1911 until his retirement in 1960. A barrister by profession, D’Egville played an integral role in the founding of the CPA. An early photograph shows D’Egville with other members of the Committee of the UK branch of the EPA. The photograph, taken in 1916, forms part of the Benjamin Stone collection and is available to view online via the digital archive.
As Secretary General D’Egville’s role was not limited to British shores. Within the records of the CPA is a report from 1938 containing details of his visits to dominions of the British Empire, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
CPA/1/6: Reports of Addresses given to the Association at Westminster Meetings
Meetings of the CPA provided an opportunity for member states to address the Association in the grand space of Westminster Hall. Contained within the archive are reports of over 80 of these addresses given in the period 1926 to 1940. Speakers ranged from the Prime Minster of New Zealand to the President of the Canadian Wheat Pools, with the topics covered just as wide ranging. These speeches provide a fascinating insight into the issues of the day.
Below are two of the printed addresses that form part of the collection.
CPA/2/1: Photographs for the period 1913-1949
Photographs within the collection provide an insight into the legislative and parliamentary practices of Commonwealth nations. Within CPA/2/1/14 are 18 photographs of the Pioneers of the Political Advance Legislative Council. The photographs, taken in the Gold Coast and Ashanti regions, show the opening Budget Session of the 1948 Legislative Council.
In attendance were Chiefs of the Ga State. In the first photograph Nii Teiko Ansa II, the Asere Mantse, can be seen under the state umbrella. The second photograph shows the Sergeant at Arms carrying a mace as the President of the Council leaves the session. The mace is the symbol of the office of the President of the Council.
The Gold Coast and Ashanti regions are now part of modern day Ghana. A short history of these regions and the Legislative Council was set out in 1956 during a debate in the House of Commons on the Ghana Independence Bill.
CPA/2/2: Photographs for the Period 1950-1959
A key objective of the CPA was, and still is to this day, to facilitate the exchange of information between its members and promote democratic governance. One way of sharing best practice was the organisation of Parliamentary Courses, some of which focused on parliamentary procedure and practice. As illustrated in the two photographs shown below, these courses brought together people from across the Commonwealth.
Commonwealth Parliamentarians invited to attend such courses and meetings were not limited to the sights of the Palace of Westminster and London, they also ventured further afield. In the Summer of 1956, a delegation from Uganda toured the Broad Oak Works, a calico printworks, near Manchester.
Gatherings of Parliamentarians also occurred globally. The first CPA conference to be held in a dominion took place in South Africa in 1924. In the years that followed conferences were held in Singapore, Australia and the Bahamas, to name just a few. These events provided a platform to discuss the political issues of the time and to analyse developing parliamentary systems.
CPA/2/1/16: Photographs of Examples of Food Consumption in the UK
A slightly more unusual set of photographs within the records of the CPA are those relating to post-war rationing. Rationing was imposed on the British people between 1940 and 1954. Rationed food included milk, butter, meat and sugar. In this photograph, we can see an example of food consumption in the UK in the late 1940s.
In response to this hardship Commonwealth Nations sent food to the UK as part of the Commonwealth Gift Scheme. In the three years that followed the end of the Second World War Canada sent 54 million lbs of food to the UK. Combined with the gifts from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the UK received over 100 million lbs of food. From a memo within the collection we know that approximately 70% of this food was sent to old age pensioners and people living alone. These records illustrate the support the Commonwealth gave to Britain in its time of need.
By selecting just a few of the different documents that are contained within the records of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I hope we have highlighted the depth and breadth of the collection; A collection which contains records relating to the countries and millions of people that have, and continue to, form the Commonwealth community.
House of Commons Hansard – Commonwealth Day, 18 December 1958
House of Commons Hansard – Ghana Independence Bill, 11 December 1956