Students at the University of Sydney

About Student Commem Days

Student Commem (Commemoration) Day festivities began in 1888 and ended in 1975.

View the Student Commem Days gallery.

This webpage provides details about the Commem Day celebrations written by Gerald Fischer, University Archivist 1969 -80.

On this webpage:

Overview, 1888 - 1975

Commemoration Day festivities by students began in 1888, when students gave an impromptu concert to the audience at the annual Commemoration of benefactors and conferring of degrees in the Great Hall. The concert tradition continued until 1897 when, following tension between authorities and undergraduates over the students' unruly behaviour at the University's annual Commemoration ceremony, some 300 students led a procession down George Street.

The 1900s brought a more direct confrontation between students and the Senate over Commemoration. The Senate decided to suspend Commemoration in 1900 and to confer degrees at a special meeting. However the Undergraduates reacted by organising their own Commemoration ceremony and procession.

The students' Commem procession through Sydney streets was thus now established, and evolved greatly in size and content.

From 1912 it was held separately from the occasion of Commemoration of Benefactors and Conferring of Degrees.

The annual Commem Day processions were noted for their witty and political floats, and festivities were often exuberant, although for a time in the 1920s and 1930s the processions were prohibited from the main city streets.

While the term 'Commem Day' was still popularly used for the day on which the procession took place, officially it was referred to as Festival Day.

The last official Undergraduates' Festival or Commem Day was held in 1975.

Between 1888 and 1899

In 1885 the 'weary minutes of waiting' for Comemoration proceedings to begin were relieved by organ music, but in 1888 the undergraduate members of the audience who were seated on the dais, attempted to provide some musical offerings of their own.

By 1889 the authorities appear to have accepted, or tried to live with, this unsolicited undergraduate participation, and by 1890 there was a special undergraduate Commemoration Songs Committee which printed and distributed words of the songs 'Gaudeamus igitur', 'The school of law', 'Students chorus' (to the tune of Botany Bay) and 'The Sydney undergrad'.

There also developed at this time, the beginnings of an undergraduate procession composed of sporting bodies and other clubs and which formed upon the tennis courts (then situated in the main Quadrangle area) and with banners flying, processed into the Great Hall to take up seats on the dais.

Greater student participation in this curtain-raiser manner naturally led to more rowdyness throughout Commemoration proceedings. In 1891, H E Barff, the Registrar had to contend with much noisy interruption to his reading of the Form of Commemoration of Benefactors, and the Chancellor (Manning) and the Governor of New South Wales (Lord Jersey) were both forced to cut short their addresses. The general atmosphere in the Great Hall was such that 'rough political gatherings [were] mild in comparison'.

Apart from youthful high spirits and some inevitable degree of larrikinism, the noisy behaviour of the undergraduates was also an expression of student protest that Commemoration had become 'a day for the authorities' in which the student was just 'the good boy who had to come up and be patted'. It was all seen as a 'dreary ceremony' which failed to celebrate the chief point of the occasion - the success of the students. In 1893 the Senate conceded something of this view and undergraduate songs were assigned a particular part in the programme and the Chancellor's address was notably shorter. It also appears that on this Commemoration the list of benefactors was not read, though there was an additional ceremony to unveil the statue of a major benefactor - John Henry Challis.

Though there was somewhat less noise and larking about in 1893, the Commemoration of 1894 saw a return to the old rowdyism. Perhaps this outburst was partly prompted by the University authorities keeping the students out of the Great Hall for a time and, when they were admitted, relegating them to a less conspicuous position on the side of the hall. Foghorns, trumpets, mouth organs, whistles, effigies and engineering gadgets were the students' reply.

In 1895, even the recent death of Sir William Manning could not much subdue student high spirits, and fire crackers added to the usual din. Possibly Sir William Windeyer, himself one of the first students and graduates of the lJniversity of Sydney, took a somewhat lenient view in this his first (and only) year as Chancellor. But his successor, Dr Normand (later Sir Normand) MacLaurin and the Senate now took a firmer line. Commemoration, it was held, was not an occasion for undergraduate 'roughness and rudeness', nor, added, the Professorial Board, for student songs, banners, and emblems. Discussion between the Senate and the students over the latter's part in the 1896 Commemoration broke down when it was ordered that songs and banners would be prohibited. A protest meeting of about 200 students was organised by the Undergraduates' Association, supported by women students. The students decided to withdraw completely from the ceremony and appealed to graduates to leave the hall immediately their degrees had been conferred, as a mark of protest.

Part of the general problem of student behaviour at Commemoration was thought to arise from the overcrowding of the Great Hall and the Professorial Board made the suggestion of either restricting attendance or finding a larger hall for the ceremony. The Senate adopted the second suggestion and hired the Sydney Town Hall for the 1896 Commemoration. The occasion was without incident; the absence of the students made little impression on the attendance, though the proceedings were understandably 'tamer' than usual.

The Senate's decision to use the Town Hall had an effect on student involvement in Commemoration celebrations. In 1897 when the Town Hall was again used, the students took up the example and organised their procession through Sydney streets. About 300 took four horse-drawn trollies, a Bavarian band, a donkey and a scarecrow. They assembled in George Street west, moved up to Bathurst Street, then along Pitt Street to Martin Place and then back along George Street to the Town Hall. They were present at the Commemoration ceremony but, possibly exhausted from the procession, created no disturbance and there was little singing.

In 1898, Commemoration returned to the Great Hall and the students apparently did not repeat their city procession. A kind of uneasy watchfulness on both sides obtained during the proceedings; the Registrar was able to get through his long list of benefactors, the students sang some songs. But in 1899 student enthusiasm for Commemoration was re-generated. A procession in the city attracted some attention and caused some inconvenience, and in the Great Hall the students were noisy, flaunted faculty and other banners, and got through a number of specially composed topical songs. One lot of verses was directed at the Chancellor, Dr MacLaurin, for his opposition to Federation proposals -

But vain is all your logic strange
The Fed'ral Bill to floor, oh
Let it alone and stay content
To be a Chancellor-oh!

Another set of verses referred to the Professors of the University -

Our Profs are still about the same,
Though some look rather worried;
For one of them possesses twins,
And three of them have married.
Their lectures still are dry as dust,
The same old words they use, sir;
"Nordair," "Nordairl" "Fine you two pounds!"
And "Leave the room; yes, you sir!"

It had all become too much of a good thing for the authorities, but more defiance was to follow. The twentieth century was prophetically ushered in with a more direct confrontation between students and the Senate over Commemoration.

In an attempt to avoid a continuance of unruly student behaviour, the Professorial Board in 1899 suggested that the Commemoration ceremony be divided, conferring degrees at one time, commemorating benefactors at the other. This proposal was discussed at 'very great length' by a Senate sub-committee, but it finally recommended no change in the official Commemoration procedure. In March 1900 there was a further suggestion from the Professorial Board that, as the holding of Commemoration in the Great Hall under conditions 'such as have prevailed for some years' could prove 'injurious to the interests of the University', either an alternative location be found, or the ceremony be suspended for a year. The Senate decided to suspend Commemoration in 1900 and to confer degrees at a special meeting.

At this, the undergraduates reacted unilaterally by organising their own Commemoration ceremony. The Town Hall was booked, speakers invited, an organist engaged and invitations 'the same as those usually sent out by the Senate' were authorised by the Undergraduates' Association. The Senate viewed these developments with serious concern and required and obtained from the students an assurance that 'nothing ... in the slightest degree disrespectful to the Senate' would occur. For its own part, the Undergraduates' Association assured its members that the 'President & Secretary would be hostages to the Senate for the good behaviour of the undergraduates'.

This unofficial 'Commemoration' took place as planned. The procession, led by H. E. Whitfeld, the President of the Undergraduates' Association, moved through Sydney streets in a 'painfully decorous' manner to the Town Hall where G. H. Reid, a former Premier of New South Wales, addressed the gathering. The proceedings were not lacking in some horse-play, but for good patriotic measure this included a mock trial of the Boer leader, Kruger. During the formal part of the proceedings, one speaker offered an explanation of the undergraduates' action in holding their own Commemoration. 'They wished', he said, 'to indicate the principle of majority rule, the Senate being the minority and the undergraduates the majority'. One newspaper interpreted the whole incident as indicating the need for a 'little judicious reform' of the official Commemoration ceremony, at least in regard to 'long and prosy addresses'. The Senate apparently felt it best to ignore what had taken place.

The students' Commem procession through Sydney streets was now established and from 1900 it evolved greatly in size and content, though for a time in the 1920s and 1930s it was prohibited from the main city streets. While the term 'Commem Day' was still popularly used for the day on which the procession took place, officially it was referred to as Festival Day.

From "Students and Commem: Some early history to 1900" by G L Fisher, 1973

From 1900 to 1975

After 1900 students looked upon Commem festivities with an increasing sense of tradition and as something especially their own. Some verses from 1909 ran -

Above all be true to traditions old,
Don't mind if the paper squeaks,
We're bookworms and gropes [sic] for the whole of the year,
So why not one day be freaks?

For its part, University officialdom saw itself as the guardian of different traditions - the dignity of ceremony and the good name of the University with the public at large. Reading the list of benefactors at Commemoration had become an arduous contest with undergraduate row; in 1907 the Registrar was likened to a batsman who 'ran up his score of benefactors by singles during brief lulls' - and this despite the shortened reading by omitting amounts of benefactions. There was also the nature of the procession to give concern. It was, for example, one thing for the student to 'don his cap and bells, array himself in motley', but some eyebrows were raised in 1907 when, it was claimed , 'fully half the men in the procession were attired in female costume'. By 1921 the Proctorial Committee laid it down that no men in the procession were to appear in women's clothing.

In 1910 Commemoration in the Town Hall produced so much student disturbance that the Chancellor, Sir Normand MacLaurin, cut short his address. This culmination of poor student behaviour over several years led to the Senste prohibiting a city procession in 1911. Independently, the students appealed to the New South Wales Chief Secretary, but without success. Nevertheless, they went ahead with a kind of cavalcade of motor cars to the Town Hall where a Commemoration celebration was held. There were student songs, presentation of sporting blues, and G. C. Wade, Leader of the New South Wales Opposition, gave an address. It is of interest that, possibly for the first time, the term Students' Festival was used to describe the whole proceedings.

There were, however, less innocuous aspects to this particular Festival. A number of' students assembled outside the Chancellor's house in Macquarie Street and sang songs. The Commemoration Song Book - to which the Senate had already taken exception - included the lines -

Commem is the true embodiment
Of everything that's excellent.
It has no kind of fault or flaw
Save a little too much of the Chancellor's jaw.

This, perhaps, was not going too far. But practical jokes directed at the Chancellor's house were more serious matters. Feeling was high on both sides - talk of a strike by students, and of rustications (expulsions) imposed by the authorities. One interesting side issue that received an airing over the matter was the student demand for their own representative on the Senate.

Some change in the nature of student Commemoration celebrations was clearly desirable and in 1912 the Undergraduates' Association formed a sub-committee to organise a Students' Festival and Procession. The rudiments of this were already in existence - a Smoke Concert Re-union of graduates and undergraduates had noisily filled the Great Hall on past Commemoration nights (sometimes with a boxing exhibition thrown in) and there had been theatre parties as well. In 1912 these and some other features were incorporated in an Undergraduates' Festival held separately from the occasion of Commemoration and Conferring of Degrees. Processions through the city formed part of the students' Festival in 1913 and 1914, and when they lapsed because of the 1914-1918 War, the Undergraduates' Association was careful to point out that it regarded this as only a temporary arrangement. In fact, the procession was revived in 1919 with much enthusiasm and its half mile length was viewed to some extent as being part of the general peace euphoria that still laved the population.

Even though undergraduates now had their own accepted Festival Day with no Windy Commemoration speeches to bore them, their behaviour in the procession continued to cause official concern. In 1920 'flour, fish and cats' were flung at city spectators and angry letters appeared in newspapers signed by the ubiquitus 'Disgusted' and by 'Late A.I.F.' who likened the students to Bolsheviks. The separation of Festival Day and Commemoration also brought a change for some years in the route of the procession. With the Town Hall no longer a focal point, the procession formed up outside the Domain (near St Mary's Cathedral) and moved along Macquarie, Hunter and George Streets to the University where the various Festival entertainments took place. In 1921, on arrival at the University, the floats were reviewed by the Governor-General, Lord Forster, and at night there was dancing and buildings were illuminated. Speaking to students in the Great Hall, Sir Edgeworth David, Professor of Geology, suggested that the Festival should extend over two days.

The feeling that 'something more' should be done to improve the appeal of the Festival was taken up officially. Despite some doubts about the use of the term Commemoration in any of the proceedings, a report prepared by a joint committee of the Professorial Board and the Undergraduates' Association in 1922 was titled Commemoration Festival. It recommended that the endeavour of the celebrations should be to bring people to the University rather than to take undergraduates to the city. It also recommended more activities for the undergraduates. A suggested two day programme included on the first day Commemoration of Benefactors and Conferring of Degrees in the morning, a sports day in the afternoon, and music in the Great Hall at night. On the second day - Festival Day - the procession would take place, various open lectures would be given, and there would be a programme of student songs, speeches and the presentation of sporting blues in the Great Hall. This kind of Festival programme was developed further in 1923 with the Chancellor entertaining graduates of the years up to 1900 at a conversazione, and laboratories and departments were opened up to students and friends. One newspaper hopefully saw this development as 'taking a stronger place each year in public interest' and so causing the University to become more 'interwoven' into Sydney life. The program naturally varied according to oircumstances. In 1924, for example, the students voluntarily suspended the oity procession and devoted their energy to fund arising for the War Memorial Carillon within the University grounds, and in 1925, when refused permission to go through the city, they processed around and within the University grounds. The year 1925 was, incidentally, apparently the last occasion when Commemoration of Benefactors and general conferring of degrees were held as a joint ceremony.

Particular events of the Festival began to develope their own character as well. The theatre party on the eve of Festival Day became increasingly popular (in 1926 it was to No No Nanette) and this interest sometimes led to members of theatrical companies visiting the University and taking part in Festival celebrations. For their own part, students developed the tradition on theatre night itself of singing their own Festival songs for some time before the curtain rose.

Student songs had been a continuing element in Commemoration festivities since the 1880s. Apart from traditional songs, some of which might relate to University life in general, the writing of new and topical words to well known tunes of the day began to form a larger part of each year's song book. The song books themselves became bigger, were illustrated, sometimes vividly colored and were mildly daring with humorous pieces and cartoons. References to the teaching staff might sometimes be sharper than the victims liked and in 1927 the professorial staff were stung into withdrawing their support from the Festival. Lines like 'Never comb your hair, Sonny', and 'Oh Freddie Toddie drat you, / We're always cursing at you', were based on popular current musicals, but Professors E.R. (Sonny) Holme (English) and F.A.Todd (Latin) were far from amused.

While permission to move through the city continued to be withheld, a procession of floats formed up near the Women's College, moved out along City Road and into the University grounds at Eastern Avenue, passed in front of the Main Building, down Science Road, up Manning Road, to conclude outside the Anderson Stuart building. In 1929, after some diplomatic negotiation, permission was again given for the procession to move through the city. But on Festival eve student rowdyism at the theatre party and in the city streets (where, it was alleged, the Cenotaph was desecrated) got out of hand. Sydney was said to be 'aghast'. Official reaction of the University was swift and stern - all Festival functions were cancelled and lectures were resumed. Any attempt to hold an unauthorised procession was threated with police action. The Undergraduates' Association attempted to restore some of its public image by a special wreath laying visit to the Cenotaph. Possibly with more diplomacy than accuracy the Association's annual report later in the year said that the incidents had 'cast a stigma on the whole University in the public mind, and in consequence all further Festival functions were abandoned by your Committee'.

For the next six years the Festival procession circled penitentially around the University grounds but within the general Festival programme held in the University grounds some new features began to appear. A Commemoration Revue composed of segments presented by the several colleges was presented in 1930, and about the same time Honi Soit began including a special Commemoration supplement. This more involved programme prompted student organisers in 1933 to intoxicating heights of efficiency. A vast Festival organisation chart for that year testifies to the creation of a remarkable bureaucracy that took care of every festival function, officer and practical detail - from the sale of admission badges and the ensuring of Cinesound newsreel coverage, to the checking of the rain gauge for leaks in case of insurance claims against bad weather.

In 1936 the city procession was restored to the students, prompted in part by a small groundswell of popular sympathy that acknowledged high spirits as an essential part of student outlook. It was also sagely recalled at the time that the student who had defied the Senate over commemoration in 1900 was now himself the respected Vice-Chancellor of an Australian university.

The late 1930s saw the Commem Revue becoming an increasingly popular Festival happening. In 1937, as proof, it attracted four police in its audience, and the revue went on to bigger successes until the early years of the 1939-1945 War. When the stage lights finally went out on "1940 and All That" the moment marked the end of a Student Festival age whose spirit is perhaps best expressed in the song 'Commemoration Day' -

Fling to the winds the mortar-board
And doff the sombre govm,
And put your scarecrow armour on,
To conquer Sydney town.
Gird on your trusty bulbous nose,
And panoply of left-off clothes,
And march in triumph forth to turn
All Sydney upside dowm.

The last official Undergraduates' Festival or Commem Day was held in 1975.

From "Students and Commem: 1900 - 1940" by G L Fisher, University Archivist,1973

Lis Bergmann, 2012