Students at the University of Sydney

Commem Days in the 1880s

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Degrees had been conferred at annual ceremonies ever since 1856, and from 1859 the ceremony became the Commemoration of Benefactors and Conferring of Degrees ceremony.

By the 1880s the ceremony, generally known as Commemoration Day, had become a notable academic and social event in Sydney. At the same time however, there was the growing problem of unruly student behaviour, especially during the long speeches. This was partly an expression of student protest that it had become a "dreary ceremony"' which failed to celebrate the chief point of the occasion - the success of the students.

Commemoration Day festivities by students could be said to have begun in the late 1880s:
– 1887: the students gave their first concert - impromptu - to the audience
– 1888: after this ceremony, the students formed in their first brief procession
– 1889: students first carried an effigy and a banner with them onto the dais.



Commemoration Day, Saturday 14 May 1887 (Great Hall):
– The undergraduates mustered in large force, and their exhuberance of spirits was in thorough keeping with the cherished traditions of University life. Their high good humour found expression in loud and frequent cheering.
– Commemoration Day festivities by students could be said to have begun when students gave an impromptu concert to the audience, when they sang the refrain of some melodies better known at a minstrel entertainment than in halls of learning.
(SMH, 16 May 1887)


Cheering students, illustration, Australian Town and Country Journal, 28 May 1887, National Library of Australia.


Commemoration Day, Saturday 14 April 1888 (Great Hall):
– Commencing at 11.30am instead of, as usual, in the afternoon, "This year's University commemoration is remarkable for at least one thing. It was the shortest that has been known for many years. This was chiefly owing to the good judgment of the Chancellor in not orally delivering his long address, and to the fact that the students were not seized with an over- mastering desire to make their voices heard in jest and song too often" (SMH, 16 April 1888).
– Students gave a concert to the audience following the Chancellor's address. One song, "They won't go ahunting today", had a humorous reference to Senate's abandoned project of banqueting the members of convocation; another was purely personal as it applied to one of the professors.
– The undergraduates attempted a slight demonstration towards the end of the proceedings, but nothing approaching a serious disorder occurred.
– Afterwards the undergraduates left the Great Hall before the bulk of the audience, met at the corner of Newtown Road, formed in procession, their first, and returned by way of Parramatta Street to the University - four abreast, singing lustily.
(SMH, The Sydney Mail, The Queenslander 21 April 1888)


The concert in the Great Hall on the evening of Commemoration Day, with the first of three concerts by Sydney and Melbourne Liedertafels, illustration, The Sydney Mail, 28 April 1888, Google News Archive. The dignatories of the University in full academic dress were nearest the singers, the body of the hall was filled by substantial citizens of Sydney and their wives and daughters, and the undergraduates sat at the far end of the platform.


Commemoration Day, Saturday 13 April 1889 (Great Hall):
– As soon as the official party were seated, the students rushed to their places at the rear of the dais carrying an effigy mounted on a pole and clothed in a mortar board, clay pipe and gown, but it was unclear if this was meant to be an undergrad or a caricature of a professor. They also had a banner on which the face of a popular professor was painted with the words "Art is long and time is fleeting". A comical painting in black and white of the back view of an "undergrad" in gown and cap, with immense feet, also created great amusement.
– "The undergraduates made themselves prominent during the afternoon, and without causing any serious disorder carried out programme of songs and behaved themselves boisterously. They were treated through out with good-natured toleration" (South Australian Register, 15 April 1889).


Headline from Freeman's Journal, 20 April 1889, National Library of Australia.