Students at the University of Sydney

About Student Commem Days

In the 1880s

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.

In the 1890s

Rowdy student behaviour continued at Commemoration Days in the 1890s and although various changes and measures were introduced to restore order, the problem persisted.

Consequently, in 1896 Senate moved the Commemoration Day ceremony to the Town Hall, banned songs and banners, and refused the undergraduates permission, which they had sought, to hold a procession from the University to the Town Hall. In retaliation, the students did not attend the ceremony apart from their conferring of degrees.

However, the following year Senate revoked its prohibitions, and the undergraduates were allowed to hold their first city procession to the Town Hall and to sing their songs during the ceremony.

In the 1900s

By 1903, the students' procession through Sydney streets had become a firmly established event.

For the rest of the decade, the students held their annual procession from the University to the Town Hall where the Commemoration Day ceremony was held.

In the 1910s

From 1912, the students' procession, culminating in a festival at the Town Hall, was held on a separate day from the Commemoration Day (the commemoration of benefactors and conferring of degrees ceremony). The processions were not held between 1915 and 1918 due to World War I, but resumed in 1919.

The event was now called the Students' Festival, but students and the media continued to refer to it as Commem.

In the 1920s

New arrangements for the Students' Festival (also referred to as Commem) were introduced in the 1920s:
– the procession now went from the Domain through the city to the University, followed by a festival at the University in the afternoon (1921)
– the Proctorial Committee laid it down that no men in the procession were to appear in women's clothing - however, this does not appear to have been implemented (1921)
– the procession began to be censored (1922)
– Festival Day became Festival Week (1923)
– the new President of the Undergraduates Association, James Gosper, announced that the Festival would be organised and controlled by a committee which would be representative of all phases of University life, consisting of members of University staff, Undergraduates Association, women undergraduates, evening students and the senior students of every college (1929)

By the mid-1920s, the "battle" between the engineering students ("greasers") and the medical students ("butchers") had become an regular part of the Festival.

However, the students were not allowed to have a procession at all in 1925, and from 1926 were only allowed to process within the University grounds. In 1929, while Senate had granted permission for the first city procession since 1923, it and the Festival were cancelled following allegations that students had desecrated the Cenotaph in Martin Place.

In the 1930s

The Students' Festival Week was now organised by the Students Representative Council, which had been established in late 1929, replacing the Undergraduates' Association.

During the 1930s, additional new features began to appear, including:
– the abolition of theatre night in a city theatre and its replacement by a revue or "Festival Follies" comprising segments presented by the colleges (1930)
– the sports gala (1930)
– a women students' ballet as an item in the revue (1931)
– floats in the procession entered by women (from the mid-1930s)

In 1936 the procession was once again allowed through the city.

In the 1940s

Processions in the 1940s:
– 1940: owing to World War II, this was the last procession for some years.
– 1946: despite a police ban on a city procession, the students were able to slip through the police cordon at the University using a smoke screen and invade the city with five motor floats.
– 1947: on their promise to be good and to restrict the display to 20 floats, the students were allowed to hold a city procession, their first traditional down-town motorised parade since 1940. Processions through the city were also held in 1948 and 1949.

In the 1950s

Processions in the 1950s:
– city processions were held in each year of the 1950s.
– the students used the processions as an opportunity to raise funds for various charities.
– there was always a heavy police presence during the processions to ensure that no float left the route or proceeded into the city further than Market Street.

In the 1960s

As in the 1950s, Commem Day city processions were held every year in the 1960s and raised funds for charity.

In the 1970s

The final procession was held in 1975.