‘Oh, the Roast Beef of Old England’

1907dinnerIn April 1907 the Royal Society of St George held its annual St George’s Day celebration in the Cecil Hotel in London. Situated between the Thames Embankment and the Strand, it was one of the city’s grand hotels. As had been the case at previous dinners, the Society chose a period to be associated with the festival, and invited soldiers to act as guards to the chairman, also escorting ‘the “National Dish” as it is paraded around the hall’. In 1907 this honour was bestowed upon the King’s Guard of the 1st Battalion English Grenadiers. ‘tall, stalwart Englishmen they were, of splendid physique, all considerably over six feet in height’.

As many other gatherings of this type, the annual St George’s Day dinner of the Royal Society of St George brought together many of the London elite for an evening of entertainment. At the heart of the event, however, was the dinner – a highlight of which undoubtedly was the arrival of ‘the roast beef of Old England’. As was reported in the Royal Society of St George’s journal, it

is always an inspiriting and impressive feature, and a little hit of pageantry very highly appreciated. First the “Old Flag,” then the drums, soldiers (two and two), the lordly baron upon a cradle embowered in red and white roses, ribbons, and bannerettes, borne upon the shoulders of four cooks correctly apparelled and beribboned, then more soldiers ; while the band, with thrilling drum accompaniment, plays the well-known air, “Oh, the Roast Beef of Old England,” amidst the plaudits of the assembled guests.

roastbeefDuring the dinner the string band of the Victoria and St. George’s Rifles rendered English airs, while, after dinner, a selection of English folk music and Morris dancing was provided for the illustrious round of guests that included, for example, Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge and His Excellency Baron Komura, the Japanese Ambassador.

Of great importance too were the toasts and speeches delivered. Given the nature of the event they were, of course, of a celebratory nature, designed to appeal to the national sentiment of the English. This sentiment was certainly showing through in the toast of the evening delivered by the chairman of the fesitval, the Right Hon. Lord Redesdale, who noted that it was the aim of the Society ‘to instil in the minds of the youth of this country those principles of patriotism which are essential to the well-being of the Empire, without which, indeed, the Empire cannot exist.’ Lord Redesdale was of the view that the English could learn one or two things from the Celt: while ‘the Anglo-Saxon is a reserved creature, a rather shy creature … The Celt, on the contrary, is full and bubbling over with patriotism.’

Whether Lord Redesdale had a point with this assessment or not, there was certainly powerful evidence in 1907 of how Englishness was expressed by many around the world on St George’s Day. One way of measuring this activity is through the numerous greetings and cable messages sent on the day. Click here to see a map of where message were sent to; click on a location to read the message sent.

In the spirit of the global greetings dispensed in 1907: a happy St George’s Day from the English Diaspora Team!

A Happy St George’s Day

On this day 100 years ago in New York more than 300 members of the city’s St George’s Society came together for the 127th annual St George’s Day dinner. Held at the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the Society revived an old song for the occasion; it was one that members had always sung prior to the American Revolution:

And here to our King.

And O Long May he reign.

The Lord of those Men who are Lords of all Man;

While all the contention among us shall be To make Him as happy as We are made free.

Loyal expressions to the royal family were by no means uncommon, documenting the strong links that were maintained between the English in the United States and the old homeland even after the US became independent. In fact: loyalty to the Crown was a crucial connector on St George’s Day for many of the English who gathered together abroad to celebrate England’s patron saint. Or as another speaker, Walter H. Page, the American Ambassador to England, observed: ‘Our race on both sides of the sea keeps its youth well and keeps its youth better by remembering its common immortal inheritance of men of great deeds and men of noble speech.’

Banquet given by Order Sons of St. George, St. George Day, 23 April 1904, Auditorium, Chicago

Banquets on St George’s Day had been held in many cities in North America since the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but they became more numerous when English societies and clubs began to  flourish in larger numbers, spreading throughout the US and Canada from the mid-nineteenth century (learn more here). Further north, in St John, New Brunswick, the local St George’s Society had organised a dinner and also a church service in 1913. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, the Sons of England and the English Counties Association assembled for a luncheon in honour of St George, for which ‘[e]very man present wore a rose … and the gathering bubbled over with patriotic sentiment.’ A.J. Andrews proposed the toast of His Majesty, and then read a number of telegrams from kindred societies. One of the telegrams had been sent by the Royal Society of St George in London saying ‘England is watching.’ Another came from the President of the Ottawa St George’s Society, and there were further greetings from the St George’s Societies of Hamilton, Ontario, and Regina in Sasketchewan.

The sending of telegrams on St George’s Day was a central feature of annual St George’s Day celebrations all over the world, and the St George’s Society of New York too sent greetings to several sister societies in the United States, as well as to the Royal Society of St George in London. The Society replied that it was ‘honouring England’s Day in English fashion’, and that it ‘most heartily and fraternally welcomed the sentiments of love and loyalty to England and to England’s King.’ The dispensation of greetings was crucial to maintaining the global tradition of St George. Substantial communication networks were in place to facilitate the exchange of greetings on St George’s Day; channelled through associations, these greetings united otherwise unconnected peoples as a single identity expressed through England’s patron saint.

This was the case even more so for the English who came together in the remoter climes of the formal and informal British Empire. In Singapore in 1913 a special dinner was held at the famous Raffles Hotel, while in Queensland in Australia well over 250 people came to together for the celebrations of the Brisbane branch of the Royal Society of St George. Further inland, at Barcaldine, sports were organised by the local St George’s Society and there was a good attendance at the social – perhaps like there had been a few years earlier in c1905. Elsewhere, in Adelaide, the dinner seems to have been more of an elite affair. In Warwick, a procession was organised through town.

Back home in England it was the Royal Society of St George that played a major part in promoting the 1913 St George’s Day celebrations that took place throughout the country. It was at the behest of the Society, as the Manchester Courier reported, that the the motto ‘“Wear the rose”’ was issued. And it ‘was liberally observed … and many thousands of loyal Englishmen sported the red national flower in every part of the country.’ (Manchester Courier, 24 April 1913.)

In that same spirit we hope that you will all have a happy St George’s Day this year. If you are in or near Newcastle, join us later tonight for our final Icons of Englishness talk.


Links and further reading