The History of Speech Day

21 May 2020

The first Speech Day took place in June 1859, just six months after the College opened, and may have been modelled on similar events at Rugby School. It included two Chapel services as well as the prize-giving ceremony. We don’t know what prizes were given, but by the next year Queen Victoria had consented to give the Queen’s Medal, awarded ever since. The original citation, now on display in College, states that this was to encourage students to emulate the virtues of the Great Duke in whose honour the College is founded. The list of good qualities required of the winner is considerable, and includes Cheerful submission to superiors, unselfish good fellowship with equals… a readiness to forgive offences towards himself… and above all, fearless devotion to duty and unflinching truthfulness.

In the early years, the Master, teachers and prefects would consult with one another as to who was the most worthy winner of this prize. However, for many years now it has been awarded to the Head of School. In the 20th century, when there were often two Heads of School per year, one would get the Queen’s Medal and the other the Talbot Medal, first awarded, ‘for merit’, in 1899 in memory of Patrick Talbot, the school’s Vice-President. Only in 2012, when the school had its first Head Girl, did the Queen give permission for two medals to be given each year – for Head Girl and Head Boy.

Many of the other prizes still awarded today have their origins in the 19th century. These include the Prince Consort’s History Prize, and the Earl of Derby’s Prize for French. The Toye Challenge Trophy, fondly known as the ‘Tin Angel,’ was given by William Toye, a Wellington teacher for 31 years. A silver figure of ‘Winged Victory’, it is awarded to the House with the highest academic achievement, and was first presented on Speech Day 1907 by King Edward VII.

You can find out much more about the King’s visit and the history of Speech Day in Caroline’s podcast here: