Speech Day – Then and Now

22 May 2024

In the early days, Speech Days were much smaller than they are now – there were only a couple of hundred boys in the school, and it was less common for parents to attend the day – it wasn’t expected, and many of them lived a long way away, quite possibly overseas.

In 1894, Bertram Pollock became Master, and it was at this point Speech Day had its Golden Age. It became a large and glittering social occasion. Pollock unashamedly said that for the few weeks before each Speech Day he ‘devoted himself to snobbery’ – he had a gift for sucking up to royalty and nobility, and making them feel special and appreciated. He planned every detail of Speech Day to make sure they had as nice a time as possible, and everything ran like clockwork. This is definitely something the brilliant College Events Team achieve today!


Pollock moved the Prize-giving to after lunch, so that the visitors were suitably wined and dined beforehand! He also moved the Prize-giving ceremony to the Gymnasium, built 5 years previously – now known as the Old Gym!

Pollock made the actual ceremony shorter and more interesting – in the words of Wellington historian David Newsome, ‘the agony of listening to terrified boys stumbling through Greek and Latin compositions was mercifully ended for ever.’ In his own Speech, every distinguished guest would get a complimentary mention.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, Speech Day had become a huge occasion with over 2000 guests. In 1904, the Wellingtonian said that all previous Speech Days must be ‘eclipsed and surpassed in point of excellence and brilliance by last Saturday’s proceedings, which must for ever be the red letter day to past and present Wellingtonians’. But then in fact the succeeding ones were even bigger!


In 1907 the King and Queen were in attendance, plus ‘the Prince and Princess of Wales, and no less than five other Royal personages, and a large and exceptionally brilliant general company.’ The King arrived about 4pm; he opened the new Dining Hall (i.e. the current Dining Hall), presented the King’s Medal and, what was then a new prize, the Toye Challenge Trophy.


This splendid trophy was fondly known as the ‘Tin Angel’ – presented ever since, to the House with the highest academic achievement.

The dining arrangements have also seen changes. In Victorian and Edwardian times, the important visitors would be treated to a lavish lunch. As the numbers grew, this could not be offered to everyone, and it became the custom for the parents to have lunch with their children; then there would be tents on Turf and elsewhere in the afternoon dispensing tea, cakes, fruit and so on.

This photo shows lunch in the 1990s and 2023…


In 1887 the Old Gym was built, and the following year, Speech Day featured a display of gymnastics in there for the first time. This led to gymnastics becoming a regular feature.


Other sports have also featured in a big way – and still do. In the 1870s, it was customary to play the School v Old Wellingtonians cricket match on Speech Day – although like the concert, this moved before long to the day before Speech Day, or the Saturday after, at various times. But even when this happened, there was very often a cricket match of some sort on the day. Today, a cricket match between the OWCC and the 1st team is accompanied by afternoon tea at the Potter Pavilion. In 1940, this match was held on South Front.


We hope you enjoyed looking at these photos of Speech Day past and present, do let us know if you have any specific memories of the day when you were here as a student, parent or member of staff!