An initial investigation into the establishment of the British Empire Games in 1930 traced the concept of multi-sport competition for the Empire back to 1891, when John Astley Cooper proposed the creation of a Pan-Britannic Festival to celebrate industry, culture, and athletic achievement. Focusing primarily on events in Australia, Canada, and England, the study sought to place the desire for formal games within the wider context of the social history of the British Empire between 1891 and 1930, a period of fundamental change within the Empire itself.
The British Empire at the end of the nineteenth century was dominated by England, but the new century revealed an increasing political maturity in the dominions which called into question the very structure and future of that Empire. Sport had always furnished a strong link among the well-established countries in the Empire, and by 1930 it had emerged as a very potent agent for informal control, acting as a satisfactory replacement for the diminishing formal influence evident in the twentieth century Empire.
Cooper's Pan-Britannic Festival proposal elicited a great deal of discussion when it was unveiled in 1891, and it remained in the public eye until early in 1894. Theoretical support was widespread, but several factors combined to hinder its practical initiation, and by mid 1894 Coubertin's plans to revive the Olympic Games began to dominate the international sporting scene. Cooper's idea was overwhelmed, and little was heard of the Pan-Britannic Festival concept until 1911 when the coronation festivities for George V included a small sporting programme as part of the Festival of Empire. The link of philosophy and sentiment between the events of 1911 and Cooper's idea of 1891 is unmistakable.
Following World War I, three broad trends emerged as factors which directly influenced the establishment of the British Empire Games in 1930. First, the 1920s had witnessed growing hostility displayed in the Olympic Games, and this, coupled with the continuing domination of many events by the Americans, made the prospect of private 'family' competition all the more appealing. Secondly, the consistently neutral or negative response from the principal amateur sport governing body in England, the AAA, concerning the necessity of it taking a leading role in helping to establish Empire competition was a major cause of several initiatives being abandoned due to lack of support. Finally, the growing maturity of the dominions in political matters was reflected in sporting terms as well, and by the late 1920s it had reached a point where Canadian officials had the confidence to take the lead in launching the British Empire Games.
Sport had more than merely symbolic importance to the Empire. The establishment of the British Empire Games in 1930 represents an example of the emergence of informal cultural ties to replace more formal political control. The Games were an acceptable form of alternative bond for an Empire which had undergone fundamental changes in its structure and composition since the end of the nineteenth century. To examine the history of the Games in their own right is both valuable and necessary, but their true significance and importance only becomes apparent when they are viewed, not in isolation, but as an integral and influential component of the social history of the British Empire in the unsettled years between 1891 and 1930.