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United Kingdom: Colonial Flags

Last modified: 2013-05-18 by rob raeside
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Colonial flags: an overview

The official flag of a colony was the Union Jack. The governor flew the Union Jack with the badge of the colony in a laurel wreath in the centre of the St George's cross. Vessels employed by the government of the colony flew a Blue Ensign bearing the badge in the centre of the fly. A few colonies, usually self-governing ones, had a Red Ensign for their merchant marine. That privilege was not extended to all colonies, most of which had to use the plain Red Ensign. A couple of dominions - Canada until 1964 and South Africa until 1926 - in effect used Red Ensigns as their national flags.

The colonial badges could be the whole arms (e.g. Hong Kong), shield of arms (e.g. the Falkland Islands), crest (e.g. British North Borneo), an adaptation of the arms (e.g. New South Wales), the colonial seal (e.g. Barbados), or none of the above (e.g. the Leeward Islands, which had a very poorly-designed badge involving ships and pineapples at wildly varying scales).
Roy Stilling, 6 February 1996

Foreign civilian ships visiting any British overseas territory should fly, as a courtesy flag, the territory's own Red Ensign if the territory has one and the ship happens to carry one. The undefaced British Red Ensign is always an acceptable alternative. If the ship is a Foreign government vessel they should fly the territory's Blue Ensign. Basically the British rule is that you may use either the appropriate Red, Blue or White ensign (depending upon your own status) or the land flag, except that you cannot use the Union Flag at all.
Graham Bartram, 1 April 1999

Blue ensigns

Regulations of 1865 required all colonial governments to adopt a defaced Blue Ensign for their ships, but a defaced Red Ensign for colonial merchantmen required a warrant from the Admiralty.
Roy Stilling, April 1997

No organized system of colonial flags existed until 1865 when the Admiralty ruled that the flag that should be worn by any vessel maintained by a colony under the terms of the Colonial Naval Defence Act should be a Blue Ensign with the Seal or Badge of the colony in the centre of the fly. The vessel should additionally wear a Blue Pennant unless it was not commissioned as a vessel of war when the ensign would be worn without the pennant.
David Prothero, 23 April 2010

Flags of governors

A further series of colonial flags was authorised in 1869 for the use of colonial governors when embarked in a vessel on waters within their jurisdiction; the Arms or Badge of the colony encircled by a garland in the centre of a Union Jack. Some badges that were used on the flags of governors were not used on ensigns and vice versa. Where a colony needed both flags, the same badge should have been used on each one, but at first this requirement was not always observed.
David Prothero, 23 April 2010

Design of the badge

The governor of a colony submitted a drawing of the proposed badge of the colony to the Colonial Office, which consulted the Admiralty before approving the design. Few colonies had Arms, none had a Badge, but all had a Public Seal that followed a standard pattern; the Royal Arms above a panel that contained an allegorical scene or landscape relevant (more or less) to the colony. Twenty-four of the fifty flag badges authorised up to 1880 were based upon the pictorial panel of the Seal, and nine were Arms, or elements of Arms. The scene on the Seal could not always be adapted to make a satisfactory badge, and approval was also given for original designs that were not based on the Seal or Arms. Usually these were crowns or other royal emblems, often in combination with words, initials or stars. At the beginning of the 20th century colonies were encouraged to apply for Arms. Not many did, as governors of smaller colonies considered that the cost, born by the colony, could not be justified. Those that were granted Arms used them, or part of them, as the badge on the ensign. In the Nineteen-Twenties and Thirties badges were designed by the Royal Mint Advisory Committee that was responsible for the production of coins, medals and decorations. Sixty-five different badges were in use in 1949 when the British Commonwealth was renamed The Commonwealth of Nations. Twenty-seven were Arms or elements of Arms, twenty-two were derived from Seals and fourteen were royal emblem, star, word/initial combinations. The total number of badges decreased as colonies gained independence, but twenty-three new badges were created for territories that had been parts of former federal colonies. These badges were now almost exclusively based upon Arms granted and designed by the College of Arms, which also revised seven existing badges.
David Prothero, 23 April 2010

See also: Disks on Colonial Flags

Size of the badge

The badge on both ensigns and on Union Jacks was placed inside a circle with a diameter that was four-ninths the length of the hoist of the flag. Those badges that were not circular were set in an imaginary circle of this size. Some ensign badges never conformed to this restriction, and since 1999 there has been no restriction on the size of any ensign badge.
David Prothero, 23 April 2010

White disks

Those non-circular badges that were not clearly visible against the blue or red field of an ensign were placed upon a white disc of the specified diameter. In the Admiralty and Colonial Office flag books the pages showing colonial badges consisted of rows and columns of white circles onto which the badges were printed. As a result it was often thought that all badges that were not circular had to be set on a white disc. An unsuccessful attempt to resolve this misunderstanding was made in the early 1920s when the Admiralty, in consultation with the Colonial Office and relevant governor, stipulated which badges should be on a white disc and which should not.
David Prothero, 23 April 2010

Red ensigns

It was also often wrongly thought that there was a corresponding Red Ensign for every colonial Blue Ensign. A plain Red Ensign, as used by British merchant ships, was the proper ensign of any vessel registered in a British colony. It was only in protectorates and mandated territories whose inhabitants were not British subjects and were not entitled to sail under the plain Red Ensign that, where necessary, a warrant was issued for a Red Ensign with the badge of the territory in the fly. Warrants were also issued for colonies which became self-governing Dominions.
David Prothero, 23 April 2010

The red ensigns which were authorized by an Admiralty warrant were those of overseas territories. Flagmaster lists the following:

Territory Date of permission to use a defaced Red Ensign
North Borneo (modern Sabah)5 January 1882
East Africa (Kenya)6 March 1890
Canada2 February 1892
New Zealand7 February 1899
British South Africa Company11 November 1902
Australia4 June 1903
South Africa28 December 1910
Cyprus31 August 1922
Newfoundland25 October 1918
Tanganyika9 March 1923
Somaliland29 June 1924
Indian Native States10 October 1924
Western Samoa16 January 1925
Palestine14 October 1927

India had an unofficial red ensign with a sort of sun in the fly charged with a ring and a star. If you read this carefully you will see a strange thing: there was a red ensign for an inland territory (Rhodesia).
Source: Flagmaster number 82, 1996, 'Sorting out the colonies, new flags for old possessions'
Nick Artimovich, 6 February 1996


Blue Ensigns with a badge in the fly could be authorised by correspondence between the Admiralty, Colonial Office and relevant governor. Red Ensigns were regulated by Parliament through various Merchant Shipping Acts and required specific authorisation by Admiralty Warrant, as did Blue Ensigns of chartered companies.
David Prothero, 23 April 2010

Flags on land

The land flag of a colony was the Union Jack, but by the end of the 19th century defaced ensigns, usually red and often unauthorised, were being flown on land. The need for a distinctive flag at international sporting events also led to increasing use on land of colonial Blue Ensigns. The use of ensigns on land was also encouraged by the widespread belief that the Union Jack, which was always flown over Government House, was the flag of the governor and should not be flown by anyone else. In 1941, to encourage wider use of the Union Jack, the Colonial Office directed that the Union Jack with the colonial badge in its centre was the flag of the governor in all circumstances, and not solely for use when embarked.
David Prothero, 23 April 2010

Flags of governors general

In their work on Canadian flags, Alistair Fraser and Ralph Spence state that authorisation for the creation of a distinguishing flag for the governor general was given (presumably by the Admiralty) in 1869:

We further submit that the Governors of Your Majesty's Dominions in Foreign Parts, and Governors of all ranks and denomination administering the Governments of British Colonies and dependencies be authorised to fly the Union Jack with the Arms of the Badge of the Colony emblasoned in the centre thereof.
Fraser and Spence do not give a primary reference as a citation for this quotation, but Conrad Swan states that the final design was authorised by despatch #191 of Lord Kimberley, secretary of state for the colonies, to Sir John Young, Bt., governor general of Canada, 16 July 1870; see Public Record Office CO 43/157. The above quotation simply gave permission for the governors general of the colonies to fly a distinguishing flag, and a rough idea as to its design - the specific design for each colony still had to be submitted to the authorities for approval. This happened for Canada on 16 July 1870. In fact, the final design differed from that suggested in the quotation above, in that the Union Flag not only had the badge of the colony in it, but was also surrounded by a crown and a garland of maple leaves. This became the general pattern for other colonies, although the garland was either of oak leaves or some local flora rather than the distinctively Canadian maple leaves.

Although it is certainly correct to suggest that the changes to the flags of the governors general that occurred in 1931 in Canada and South Africa, and later in the other dominions, must be seen as part of the constitutional transformation process of the empire, one should be careful not to directly link the change to the statute of Westminster. In fact, according to Conrad Swan, York herald of arms, the change had been planned for quite some time before 1931. Swan also asserts that it was King George V who personally proposed the new design as early as 1928. In support of this Swan cites Lord Stamfordham, private secretary to the king, to Sir Henry Farnham Burke, garter king of arms, 24 September 1928; Public Record Office: CA 15. Finally, the new flag was formally adopted in Canada on 25 February 1931, nearly a year before the statute of Westminster was passed on 11 December 1931.
Glen Robert-Grant Hodgins, 23 February 1999

Originally the flags of governors-general, lieutenant-governors, governors-in-chief, governors, commissioners and administrators were all Union Jacks defaced with a badge in the centre. The royal crest on a blue flag was adopted by the governors-general of South Africa and Canada in 1931, and Australia and New Zealand in 1936. All subsequent governors-general had flags of this pattern. At various times between 1952 and 1988 the lieutenant-governors of the Canadian provinces (except for Nova Scotia) and the governors of the Australian states (except for Queensland) replaced their defaced Union Jacks with new distinguishing flags.

The following is a reasonably comprehensive list of the flags of governors-general. Unless otherwise noted, the name is on a scroll in capital letters and the flag proportions are 1:2.

Country Dates Legend Notes
Australia1936-presentCommonwealth of AustraliaCrown changed in 1953.
Bahamas1973-presentCommonwealth of the Bahamas
Barbados1966-presentBarbadosRatio of 3:4.
Canada1931-presentCanadaCrown changed in 1953; scroll removed and royal crest replaced by the Canadian crest in 1981.
Fiji1970-?FijiLegend on a whale's tooth; ratio of 11:15.
India1947-50IndiaNo scroll; see note no. 1 below.
New Zealand1936-presentDominion of New ZealandCrown changed in 1953; legend changed to 'New Zealand'.
Pakistan1947-56PakistanNo scroll; crown changed in 1953.
Papua New Guinea1975-presentPapua
Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland1953-63Federation of Rhodesia and NyasalandSee note no. 2 below.
Saint Kitts-Nevis1983-presentSt Christopher-Nevis-AnguillaLegend changed to 'Country above Self'.
Saint Lubrsocia1979-presentSaint Lucia
St Vincent and the Grenadines1979-presentSt Vincent & The Grenadines
Sierra Leone1961-71 
Solomon Islands1978-presentSolomon IslandsThe legend appears on the outline of a two-headed frigate bird.
South Africa1931-61'Union of South Africa' above and 'Unie Van Suid Afrika' below crest.Crown changed in 1953.
South East Asia1946-1956South East Asia The present Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
Southern Rhodesia1951-65+?Large crown (changed in 1953) instead of royal crest; ratio of 7:9.
Sri Lanka1948-72CeylonNo scroll; crown changed in 1953.
Trinidad and Tobago1962-76Trinidad & Tobago
West Indies?The West IndiesSee note no. 3 below.

  1. In India the lieutenant-governors had the same flag as the governor-general. It was supposed only to be used afloat and the relative rank of the official was indicated by its position; governor-general at the mainmasthead, governors, lieutenant-governors, chief commissioners, political officers and political residents at the foremasthead.
  2. The entry under Southern Rhodesia above refers to the flag of the governor. There was no governor-general. Although the official proportions were 7 : 9 the flag in the National Archives of Zimbabwe is 1 : 2. Source: R. Allport, 'Flags and symbols of Rhodesia' in SAVA Journal 5/96.
  3. The Windward Islands had a governor-in-chief with a governor-style Union Jack.

David Prothero, 16, 18 and 28 January 2000

The official model was (and still is) that the wreath [around the disc] sits half on and half off the outer edge of the disc. In practice a lot of flags were made with the wreath completely within the disc simply because this was easier to make. The modern specification is that the outer diameter of the gold ring is now 55% of the flag width, and the ring is 2.34% of the flag width thick. The wreath is approximately 4% of the flag width wide, so you can see that it doesn't overlap the inner edge of the gold ring.
Graham Bartram, 28 May 2005