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United Kingdom: Use and Status of the Flag: Part 3

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Last modified: 2017-11-11 by rob raeside
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[Flag of the United Kingdom] 1:2 | image by Clay Moss, 16 December 2006

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When was the Union Jack (Union Flag) first (widely) used as a national flag by private citizens?

Question posed by Nathan Lamm, 23 July 2002

My guess (for widespread use) would be WW1, 1914-1918. It seems to have been a slow and lengthy process. It had begun by 1887, Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, but was not really completed until the 1930s in Britain, and the 1940s in the colonies.

David Prothero, 24 July 2002

I used the phrase 'by 1887' to mean 'certainly in 1887, and probably before'. The use of Union Jacks at a major event such as the Golden Jubilee will be recorded, but it may be presumed that there will have been some previous limited use which has gone unrecorded.

In 1887 the Governor of the Isle of Man wrote to the Home Office objecting to having the badge of the Isle of Man on his Union Flag as he represented the Crown not the Isle of Man. He noted, "a growing tendency among various places of amusement to fly flags, and on one occasion I saw a royal standard and sometimes Union Flags. Uncertain whether I have the right or ought to interfere."

David Prothero, 25 July 2002

Use of the Union Flag as a Garrison Flag

The British Union flag (i.e., with the union crosses overall) was created for nautical purposes, and most of the historical information that's available relates to its use at sea. However, it apparently was also used ashore as a garrison flag on forts and other installations. Is there a reference that deals with the authority and regulations for the use of the Union Flag in this role, and the history thereof?
Peter Ansoff, 16 January 2004

There were probably no official instructions or regulations until the introduction of the present flag in 1801. The Proclamation of 1st January 1801, "As to the Royal Style and Titles and as to the Ensigns Armorial, Standard and Union Jack", did not specify when the Union Jack should be flown, but the Order in Council, on which the proclamation was based, did. The following instruction, was issued to Naval Dockyards.

Admiralty Office, 15th November 1800.
A Report from the Lords of the Committee of the whole Council, dated 4th instant, having been read at the Council Board on the Day following, in the Presence of the King's Most Excellent Majesty, wherein the Lords of the Council declared as their opinion, if His Majesty should so think fit, that His Royal proclamation to be issued on the First Day of January next under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, appoint and declare ..........
That the Committee were further of opinion that the Union Flag should be altered according to the Draught thereof marked (C) in which the Cross of St George is conjoined with the Crosses of St Andrew and St Patrick:

And that on and after the First Day of January next ensuing the said Flags and Banners should be hoisted and displayed on all His Majesty's Forts and Castles within the United Kingdom, and the Islands of Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, Sark, and Man, ................

We herewith transmit to you a Printed Copy of His Majesty's Order in Council of the 5th instant approving the Report of the Lords of the Committee afore-mentioned, and do hereby desire and direct you to cause such Flags and Standards as may be necessary to be prepared conformably to the said Draughts, ......with all the dispatch that may be.

You are also to cause the Colours described in the said Order in Council to be hoisted in all the Dock Yards of the Kingdom upon the 1st Day of January next, and to supply the necessary Colours for the use of the Naval Hospitals at Home, and the Naval Yards and Hospitals abroad, in the manner directed by the said Order in Council;

We are Your affectionate Friends,
Arden, J.Gambier, W.Young. Navy Board.
In one draft of the Order in Council "Flags and Banners _should_ be hoisted and displayed etc." was changed to "Flags and Banners _may_ be hoisted and displayed etc.", but apparently changed back to "should" in the final version.

No doubt a similar instruction was issued to the Army, but the list of Flag Stations was not published in Queen's Regulations until 1873; probably giving formal authorisation to an existing practice. "The following is a list of Stations at which the National Flag (Union Jack) is authorised to be hoisted. (a) On anniversaries only, or when specially required for saluting purposes. (b) On Sundays and Anniversaries. (c) Daily."

David Prothero, 17 January 2005

Status of the Union Jack following the establishment of the Irish Free State

The situation is that the Union Flag (or "Jack" if you prefer) in its essentially modern form was established by a Royal Order in Council dated 4 November 1800 (proclaimed 1 January 1801), which was in turn issued under Article 1 of the Act of Union of that same date. There is, therefore, no question that the Union Flag was correctly and legally established as a symbol of that Union.
Christopher Southworth, 23 June 2008

This then raises the question about the status of the Act of Union following the establishment of the Irish Free State and subsequently the Republic of Ireland. Presumably the 1801 Act was amended as a result and/or replaced by other legislation. Does this legislation have anything to say about the flag, and/or was there a subsequent Order in Council clarifying the position of the flag following Irish independence?
Andre Coutanche, 23 June 2008

I am not a lawyer, but posed this self-same question some years ago (to someone who was), and was informed that the creation of the Irish Free State amended but did not abolish the 1801 Act of Union, and that Article One (therefore) remained in force. As far as I could find out the 1921 legislation made no mention of flags and of course, the 1936 Irish Constitution establishing the tricolour is irrelevant to this issue. I will, none-the-less, make enquiries with the Palace (or more accurately the Privy Council Office) to see if any Orders in Council were issued which may clarify the situation?
Christopher Southworth, 23 June 2008

Some excerpts from the National Archives:

9th December 1921. Lt-General Sir T.E. Clarke (Quarter Master General) to Sir H.J. Creedy (Secretary to Army Council) "Applications have been received for the renewal of Regimental Colours and the stock of Union Jacks is now very low. Have  to provide 800 to Egyptian Government. Is any alteration in the present form contemplated?"

13th. H.J. Creedy to Secretary of State. "It will be for decision whether we revert to the pre-1801 pattern or devise a new Imperial Flag. Will you take up the matter with Cabinet, or shall we address the College of Heralds ?"

16th. K. Lyon to H.J. Creedy. "Secretary of State thinks we might write officially to the Cabinet Secretariat asking whether the point has been considered or decided."

20th. H.J. Creedy. to Acting Secretary to the Cabinet. "I am commanded by the Army Council to inform you that their attention has been drawn to the question of a possible revision of the 'Union Jack' flag in consequence of the Treaty providing for the creation of the Irish Free State." Reference to low stocks. "They would request therefore to be informed as to whether any change in the existing flag is contemplated."

11th January 1922. Provisional Government of Ireland Committee. Extract from Conclusions Reached at first four Meetings. P.G.I. 16. "In reply to an enquiry by the War Office the committee have given the opinion that the 'Union Jack' is the flag of the British Empire, and even if not accepted and used by the new Irish Government, no alteration should be made in it by the rest of the Empire. This question should not however be raised for discussion with Mr. Griffith. The Committee think that their opinion should be brought to notice of the Cabinet." 4th Minute Conclusion 2. T.St.Q.Hill, (A Principal in the Cabinet Secretariat)

12th. T.E. Clarke to H.J. Creedy "The above Minute is not a Cabinet decision, and includes the opinion that the matter should be brought to the notice of the Cabinet. The position is not sufficiently clear to proceed with manufacture. Could you get in touch with the Cabinet Secretariat?"

13th. H.J. Creedy. to T.E. Clarke. "Mr. Churchill (Secretary of State at the War Office) has since told us that the committee has plenary cabinet authority so I think we can regard the decision as definite."

17th. T.E. Clarke to Director of Equipment and Ordnance Stores. "Make a note of cabinet decision."

[National Archives (PRO) WO 32/4945]
David Prothero, 23 June 2008

[...]but of course, the position of H.M's Government with regard to the Union Flag as the National Flag of this country is already known and is (in essence) above restated. However, a cabinet decision does not the law make (as neither does a statement by a cabinet minister), so in one sense we are still left up in the air with regard to the strict legal status of the Union Flag.

Another interesting point that I have just discovered is that an Order in Council, if issued under authority granted by statute, remains in force until and unless any subsequent legislation specifically revokes it (not just the right to grant, but whatever had been granted). If this is accurate it follows, does it not, that if the Union Flag was established under powers granted by statute law, and that there was no Act subsequent which abnegated the design chosen, then it remains as "Symbol of the Union"?
Christopher Southworth, 23 June 2008