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A History of Yacht Club White Ensigns (United Kingdom)

Last modified: 2012-01-21 by rob raeside
Keywords: royal yacht squadron | white ensign |
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Yacht Club White Ensigns 1815 - 1829

Recreational sailing in the English Channel became possible when the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815. At this time the Red Ensign was not only the merchant ensign, but also the senior naval ensign and, with a badge in the fly, the ensign of vessels belonging to public departments. The White Ensign was the ensign of the next most senior naval squadron. The Blue Ensign, the junior naval ensign, was also flown by some Admiralty transports and, with a badge in the fly, by Customs cutters when in pursuit.

The Yacht Club was formed on 1 June 1815 and "adopted a plain white burgee, with which should be worn, as ensign, a white flag with the Union in the upper corner of the hoist". This resembled the naval White Ensign, but was not authorised. Most yachts were cutters or brigs, and when flying the Red Ensign were indistinguishable from merchant ships and fishing vessels. Any ensign that was different to the Red Ensign was going be used if possible. There was an advantage if it made yachts look like a naval vessels, since the latter ususally received favourable treatment in foreign ports.

The Prince Regent, who was a member of the club, became King George IV in 1820 and granted the club the title 'Royal'. At about the same time the 'white flag with Union' was replaced by the Red Ensign. Without any known authorisation the letters R.Y.C. were added to the Red Ensign in 1824, and in 1829 the Admiralty issued a warrant to each of the one hundred and fifteen yachts owned by club members authorising, "a St George's or white ensign to be worn on board '....' so long as that vessel shall belong to a member of the Royal Yacht Club".
David Prothero, 7 January 2008

Yacht Club White Ensigns 1829 - 1840

In 1831 three more clubs were granted a special ensign; "a blue ensign" for the Royal Northern, a White Ensign with the arms of Ireland in the lower fly for the Royal Irish, and a Red Ensign, "the Union (with the harp and crown on a green field in the centre) in the corner" for the Royal Cork. Unlike the Royal Yacht Club, these clubs were not issued with individual warrants for each vessel owned by a club member, but with one warrant which covered "the respective vessels belonging to the club".

The following year the Admiralty refused to grant a green ensign that was requested by the Royal Western of Ireland. The club was offered the choice of one that was red, white or blue and chose an ensign, "white with red cross; a crown in the centre surrounded by a wreath of shamrock, and an union at the head of the ensign". Flag 655 in Steenbergen.

Over the next eight years more special ensigns were granted:
1834 Royal Western of Plymouth; "Ensign - White with red cross, a crown in the centre, surrounded with a wreath of roses, intertwined with oak leaves, and a union at the head of
the ensign."
1835 Royal Thames; "An Union Jack and crown with the letters R.T.Y.C. in red." This is the complete description but I assume that it should have been preceeded by 'on a white flag'.
1836 Royal Eastern; "Ensign, blue."
1837 Gibraltar; "White ensign."
1840 Wharncliffenote; "Ensign - Plain white with an union in the corner."
1840 Royal Southampton; "A white ensign, with the crown and Southampton arms in the centre."

After eleven years, special ensigns were white for English clubs and Irish clubs, apart from Royal Cork which probably chose a defaced Red Ensign for sentimental reasons connected with the 18th century Water Club of Cork, and blue for Scottish clubs.
David Prothero, 8 January 2008

Note: The Wharncliffe Sailing Club has always been a mystery as the only place in Britain named Wharncliffe is near Sheffield with nothing better than a small reservoir on which to sail. James Liston has found that the name refers not to a place but a person; James Archibald Stuart- Wortley-Mackenzie, 1st Baron Wharncliffe.
"The Wharncliffe Club was established in 1839, for the promotion of sailing in squadron on the Thames, under the command of the noble commodore, Lord Wharncliffe. The yachts rendezvous, from May to July, opposite the Club House, Wates's Hotel, Gravesend; and the lovers of this amusement are weekly gratified by seeing some eight or ten beautifully-constructed vessels, from twenty to thirty tons, sailing in company
out to sea. " [The Sporting Review, 1842 ]
David Prothero, 1 March 2008

Yacht Club White Ensigns 1840 - 1842

In the early 1840s the Royal Yacht Squadron, as the Royal Yacht Club had been named after 1833, frequently complained to the Admiralty and to the Foreign Office about the improper conduct abroad of members of other yacht clubs, who were mistakenly assumed to be members of the Royal Yacht Squadron. The Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the Earl of Yarborough, asked the Admiralty to grant the Squadron sole permission to carry the White Ensign, and suggested "that the other British and Irish clubs should have a warrant to
carry a Blue Ensign with the wreath or harp they now have in their White Ensign".

The Admiralty adopted this suggestion and wrote to six clubs on 22 July 1842 cancelling their White Ensign warrants and replacing them with warrants for Blue Ensigns defaced with the distinguishing mark of the club, observing in its covering letter that, "as it is an ensign not allowed to be worn by merchant vessels, my Lords trust that it will be equally acceptable to the members of the club". The Royal Western of Plymouth is the only club recorded as having objected to the change. Based upon its use of the White Ensign, the club had negotiated special arrangements with port authorities overseas, and asked for time in which to tell the Ministers of fifteen foreign countries about the change to their ensign. The Admiralty allowed the club to retain its White Ensign until the end of the year, and also agreed to the club's request, made later in the same year, for a plain Blue Ensign instead of a defaced Blue Ensign.
David Prothero, 9 January 2008

Yacht Club White Ensigns 1842 - 1853

Mistakes were made when the letters cancelling the White Ensign warrants were written. One was sent to the Royal Eastern that did not have a White Ensign, and the Admiralty failed to write to two clubs that did have White Ensigns, the Royal Irish and the Royal Western of Ireland. That of the former was replaced by a defaced Blue Ensign in 1846, but that of the latter continued to be used. In June 1849 the club asked whether this was correct, and was told by the Admiralty that their White Ensign had not been withdrawn. Four years later the club realised that although all other clubs with a special ensign had been issued with individual yacht warrants, none had been issued for the yachts of the Royal Western of Ireland. On 26 March 1853 the club therefore presented the Admiralty with a list of the yachts of its members, and requested a warrant for each one. This time the Admiralty replied that permission to carry the White Ensign had been withdrawn in July 1842. The club, they said, had not been contacted at that time because there had been no applications from the club for any yacht warrants, and consequently the existence of the club had been overlooked. This ignored the fact that none of the other clubs whose White Ensign had been withdrawn in 1842 had ever been issued with yacht warrants, which were not introduced, for clubs other than the Royal Yacht Squadron, until September 1844. When this was later pointed out, the Admiralty then claimed that it had not written separately to the Royal Western of Ireland as it thought that the club was part of the Royal Western of Plymouth. This was clearly incorrect as separately letters granting White Ensign warrants to both the Royal Western of Plymouth and the Royal Western of Ireland were among correspondence which the Admiralty was later ordered to deposit with the House of Commons.

The Royal Western of Ireland protested that the club should not be deprived of the right to wear the White Ensign and made to suffer for the mistakes of Admiralty officials. The Admiralty reversed its decision and issued the club with a new general warrant and ninety-eight yacht warrants. The Earl of Wilton, Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, expressed his regret at the Admiralty's decision. He wrote that the Royal Western of Ireland compared most unfavourably with the Royal Yacht Squadron and he hoped that the Admiralty would reverse its decision. A vote on the matter in the House of Commons led to the Royal Western of Ireland retaining the White Ensign.
David Prothero, 10 January 2008

Yacht Club White Ensigns 1853 - 1858

Between 1842 and 1857 another thirteen clubs had been granted special ensigns, four plain Blue Ensigns, seven defaced Blue Ensigns, one defaced Red Ensign and one Red Ensign defaced on the Union. In 1847 applications for the White Ensign from the Royal Bermuda and the Royal St George of Dublin were refused, as was an application from the Royal Irish in March 1849. However when the Marquis of Conyngham, Commodore of the Royal St George, applied for a White Ensign warrant in June 1858 on the grounds that it was no longer exclusively the ensign of the Royal Yacht Squadron, he was told by the Admiralty that the warrant granted to the Royal Western of Ireland would be withdrawn. The Royal Western of Ireland was informed of this on 26 June, and issued with a new warrant for a Blue Ensign "with the distinctive marks as hitherto worn on the White Ensign". The secretary of the Royal Western of Ireland wrote that a large proportion of the club's members were away on foreign cruises and asked the Admiralty to suspend its decision until a meeting of members could be arranged to consider the matter. The Admiralty replied that its decision was final, but agreed that the White Ensign warrants would remain in force until 31 December 1858.

In November 1858 the Admiralty received a petition from the club asking the Admiralty to reconsider its decision. It had been forward by the Earl of Eglintoun & Winton, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, and patron of the club. He observed that it was questionable whether the privilege should have been granted in the first place, but that having been granted it was not unreasonable for the club to complain if the privilege was now removed. The petition, signed by 153 members, referred to the club's involvement in the development of fisheries in Ireland and its offer of assistance when the formation of a volunteer coastal defence force had been considered. It concluded; "Your memorialists humbly submit that they have not merited the marked disgrace of being deprived of a flag they have carried and worn for twenty-six years, and a time-honoured and deeply prized privilege. Irrespective of this disgrace upon an Irish club, your memorialists have advanced considerable sums of money, their security being their flag, and which will become totally lost to them. The change of flag alone will involve the yacht owners of the club in a pecuniary loss of fourteen hundred pounds. Your memorialists regretfully submit, and at the same time most humbly and respectfully, that if your Lordships think proper to deny them the prayer of this their memorial, the dissolution of this club will at once take place, as they cannot accept any other flag."

On 20 December 1858 the Admiralty informed the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland that although dissolution of the Royal Western of Ireland would be regretted, an exception in favour of the club could not be made without reversing the decision of 1842 and thus allowing all yacht clubs that had once worn the White Ensign to wear it again.
David Prothero, 11 January 2008

Yacht Club White Ensigns 1859

The matter was again raised in Parliament, and in April 1859 the Admiralty were ordered to send to the House of Commons all correspondence relating to yacht clubs and the White Ensign. In the same month the Royal Western of Ireland presented another petition to the Admiralty, this time signed by thirty-six Members of Parliament. The Admiralty replied that they could not give an answer "as papers have been moved for in the House of Commons". A resolution of the matter was delayed by the dissolution of Parliament followed by a General Election on 31 May. The governing Whig party was re-elected and the Royal Western of Ireland re-submitted the petition that had been signed by Members of Parliament. The Admiralty once again replied that it was not possible to give an answer until the subject had been considered in Parliament.

The Royal Western of Ireland represented itself as an Irish equivalent of the British Royal Yacht Squadron, and therefore entitled to comparable treatment with respect to flags, but this was not correct. Members of the Irish club owned 122 yachts, but only 41 were from Irish ports. The Irish yachts were generally small with an aggregate tonnage of 890, while most of the English, Scottish and Welsh yachts were twice as large with an aggregate tonnage of 4,798. The secretary the Royal Western of Ireland was in the habit of writing to the owners of yachts belonging to other clubs describing the flag of the club and offering membership to anyone not resident in Ireland for a two guinea entrance fee and annual subscription of two guineas. It enabled owners, that were unable to become members of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the privilege of wearing the White Ensign. The House of Commons voted to uphold the Admiralty's decision to restrict the White Ensign, as a yacht club ensign, to the Royal Yacht Squadron.
[Parliamentary Paper 1859, III, Sess,2 in National Archives (PRO) Microfiche 65.230.]
David Prothero, 12 January 2008

Did the Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland indeed dissolve, either because their members didn't want to change the club's ensign, or because their only reason for being members was being allowed to use a white ensign?
Peter Hans Van den Muijzenberg, 13 January 2008

The name has just been (re-)adopted by the Western YC whose history says that the RWIYC ceased to exist in the early 1860s. ( Separately I found that in 1884 the club's premises were sold in connection with a civil action at law. The original club's signal flags can be seen at
David Prothero, 13 January 2008