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Australian Customs Service

Last modified: 2015-10-21 by ian macdonald
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[Australian Customs flag] image by Clay Moss, 6 Dec 2005
[two-sided] Ratio 1:2

See also:

Australian Customs Flag

The flag was the Australian national flag with the word "CUSTOMS" written between the Commonwealth star and the Southern Cross.

The Australian Border Force was created on 1 July 2015, combining the functions of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. As a result, the Australian customs flag has been changed to reflect the name Border Force.

This flag is used mostly on Customs aircraft but also on all Customs boats. When the Customs Service works with the Navy, the Navy hoist this flag and under the legislation, as long as there in one Customs Officer on board, then the vessel is a Customs vessel.
Arjeh, 19 February 2001

Reverse of flag

[Australian Customs flag reverse] image by Clay Moss, 6 Dec 2005
[two-sided] [reverse] [sinister]

[The images above] are a faithful reproduction of a customs ensign that the Aussie customs folk sent us last year when my Vexillology class was collecting flags. I have no clue if there's a definitive set of specs for the lettering on this flag, so I thought it wise to send that they're actually using.
Clay Moss, 6 December 2005

Alternative depiction of the Customs flag

[Australian Customs flag] image by Zach Harden

It is my opinion that the lettering is correctly positioned [in the image above], but that the font weight used should be bold, rather than a standard, light or demi, such as it presently appears:

This is also borne out by other official sources:

  1. The book Australian Flags [ozf98], page 19, where there is a depiction this time in a different font weight and in italic, but the same position as Zach's image.
  2. The latest edition of 'Manifest', Winter 2005, which is the Newsletter of the Australian Customs Service, shows the lettering in the same position as in Zach's image, but in bold lettering.

The only specification is in respect of the weight of the font and its colour, viz:

"For the purposes of section 14 of the Act the following flag is prescribed, namely, the Australian National Flag with the addition in the fly of the word 'CUSTOMS' in white in bold character."
Source: Regulation 2, Customs Regulations 1926, Statutory Rules 1926 No. 203 as amended, made under the Customs Act 1901 [the primary legislation] Prepared on 25 November 2005, taking into account amendments up to SLI 2005 No. 265 by the Office of Legislative Drafting and Publishing (OLDP), Attorney-General's Department, Canberra
Colin Dobson, 9 December 2005

As with the New Zealand Customs flag, which is defined similarly, the word "CUSTOMS" definitely does not appear in the "fly" according to the usual vexillological understanding, but in the centre of the lower half of the flag, between the Commonwealth Star and the Southern Cross. This was the position of the badge proposed for the flag of Papua (and future Australian territories) in 1908, which was also described as "on the fly" of the "Commonwealth Flag (blue ensign)". It seems that "fly" has often been used in regulations to mean any part of a British ensign outside the UJ.
Jonathan Dixon, 1 October 2008

History of Australian Customs flags

The following is the text of an article [h2c05] published in the current, Winter 2005, edition of Manifest, which is the newsletter of the Australian Customs Service, under the original headline Flying the Customs flag:
[The images included are based on the photos of replica flags in the original article.]

Customs has its own flag that flies on Customs vessels and, on certain occasions, on buildings. It is the most recent in a series that goes back to before Federation - two from colonial NSW and three since Federation.

The use of flags by "revenue cutters" and other Customs and Excise vessels is mentioned in an English proclamation of 1694. An act of 1784 instructed Customs vessels to fly the flag (and a pennant) when giving chase. The design of the flag changed over time and these changes are described in "Flags at sea" by Timothy Wilson (London HMSO, 1986, pp 40/1) [wil86].

The Australian colonies followed the practice of using Customs/Custom House flags. The five flags so far identified are:

  1. Customs House Flag of 1832 - the source is a facsimile of an engraving by W. Wilson for the NSW Calendar and General Post Office Directory. It is titled "Australia - Code of Signals for the Colony of New South Wales" dated January 1, 1832 and signed by a Mr Nicholson, Harbour Master. No description is given, but using a combination of the 1817 English Customs flag and the engraving, a replica has been made.

    [Colonial Customs House Flag of 1832] image by Clay Moss, 28 Feb 2006

  2. Customs Colonial Flag of 1882 - taken from "Supplement to the NSW Government Gazette, No. 193, Friday, 12 May 1882". A replica has been made using a description given as a regulation under the "Customs Regulation Act of 1879": "The proper ensign for Customs shall be the red English ensign with the addition of a white cross, being in the form and proportion the same as the white ensign, but with the colours of the flag reversed, and with the letters CH in the outer lower quarter of the flag; and the pendant shall be the red pendant."

    [NSW Colonial Customs flag 1882] image by Clay Moss, 11 Dec 2005

  3. Australian Customs Flag of 1901 - Section 14 of the original Customs Act of 1901 states that "The vessels and boats employed in the service of Customs shall be distinguished from other vessels and boats by such flag as shall be prescribed". In the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 53 of 10 October 1901, page 172, under the heading "Customs Regulations", Section 14 "The Customs Flag" states, "The Customs flag shall be the Blue Ensign, with the addition in the fly of the letters "HMC" in bold character, and the word 'Australia'". A replica has been made.

    [Reconstruction of Australian Customs Flag 1901, according to Manifest] image by Clay Moss, 17 Dec 2005

  4. Australian Customs Flag circa 1904 to 1988 - the removal of the word "Australia" from the flag is first noted in an "order in council" dated 16 June 1904, with the appropriate change to Section 14.

    [Reconstruction of Australian Customs Flag 1904, according to Manifest] image by Clay Moss, 17 Dec 2005
  5. Australian Customs Flag - current. This flag has the word "Customs" in bold on the fly, replacing "HMC". The legislative backing for this change was an amendment SR297, published 17/12/1987 to commence on 1/01/1988.

Source: Manifest, the newsletter of the Australian Customs Service, published Winter 2005, by Corporate Communication, Australian Customs Service, Canberra. International Standard Serial Number (ISSN) 1329-7961, available as a 2.9MB PDF file
Authors: Customs History Unit staff, Kerry Hannan and Peter Chinn.
Colin Dobson, 9 December 2005

The precise details [of the 1832 flag] are a matter of guess-work and interpretation. The replica was based on Nicholson's Flag-Sheet of 1832.
David Prothero, 16 December 2005

Both of these 1901 and 1904 flags show the 7 pointed Commonwealth Star, which dates from 1908. The "replica" of #3 apparently was made by someone who didn't know this. Since the text says the "Blue Ensign", and not the "Australian Blue Ensign", I wonder if the stars were on the flag at all. Anyway, there should be a #4a with the 6 pointed star for 1904-1908.
Dean McGee, 10 December 2005

I agree with Dean. What would be the point of having the word "Australia" in addition to the stars? Thus it is more likely that:

1901 flag. No stars, just HMC AUSTRALIA on a Blue Ensign.
[Reconstruction of Australian Customs flag 1901 with no stars] image by Clay Moss, 18 Dec 2005

1904 flag. HMC on Australian Blue Ensign having a six point Commonwealth star.
[Reconstruction of Australian Customs flag 1904 with 6 pointed star] image by Clay Moss, 19 Dec 2005

1908 flag. As in the replica 1904 flag.
David Prothero, 17 December 2006

I just came across these two customs flags currently being sold on eBay (Item number: 290302470533). One approx 18ins x 30ins and the other 44ins x 24ins, made from a coarse lightweight cotton/hessian material with the Union flag and stars having been applied by machine in a white zigzag stitch. There is also a Union flag stitched on the back. This flag has its metal fixings still attached and also has the remnants of an old label in the seam of the edge which may once have had writing on, but it is very worn.
Keir, 22 March 2009

The photos on eBay show a flag similar to that shown for 1904-1988 in the Customs newsletter article, but with the "HMC" in between the Commonwealth star and the bottom of the southern cross.

The positioning of the text in the centre of the lower half of the flag is more consistent with the replica flag with the text "HMC AUSTRALIA". It is also consistent with other early Australian flags with devices described as “in the fly”.

However, the Customs article did not describe their “1904-1988” flag as a replica/reconstruction (unlike the earlier ones), and 1988 is not all that long agao – I wonder whether a change was actually made between 1908 and 1988, possibly based on similar understanding of "in the fly" to what we would have. Has anyone seen any Australian customs flags from the early 80s?
Jonathan Dixon, 22 March 2009

The speculations about the 'HMC' being relocated to the lower centre of the flag are right. It was moved at an unknown date, the Customs website has a photo of a Nomad aircraft with this version of the flag painted on, circa 1980 (Protecting our Borders, page 28 of the publication, page 30 of the PDF file.).

This 'adjustment' was clearly done without any need to have the Customs Regulations altered, so we can't use them to work out when it was done. And this has no doubt contributed to distorting the meaning of the word 'fly' to include the lower hoist, in Australian usage.

As for the speculations about the Customs flag situation 1901-4, I believe that as original Customs Regulations of October 1901 apparently only specified a 'Blue Ensign', either British or Commonwealth types could be used & the Australian type could be confirmed at a later date after it's gazettal, without having to alter the law. But as seen in military photos 1901-2, use of the ungazetted new Australian flag was widespread. If so used, then the Customs flag not only enjoyed the force of law sixteen months before the Commonwealth Blue/Red Ensigns were gazetted, but this would be the only gazettal behind use of the original version of the flag.
Jeff Thomson, 26 April 2012

Apart from the 1903 Trove article, nothing significant has turned up further than what was in Manifest. What little I've otherwise seen suggests that the 1904-1987 Customs flags usually had HMC in the lower centre, so I don't know why the one in Manifest had a smaller HMC in the lower fly corner, or how typical it was.
Jeff Thomson, 26 October 2012

I've received a brief email from an officer of the Customs Historic Unit. It seems that they don't have much knowledge of Customs flags that hasn't already been noted here, and many other websites. I'll present it as a direct quote:

I'll look at the BBE vs CBE re the flag." (He's referring to the 1901-4 Customs flag).

"In an earlier mail you mentioned the problem of the placement of HMC on the 1908-88 flag as per Manifest. I agree that photos of the flag being flown show HMC in a more central position. No such flags exist within Customs, the one in manifest was made a couple of years ago by a flagmaker in Canberra and if I remember correctly, it was based on words from legislation of the time. Hence the difference could be interpretation - I'll check."

"You may recall in the Manifest articles that SA and NSW Colonial Customs flags were shown, I suspect other Colonial Customs would have had such flags, have you come across any as I have not?" (I referred him to 'QLD red ensign').
The study of Customs flags would be only a very small part of this unit's activities. They've done the best they can with the scant available information, but I think they were off-target a bit. The trouble is that the Manifest article has been taken as authoritative and has since appeared on many different websites.

I presume that the Colonial Customs flags were most likely more or less the standard British ones. The white cross NSW one may have been needed to avoid confusion between QLD & VIC at a time when the six Colonies had separate Customs, Quarantine, Armed Forces etc.

The information that the 1908-1988 Customs flag is a replica, and that there is no hard evidence of the HMC being placed in the lower fly corner, now means that only the 2001 Centenary Flag and the CLS flags are known not to have their defacement in the lower centre of the ANF or ARE. Or at least as far as I know. (I'm not counting the Marine Board of Launceston flag until I see an image of it. Anyway it's a State Govt flag).

I think it's conclusive that the 1901-4 Customs flag was a British Blue Ensign. If evidence of CBE versions comes to light, then they would have been semi-official ones based upon a liberal interpretation of the 1901 Customs Regulations.

Therefore I see the evolution of the 'mainland' Australian Customs flag as:
1901-1904 British Blue Ensign with HMC AUSTRALIA in the fly.
1904-1987 Cth Blue Ensign with HMC in the lower centre (7-point Cth Star from 1909).
1988-on ANF with CUSTOMS spread across the lower centre.

Jeff Thomson, 15 February 2013

1889 South Australian Customs House flag

[1889 South Australian Customs House flag] image by Clay Moss, 27 Feb 2006

On page 36 of the Summer 2006 Manifest magazine, there's a short piece on a new customs flag that the Australian Customs Service's history department has discovered, that being a "distinctive" South Australian Customs flag. Their source is an official South Australian Customs hand book dated 1889.

The definition in the handbook of the flag reads as such: "The proper Customs House flag or ensign is blue, with the Union Jack in the upper canton and the letters C.H. and a crown in red above in the fly; and the proper pendant is blue with a crown in red."

The image above has virtually the same defacement as the New South Waloes Customs flag of 1832 mentioned above. The alternative depiction below is drawn up from a photo of a modern reproduction flag which can also be found on page 36 in Manifest. I would tend to believe that the defacement probably looked more like the first image. Can anyone provide further information?
Clay Moss, 27 February 2006

Alternative depiction of the South Australian Customs flag
[Alternative depiction of the South Australian Customs flag] image by Clay Moss, 27 Feb 2006

Jeff Thomson pointed me in the direction of an article in The Advertiser (an Adelaide newspaper) on 27 October 1903, which reads:


Melbourne, October 26.

Dr. Wollaston (Comptroller of Customs) has made the necessary alterations to the approved Commonwealth flag in order to make a distinctive Australian Customs flag. At present the Customs boats fly a blue ensign with the word "Australia." In future the national flag, with some special defacement will be flown by the Federal Customs launches. The Customs authorities have another flag problem to solve, that is the distinction from a tariff point of view of a flag from a banner, for banners ate liable to a higher duty than flags.
(Read at the National Library of Australia's Trove,

As Jeff says, it seems to confirm that the 1901-1904 HMC AUSTRALIA Customs flag was in fact a British Blue Ensign, as speculated upon above.
Jonathan Dixon, 22 October 2012

External Territory Customs flags

Perhaps the External Territory Customs flags were different to the Australian one, because the External Territories had different Customs legislation to the mainland. In fact the New Guinean and Nauruan Regulations and Ordinances may have been based upon the previous German laws.

The Customs flags were prescribed in the various Regulations, usually Section 2. But they may not have been the flags actually in use. Even today, on the PNG Customs website, the Regulations 1951 Section 2 still reads almost the same as originally, yet I have seen no evidence that such a badged PNG flag has ever been used. And I doubt that the quoted defacements actually included the full stops on the flags themselves. It's just how people wrote in those days, e.g., R.A.A.F.
Jeff Thomson, 29 October 2012

In New Guinea, a 1908 German Customs law remained in effect with some Australian amendments until 1921. It was replaced by a New Guinea Customs Ordinance, with a set of Regulations following in 1928.
Jeff Thomson, 18 October 2015

I agree that the 1926 date for the PAPUA badge being approved by Parliament was probably a typo, but if it's correct, it may have been for some legalistic reason, perhaps connected with the Australian Customs Regulations enacted in that same year. Also, there seem to be contradictions in file 102516 concerning the flag. As you note, it is described as a Blue Ensign with HMC in black on a white ball in the fly. Elsewhere it is described as the Flag of the Territory of Papua with HMC in black in the fly, presumably on the PAPUA badge itself. There was certainly enough room for it there.
Jeff Thomson, 29 October 2012

The Flag of Papua existed as both a British Blue Ensign with a crown-over-Papua badge, and an Australian Blue Ensign with an uncrowned-Papua badge. Both entered service in 1908 and are known to have been flown in that year, the British type prevailing until about September 1931 when according to reports, the Australian type began to replace it.

As Customs flags, both could have existed as prescribed, with a bold black HMC added to the Papua badge. But one report from Port Moresby states that only undefaced Flags of Papua (i.e. without HMC) were flown in Customs service. After the war, the undefaced Australian Blue Ensign was flown.

In various Government memos of the 1940s and 1950s, the year 1926 is given for when the Papua badge was approved. This seems to be based upon a misreading of '1906'. In National Archives of Australia file barcode 109104, at the foot of the handwritten page 46 (of 48) the 0 of 1906 gives a strong impression of being a 2. This note appears to be the source of the misunderstanding.
Jeff Thomson, 18 October 2015

The 1922 Customs Regulations and Ordinances were an adaptation of the New Guinean ones. I've not found anything to show what the prescribed flag was, if any. By the Administrator's reports, the Govt launch flew two flags up to circa 1950. These were Customs & Quarantine, with defacements 'under the jack' suggesting ANFs.

However the 'white N.C.' and 'yellow circle/ring' (rather than badge, disc, ball, patch etc) suggest that both flags were improvisations. I suspect that the N.C. may have been a part-unpicked HMC. Also the Q-flag yellow ring could even have been a yellow Q perhaps? They were replaced by a 'Red Ensign' Whether British or Australian wasn't specified, but it could be questioned as Australia looked after Nauru on behalf of itself, the UK & NZ. Local Customs and Quarantine officers may even have arranged the defacements based upon vague descriptions. Australian flag history has plenty of that!
Jeff Thomson, 29 October 2012

In Nauru the 1921 New Guinea Ordinance was applied from 1922, and this law remained the basis of the Nauru Customs Act until 2014. No Customs Regulations or legislative instrument prescribing a Customs flag has been known to be made for Nauru up to independence in 1968.
Jeff Thomson, 18 October 2015

I'll do this now rather than next time. So we know that from day one of the Customs Regulations 1951 Section 2, the Cth Blue Ensign with the known defacement was prescribed. Basically a simple update of the pre-war TNGC flag. We also know that the current PNG National Flag with another simple update to PNGC is still prescribed. What we need to find is the significance of 1965 to the TP&NGC-badged flag, and whether in 1971 it altered to TPNGC. That's why I'm after the NAA file 20201067. I also believe that around 1965 P&NG had a degree of self-government introduced. Otherwise I have no idea why 1965 is mentioned with the TP&NGC flag.
Jeff Thomson, 29 October 2012

The NAA file barcode 20201067 and follow-on 32758369 had most Customs Regulations amendments between 1959 and 1973. Other amendments 1951-1959 and 1961 were found in law books, so I can confirm that there was no change to the original 1951 flag prescription up to late 1973.

There is no Customs Regulations significance to the year 1965 in relation to this flag. It probably related to dubious information passed to Mr. I O Evans of Surrey England by the Australian Department of Territories in an undated letter of 1964. In this letter the P&NG Customs flag defacement was quoted as T.P.N.G.C. whereas in the Regulations it was T.P. & N.G.C. It remained so throughout the period that PNG law was submitted to Canberra for approval, a process that ceased in late 1973.

Available PNG legislation does not indicate when the flag prescription was amended to the present one for the defaced PNG National Flag, but it was sometime from 1974 to 1986. However the effect of the (PNG) National Identity Ordinance of 1971 strongly suggests that the PNG Flag could have replaced the defaced Australian National Flag for Customs purposes anytime from 1 July 1971. PNG achieved independence on 16 September 1975.
Jeff Thomson, 18 October 2015

PAPUA; Customs Regulations of 13/12/1909 (Gazette date) to 1917, and
PAPUA; Customs Regulations of 04/07/1917 to 1951.
'The Customs Flag shall be the Flag of the Territory of Papua (Blue Ensign), with the addition in the fly of the letters "H.M.C." in black in bold character.'

NEW GUINEA; Customs Regulations of 31/10/1928 to 1951.
'The Customs Flag shall be the flag of the Commonwealth of Australia (Blue Ensign), with the addition in the fly of a white ball with the letters "T.N.G.C." in black in bold character.'

PAPUA & NEW GUINEA; Customs Regulations of 15/11/1951 to unknown date.
'The Customs Flag shall be the flag of the Commonwealth of Australia (Blue Ensign), with the addition in the fly of a white ball with the letters "T.P. & N.G.C." in black in bold character.'

At an unknown date between 1973 and 1986 this was amended to the current prescription; 'The Customs Flag is the National Flag, with the addition in the fly of a white ball with the letters "P.N.G.C." in black in bold character.'
Jeff Thomson, 18 October 2015