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History of the Australian national flag (Part 3)

Last modified: 2011-06-10 by jonathan dixon
Keywords: australia | southern cross | stars: southern cross | star: 7 points |
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Announcements made in Australia

10th December 1902. Admiralty to Colonial Office:

In compliance with the request contained in your letter MO 36059/02 and in continuation of Admiralty letter of 11th idem L12238 relative to the approved designs for the Flag of the Commonwealth of Australia and the Flag of the Governor-General of the Commonwealth, I am commanded by my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to transmit to you herewith, for transmission to the Governor-General twenty copies of the drawings of each of the Flags as they will appear in the Admiralty Flag Book. Evan Macgregor (Permanent Secretary)

Governor-General's Badge: insert at plate 5.
Plate 9a. British Empire. Australian Commonwealth. Ensign. Merchant Flag.

Colonial Office Minute attached to the letter.:

Tell Governor-General Admiralty have been informed States will retain separate Flags. The State Governors will want their Flags, and merchant vessels which fly the Commonwealth Flag may fly as well a Flag with the badge of the State on them: Colonial Regulations article 432.6.

Following Minute.

It appears to me that in strictness merchant vessels should not fly their State Flags as well as the Commonwealth Flag. The Commonwealth is the warrant authority as to shipping, and should be taken as "the colony" mentioned by Colonial Regulations. They may be a little inconvenienced at the present because each State has now its separate Navigation Laws, and therefore ships under different laws will be flying the same flags. But next session it is intended to pass a Commonwealth Navigation Act, after which there can be no difficulty.

I think therefore that the State Flags should in general be flown only by the State Governors and State Government vessels as the Admiralty originally suggested in 25923, but perhaps as a measure of convenience, until the passing of the Commonwealth Navigation Act, merchant vessels might be allowed to fly the State Flags. So inform Admiralty and tell Governor-General what we are saying to the Admiralty.

Following Minute.

I think for purpose of merchant vessels the Commonwealth Flag alone should be used.

I assume that the Commonwealth Navigation Act was an Act of the British Parliament rather than the Australian Parliament ; also that a warrant for the Merchant Flag could not be issued until the Act had been passed. The matter was complicated by the fact that Victoria and possibly South Australia had their own defaced Red Ensigns while the other Australian Colonies/States did not.

29th December 1902. Chief Clerk Out-letters.

Flag of the Commonwealth : Governor-General : States. Transmit copies Miscellaneous Despatch to Governor-General sending 15 drawings of (1) and (2), stating when should be flown.

Downing Street. 29th December 1902. Miscellaneous Despatch to Governor-General (Now Lord Tennyson):

My Lord,
With reference to my telegram of 6th October I have the honour to transmit to Your Lordship fifteen copies of the drawings of the Flags of the Commonwealth and the Flag of the Governor-General as they will appear in the Admiralty Flag Book.

The State Flags should in general be flown only by State Governors or State Government Vessels. In the case of Merchant Vessels the Commonwealth Flag alone should be used, but perhaps, as a measure of convenience, Merchant vessels might be allowed to continue to fly their State Flags until the passing of a Commonwealth Navigation Act.
I have the honour to be, My Lord, Your Lordship's most obedient humble servant (For Secretary of State) Onslow.

Commonwealth of Australia : Government Gazette 20 February 1903.

Department of External Affairs. Melbourne. 11th February 1903.
His Excellency the Governor-General directs that it be notified for general information that His Majesty the King has approved of the subjoined designs [Blue Ensign entitled "Ensign", and Red Ensign entitled "Merchant Flag"] for the Flag of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The Governor-General further directs the publication of the following copy of a 'Miscellaneous' Despatch which has been received from the Right Honourable the Secretary of State for the Colonies on the subject.
Edmund Barton, Prime Minister.

Print of Despatch of 29th December 1902.

Red Ensign Warrant.
By the Commissioners for Executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, &c.
Whereas His Majesty has been graciously pleased to approve of the adoption as the Merchant Flag of the Commonwealth of Australia of the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet defaced as follows:--
In the centre of the lower canton next the staff, and pointing direct to the centre of the St. George's Cross in the Union Jack in the upper canton next the staff, a White Six-pointed Star, indicating the six Federated States of Australia, and in the fly five smaller White Stars, representing the Southern Cross;

And whereas by the seventy-third section of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 it is provided that the Red Ensign usually worn by merchant ships, without any defacement or modification, shall be the proper National Colours for all ships and boats, and any other ship or boat for the time being allowed to wear any other National Colours in pursuance of a Warrant from His Majesty or from the Admiralty;

We do, by virtue of the power and authority vested in us, hereby warrant and authorize the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet, defaced as stated above, to be used on board vessels registered in the Commonwealth of Australia. Given under our hands and the seal of the Office of Admiralty this fourth day of June, 1903.
J.A. Fisher, J. Durnford. By Command of their Lordships, Evan Macgregor.

24th June 1903. Downing Street. Colonial Office to Governor-General, Lord Tennyson.

My Lord,
With reference to my despatch "Miscellaneous" of 29th December last, I have the honour to transmit to Your Lordship a Warrant issued by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty authorizing the Flag adopted as the Merchant Flag of the Commonwealth of Australia to be flown by vessels registered in the Commonwealth. I have, &c., J. Chamberlain.

Commonwealth of Australia Gazette 15th August 1903

Department of External Affairs, Melbourne, 8th August, 1903.
His Excellency the Governor-General directs the publication of the subjoined "Miscellaneous" Despatch of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and enclosure, representing the Flag adopted as the Merchant Flag of the Commonwealth of Australia, to be flown by vessels registered in the Commonwealth.

Print of despatch and warrant.

Sources: National Archives (PRO) CO 418/18, CO 523/1b, CO 523/2, CO 559/1, CO 863/1, CO 864/1, http://www.alphalink.com.au/~eureka/ozflag.htm
David Prothero, 27 Feb 2005


In the prints that appeared in the Admiralty Flag Book and the Commonwealth of Australia Government Gazette, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta Crucis seven points and Epsilon Crucis five points.
David Prothero, 1 Mar 2005


Initially, the Red Ensign was the only flag that private citizens could fly on land, the Blue ensign being reserved for government use.
Miles Li, Sep 2001


On 2nd June 1904 the Federal Parliament passed a resolution to fly the flag, 'upon all forts, vessels, saluting places and public buildings of the Commonwealth upon all occasions when flags are used.' This gave the Australian 'Blue Ensign' on land, the same status in Australia as the Union Jack had in Britain.
David Prothero, 3 Feb 2005


An addition to the timeline in the third edition of Australian Flags [ozf06] is: 1908: Australian Army Military Order, No 58/08, directs all military establishments to fly the 'Australian Ensign' in place of the Union Jack.
Ray Morris, 27 September 2006

The military establishment resisted use of the Australian flag when it was first made official in 1903. As I pointed out in my paper "Filibuster: The Century Long Australian Flag Debate" [kLy99] Captain Richard Couch, Member of Parliament for Corio campaigned for wider usage of the Australian flag and in June 1904 a resolution was passed by the House of Representatives that: "the Australian flag as officially selected should be flown upon all forts, vessels, saluting places, and public buildings of the Commonwealth upon all occasions when flags are to be used." The military refused to change the relevant military orders to give effect to the parliamentary resolution until 1908. Even then the proposed regulation was published in March 1908 and did not take effect until 1 June 1908.
Ralph Kelly, 28 September 2006

Did the the military establishment object to the Australian flag on political grounds, or was it because the flag was based on a maritime ensign and thus considered to be an unsuitable flag for the army?
David Prothero, 28 September 2006

As I understand it, it was something vaguely in the middle. According to Kwan [kwa06], at first there was no definitive reply from the government to questions from parts of the navy. The defence minister allowed the use of the Australian blue ensign on Commonwealth Naval ships, but not Australian ships in the Royal Navy, and not on forts. Prime Minister Watson agreed that it was appropriate to use the Union Jack rather than an ensign on forts, but I would say this was in the understanding that the new flag was a maritime ensign, not just that it was based on one. Of course, this question was in part a political one, and Crouch objected the defence authorities treatment of the flag as an "inferior ensign".
Jonathan Dixon, 29 September 2006

As you know, archival records are usually much better at recording what happened, rather than why.

There is some merit in your suggestion that it was an army / navy issue. It may also have involved conflicts between the attitudes of the senior officers, who were mainly British born, who may have had some discomfit with various issues relating to the creation of an Australian Defence Force and the need to preserve British military traditions - this would have included a Union Jack / Australian flag issue.

The Secretary of the Defence Department, Captain Robert Collins wrote to Atlee Hunt, Secretary, External Affairs Department on 22 September 1903 and advised that, whilst it was permitted under British practices to fly a blue ensign on public buildings and forts, he believed ensigns were primarily concerned with ships. He favoured King's Regulations that specified the use of the Union Jack and/or the Royal Standard on forts depending on the occasion. He stated "the Union Jack is not superseded in any way by the Commonwealth ensign." There had been a process of revising or reissuing British King's Regulations for use by the Australian military, and the relevant regulations for flags on forts were gazetted on 25 April 1903, notwithstanding that Crouch had written to Prime Minister Barton on 16 April 1903 complaining that the Australian blue ensign was not being used by the Australian army or naval vessels.

On 13 June 1904 the Department of Defence wrote to Prime Minister Watson stating that, notwithstanding the resolution of Parliament of 2 June 1904, the King's Regulations should not be changed. The Union Jack was "the distinctive flag for forts and when flown on barracks indicates the presence of the senior officer". However, Watson had indicated in parliament that he was not fully satisfied with the design of the Australian flag and a response from the Department of Defence to Crouch included the comment that implementation of the resolution should wait until serious consideration was given to "adopt another (flag) which in our opinion is more appropriate". It is unclear if such a more appropriate flag should be a fort flag or a new design for wider use as a national flag. It is also not clear whether the comments about another, more appropriate flag reflected the view of the military, or mirrored the views of the Government.
Ralph Kelly, 29 September 2006


An extra point for the Commonwealth Star

Foley notes:

Originally the Commonwealth Star had six points, each point symbolizing one of the new federating States. However, in July 1908, it was proposed that the Commonwealth Star be amended to a seven-pointed star, the extra point representing the Territory of Papua New Guinea, which had been newly acquired in 1905.

Typically for those times the amendment was not simply made by the Commonwealth Government. Instead, a proposal to add the seventh point was laid before the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty who authorized the amendment in respect of the Australian National Flag, the Merchant Navy Flag (by virtue of issuing a Warrant pursuant to S 73 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 (UK) and the star in the Governor-General's badge. These amendments were notified in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette on 19 December 1908 and the amended designs themselves were published some months later in the Gazette on 22 May 1909. However, full details and exact specifications of the amendments were not published in the Gazette until 25 years later, again "with the concurrence of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty", on 23 March 1934.
Phil Nelson, 28 Sep 2000

In the back of the Government publication Australian Flags [ozf98] there is a timeline which says:

23 Feburary 1908
Australian flag modified to current form, with seven-pointed Federation Star (Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No 29 of 22 May 1909)
Ray Morris, 16 May 2005

It is not clear why the date 23 February is given in Australian Flags.
Jonathan Dixon, 22 May 2005

The reliable dates that I have concerning the 7 pointed star and its inclusion are:

On 16 December 1907, London was advised that the crest of the coat of arms then being negotiated was desired to have 7 points, not 6. E Wilson Dobbs then submitted the proposed arms (including a 7 pointed star as crest) to Department of External Affairs on 2 February 1908 and they were sent ot London on 17 February 1908.

On 11 May 1908, E Wilson Dobbs suggested that the star on the Governor-General's flag should match the crest of the arms, rather than the star in the Commonwealth flags that it was originally based on.

On 14 July 1908, the Department of External Affairs sent the Papuan administration an approved flag based on the Commonwealth blue flag with six pointed Commonwealth star, informing them that the star on the Commonwealth flag will "in all probability" be changed to a seven pointed star.

On 22 July 1908, Governor-General Lord Northcote sent the following despatch to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London:

Governor General
Adelaide, S.A.
22nd July 1908

My Lord,
Referring to the Colonial Office Despatch "Miscellaneous", dated 24th June 1903, covering a Warrant, issued by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, authorising the use of the Commonwealth Flag, I now have the honour to inform Your Lordship that the Commonwealth Government desire to change the design, in order that it may agree with the Coat of Arms, by substituting a star with seven points for the six-pointed star now beneath the Union Jack.

2. The original idea was that the star in question would represent the six States, which, united formed the Commonwealth. The latter now, however, includes a territory, and it is probably that there will be others in the near future. The additional point proposed is to symbolise "the territories of the Commonwealth"; and this, I may mention, was the reason why the star which forms the crest of the Arms recently approved was drawn with seven points.

I have the honour to be,
My Lord,
Your Lordship's most obedient, humble Servant,
(signed)Northcote
Governor-General

On 3 October 1908, Admiralty signed the warrant for an Australian Red Ensign with seven-pointed Commonwealth star. The Colonial Office sent the warrant to Australia on 27 October 1908, saying that the star on the Blue Ensign and Governor-General's flag would be similarly amended and new drawings sent. (The Colonial Office's internal notes point out that the Governor General did not ask for this, but it seems to me that the Governor General's letter interprets the Warrant as applying to the blue flag, not just the red one.)

The new Governor-General (Earl of Dudley) returned a copy of the previous warrant for cancellation on 11 December 1908. (The sending of a copy rather than the warrant itself seems to be a mistake - he refers to it as the enclosure to the desptach in 1903.)

I think we can say that the flag change was considered by the Australian goverenment to still be a proposal in July, but complete in December 1908. It seems probable that the change was not even suggested until May 1908, although it would be good to find out where the 23 February date comes from.
Sources: National Archives of Australia (NAA) file A462 828/3/8 PART 1 (online), NAA file A1 1908/9191 (online), (British) National Archives file CO 523/19
Jonathan Dixon, 11 January 2008


The notification on the Gazette, found at the Australian National Flag Association website, read as follows:

Department of External Affairs
Melbourne, 8th December, 1908

His Excellency the Governor-General directs the publication, for general information, of the subjoined dispatch of the Secretary of State of Colonies, and enclosure, respecting an alteration in the design of the Commonwealth Flag.

E.L. BATCHELOR,
Minister of State for External Affairs
Downing-street
27th October, 1908.

COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA. - MISCELLANEOUS.
My Lord,
I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of Lord Northcote's despatch No. 194 of the 22nd July proposing an alteration in the design of the Commonwealth Flag, by the substitution of a star with seven points for a six pointed star; which now appears beneath the Union Jack. This despatch was laid before the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, and I hare now to transmit to Your Lordship, for communication to your Government, a warrant issued by Their Lordships authorizing the flag, amended as desired, to be flown by vessels registered in the Commonwealth. The design of the corresponding star on the Commonwealth Blue Ensign, and of the star in the Badge of the Governor-General will be similarly amended; and copies of each of the three amended designs, as they will eventually appear in the Admiralty Flag Book, will be forwarded to you in due course. In consequence of the issue of the enclosed Warrant, the Warrant dated the 4th June, 1903 and enclosed in Mr. Chamberlain's despatch "Miscellaneous" of the 24th of becomes obsolete; and I should be glad if you would be good enough to forward it to me in order that it may be returned to the Admiralty for cancellation.
I bare the honour to be,
My Lord,
Your Lordship's most obedient, humble servant,
(Sgd.) CREWE.

Enclosure.
Whereas by the seventy-third section of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 it is provided that the Red Ensign usually worn by Merchant Ships, without any defacement or modification whatsoever, shall be the proper national colours for all ships and boats belonging to any British subject, except in case of His Majesty's ships or in the case of any other ship or boat for the time being allowed to wear any other national colours in pursuance of a Warrant from His Majesty or from the Admiralty.
And whereas by Warrant under our hands dated the fourth day of June, 1903, vessels registered in the Commonwealth of Australia were authorized to fly the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet defaced as follows, viz.:-
In the centre of the lower canton next the staff and pointing direct to the centre of the St. George's Cross in the Union Jack in the upper canton next the staff a White Six-pointed Star indicating the six federated States of Australia, and in the fly smaller White Stars representing the Southern Cross.
And whereas it has been represented to us that it is desirable that that for the White Six-pointed Star aforementioned should be substituted a White Seven-pointed Star representing the six federated States of Australia and the territories of the Commonwealth.
Now therefore we do by virtue of the power and authority vested in us hereby warrant and authorize vessels registered in the Commonwealth of Australia to fly the Red Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet defaced as heretofore, except that a White Seven-pointed Star shall be substituted for the White Six-pointed Star in the centre of the lower canton next the staff.
Given under our hands and the Seal of the Office of Admiralty this third day of October, 1908.
(Sgd.) W. H. MAY.
(Sgd.) A. I. WINSLOE.
By Command of Their Lordships,
C. I. THOMAS.
Governor-General,
His Excellency,
The Right Honorable,
The Earl of Dudley, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O.,

contributed by Joe McMillan, 21 Aug 2002


The change in the number of points was caused by a change in the status of the Territory, rather than by the aquisition of a new territory. In 1883 part of New Guinea was annexed by Queensland. In 1884 a British protectorate was proclaimed and in 1888 it was annexed to the British Crown. In 1901 it was assigned to the Commonwealth of Australia for five years and in 1906 it was proclaimed a territory of the Commonwealth under the name Papua.
David Prothero and Jonathan Dixon, 13 Sep 2001


An addition to the timeline in the third edition of Australian Flags [ozf06] is: "1911: Following the granting of the Royal title to Australia's naval forces, Naval Order 78/1911 directs all vessels of the Royal Australian Navy to fly the flag of the 'Australian Commonwealth' at the jack staff and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy at the stern as the symbol of the authority of the crown."
Ray Morris, 28 September 2006

The Australian blue ensign was used as a jack and it would seem also as a battle flag, after the Australian government was unsuccessful in convincing the British authorities to allow the use of an Australian white ensign as the naval ensign. See the history of the Australian White Ensign.
Jonathan Dixon, 29 September 2006


It was not until 1908 that the flag design of Mr.E.Wilson-Dobbs for the Metropolitan Board of Works was officially adopted. It had [the stars of the southern cross] with 9,8,7,6 and 5 points. In 1926 and again in 1931 the design of the flag was queried, as the prints in the Admiralty Flag Book still had the original stars. Eventually it was decided that the discrepancy between the official flag, and an official drawing of the flag, should be resolved and a complete specification of the flag, with the number of points, size and position of the stars precisely defined, was published in the Australian Government Gazette on 23rd March 1934.
David Prothero, 1 Mar 2005


The Australian Flags Act which gives design specs for the Australian flag does not give colour definitions apart from simply saying blue, red and white. It does say that a Union Jack occupies the canton, so it's safe to assume that the colours would be the same as the UK's but there's no technical reason why the non-Union Jack parts of flag can't use slightly different shades. I remember reading a quote from Ivor Evans, one of the designers of the Australian flag, speaking in the 1950's I think, he made reference to the blue on the Australian flag being changed from Navy Blue to Royal Blue, possibly in 1909, but it could even have been a few years later.
Dylan Crawfoot, 28 Jul 1999


Judging by the date, this probably refers to a general change, when the specification for the blue used in all Union Flags and Blue Ensigns was altered to matched the shade of blue specified for the Royal Standard. Pattern 74 "Royal Blue", replaced Pattern 63 "Dark Blue".

This is recorded in the Public Record Office document ADM 116/1072, 1908/9 errata to 1907 edition Admiralty Flag Book, and has fabric samples of various shades of blue.
David Prothero, 29 Jul 1999


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