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Naval Reserve Ensign, United Kingdom

Last modified: 2007-01-06 by rob raeside
Keywords: naval reserve ensign | ensign |
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Naval Reserve Ensign introduced

The Royal Naval Reserve (R.N.R.) was established in 1859 and the first officers commissioned in 1862. At the end of that year the Shipowners of the Port of London petitioned the Admiralty to allow merchant ships that were commanded by an officer of the Reserve and had a proportion of Reserve seamen in the crew to fly a Blue Ensign with the letters R.N.R below a crown in the fly. The Admiralty agreed to this, but the ensign was not popular with Reserve officers who did not see why they should be allowed only a defaced Blue Ensign while members of some yacht clubs, who had no Reserve obligations, were allowed to fly a plain Blue Ensign.

This problem was solved when Squadron Colours were abolished by the Order in Council of 9 July 1864. "It also appears to us to be desirable to grant (under such conditions as we may from time to time impose) the use of a distinguishing flag to such ships of the merchant service [ ] whose commanding officer (with a given portion of the crew) may belong to the Royal Naval Reserve. [ ] The Blue Ensign and Union Jack, with a White border, to be carried [ ] under our permission, by ships commanded by Officers of the Royal Naval Reserve Force, and fulfilling in other respects the conditions required to entitle them to the privilege."
David Prothero, 13 December 2006

Naval Reserve Ensign regulations

"For the purpose of affording the Officers and Men of the Royal Naval Reserve an opportunity of undergoing drill whilst at sea, and with a view to conferring on Owners whose ships are commanded by Reserve Officers and partly manned by Reserve Men the advantage of an honorary distinction in certain cases the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty and the Lords of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade have adopted and issued the following regulations."

Admiralty Circular No.33, "Blue Ensign. (Naval Reserve Flag)" of 3 August 1864.

A British merchant ship was allowed to wear the Blue Ensign of H.M. Fleet, provided that:

  1. The ship was of not less than 800 registered tons if a sailing vessel, or not less than 1,000 tons gross registered tonnage if a steamer.
  2. The officer in command was an R.N.R. Lieutenant or higher, and the Chief Officer was an R.N.R. Sub-Lieutenant or higher.
  3. The qualifying crew were properly entered on the ship's papers for the voyage.
  4. A quarter of the seamen and stokers of the crew were men of the R.N.R.
  5. The ship was fitted by the shipowner with a magazine for ammunition. The Admiralty would supply two 32 pounders of 42, 32 or 25 hundredweight together with 40 cartridges and shot per gun and all necessary equipment.
  6. The armament was maintained in good condition and returned as directed. Expenditure of ammunition was to be logged, with four rounds per man, per gun, per annum, allowed for practice.

In addition the ensign was restricted to long-voyage vessels, since it was considered that men on home-traders or short-voyage vessels would be able to carry out their gunnery training on one of the drill ships that were stationed at various points around the coast. The ensign was to be returned to the Registrar General of Seamen when the ship returned to the UK.
David Prothero, 14 December 2006

The Regulations changed

Not surprisingly no one was interested in such a complicated and impractical arrangement and on 23 February 1865 Admiralty Circular No.4 changed the regulations. Warrants allowing the use of a Blue Ensign were introduced so that the ensign did not have to be returned at the end of each voyage. Carrying guns became optional, but at least one third of the crew needed to be men of the Reserve.

At the end of December 1865 the Registrar General of Seamen informed the Admiralty that there were 117 Lieutenants and 65 Sub-Lieutenants with Active List R.N.R. commissions, but he warned that officers would resign if the Admiralty insisted on gunnery drill. By 20 March 1866 only five ships had qualified for the Reserve Blue Ensign.

On 25 July 1866 Admiralty Circular No.25a was issued. Guns for drill were not required, and drill was separated from the ensign qualification. A Reserve officer in command of a merchant ship could qualified for a warrant if ten members of his crew were men of the Reserve.

In 1871 qualifying members of the crew was not restricted to the R.N.R, but could include Royal Fleet Reservists and Naval Pensioners. The Blue Ensign was considered a privilege by Owners and Masters, who were therefore more likely to employ seamen and stokers who were in the Reserve. This in turn encouraged men to join the Reserve in the expectation that finding employment would then be easier.
David Prothero, 15 December 2006

More changes

In April 1883 the Admiralty informed the Board of Trade that a Blue Ensign had been flown by a British Merchant Ship when she was no longer qualified. Warrants were made out for "a ship" with the "owner's name" and were liable to misapprehension. It was proposed that the warrant should be altered to make it personal to the Officer in Command. The Admiralty also pointed out that the Board of Trade did not appear to have issued a list of ships entitled to fly the Blue Ensign in accordance with Rule 11 of the Board of Trade Regulations, and had not returned any warrants for cancellation.

In January 1884 the Admiralty asked the Board of Trade for a reply to their letter of April 1883. The Registrar General of Seamen replied, agreeing to the proposed changes and adding that having to return and re-issue a warrant for each voyage had made unnecessary work. He suggested that the warrant details should be entered on ship's articles. The new conditions were approved 21 February 1884. The warrant was made personal to the Master and effective for subsequent voyages providing that the crew requirements were fulfilled. At the same time Masters who were on the Retired List of the Royal Navy became entitled to apply for the Blue Ensign, and men holding R.N.R. deferred pensions became eligible to be counted when calculating the number of Reserve personnel in the crew.

Old Warrant.
Whereas we deem it expedient that the British Merchant Ship ...... trading to ...... measuring ...... tons and registered at the Port of ...... the Owner being ...... shall be permitted to wear the Blue Ensign of Her Majesty's Fleet on board said vessel. We do therefore by virtue of the power and authority vested in us warrant and authorise the Blue Ensign of Her Majesty's Fleet to be worn on board the ...... accordingly so long as that vessel shall fulfil the conditions required by our regulations.

New Warrant.
Whereas we deem it expedient that ...... Lieutenant ...... of the Royal Naval Reserve being the Officer in Command of the British Merchant Ship ...... Official Number ...... trading to ...... measuring ...... tons and registered at the Port of ...... the Owner being ...... shall be permitted to wear the Blue Ensign of Her Majesty's Fleet on board said vessel. We do therefore by virtue of the power and authority vested in us warrant and authorise the Blue Ensign of Her Majesty's Fleet to be worn on board the ...... accordingly so long as that vessel shall be Commanded by said ...... and shall fulfil the conditions required by the regulations stated on the other side hereof.

Men in a new Division of the Royal Fleet Reserves, created in the Naval Reserve Act of 1900, could count towards the qualifying number, and in 1903 Masters were allowed to retain a warrant if transferred to another ship in same ownership.
David Prothero, 16 December 2006


A register of large, fast merchant vessels complying with certain conditions and suitable for employment in time of war had been established in 1876. In 1884 those subsidised liners that could be fitted with guns for use as Armed Merchant Cruisers became entitled to fly the Blue Ensign with no conditions relating to the Master or crew. 155 vessels were on the register in 1885. It appears that no warrant was issued before May 1890 when a draft of an intended Warrant read:

Whereas we deem it expedient that the British Steam Ship ...... Official Number ...... measuring ...... tons registered at the Port of ...... and owned by ...... being one of the Special Vessels receiving an Admiralty Subvention shall be permitted to wear the Blue Ensign of Her Majesty's Fleet. We do therefore by virtue of the power and authority vested in us warrant and authorise the Blue Ensign of Her Majesty's Fleet to be worn on board the ...... accordingly so long as that vessel shall fulfil the conditions of the agreement entered into by Us and the Owners for the purchase or hire of the vessel whenever she may be required for Public Service.

Applications were made by the owners to the Admiralty, but warrants were issued by the Registrar General of Seamen.
David Prothero, 17 December 2006

Canadian Connections

1913. It was ruled that a qualifying ship registered in a Canadian port would fly the plain Blue Ensign not the Canadian Blue Ensign, as the Master was in the Royal Naval Reserve not a Canadian Reserve. It was suggested that defaced Reserve Blue Ensigns might be permitted when the Dominions had their own Reserves.

1931. The Canadian Department of National Defence asked for authority to issue Blue Ensign Warrants to Canadian applicants as "the applicants were numerous and the procedure slow." The Admiralty replied that it was not possible to devolve authority to Ottawa, but instituted a telegraphic procedure to speed up the process, with paperwork being completed later. The warrants were still for the Blue Ensign not the Canadian Blue Ensign even though the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve had been established in 1923.
David Prothero, 18 December 2006

The Quota System

All warrants were cancelled on 21 August 1914 and re-introduced 19 May 1919, "with some reluctance."

The crew requirement was still Master plus ten, but subject to variation under the Quota System. This made the qualifying number of reservists in the crew proportional to the total number of reservists employed in foreign-trade merchant ships, with a maximum of ten and a minimum of six. It was set at ten crew members when the total number of reservists in foreign-going ships was 2,250 or more, and reduced by one crew member for every reduction of 250 reservists below 2,250, down to a minimum of six.

"The system was not only a privilege, prized by shipping companies and Masters, but also an inducement to men to join the Reserves, as it helped them to obtain employment afloat. Eligible Masters favoured a low quota number which made it easier for them to qualify for the warrant, while other officers and ratings wanted the number to be high, as it increased their value to the Master, making it easier to obtain employment."

Qualifying crew numbers were:
1926. Eight.
1927 - 1930. Seven.
1931 - 1933. Six.
1934 - 1938. Seven
The number was not revised after 1935. In 1937 and 1938 it should have been nine but this was not enforced.

Members of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve and Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve could count towards the qualifying number. Volunteer Reserves did not count. A Master could hold a warrant but was not necessarily entitled to fly the ensign; if for instance there were insufficient reserve personnel on his ship. The warrant had to be surrendered if the holder ceased to belong to the Reserve Forces, but could be held by an officer on the Retired List. In the period January 1923 to July 1939 162 R.N.R. Blue Ensign warrants were issued, and 48 cancelled.

David Prothero, 19 December 2006


All Blue Ensign warrants were cancelled in 1939 and the scheme re-introduced on 24 January 1947. Masters who officers in the R.N.R., including R.N.R.(New Zealand), or were officers on the Retired List of the Royal Navy, Royal Australian Navy or Royal Canadian Navy were qualified to apply for a warrant. The crew requirement was a minimum of six Reserve personnel. Officers were not to be included in the number of foreign-going reservists from which the Quota was calculated. By 1950 application of the Quota without the requirement for a minimum of six in crew would have reduced requirement to Master and two reservists.

Only 38 warrants were issued between January 1947 and January 1951, with 11 cancelled. In 1951 there were 121 reservists in foreign-trade ships, and the qualifying crew was reduced to Master plus four, or Master plus two in Asian manned ships. Commodores on Active or Retired List of the R.N.R. or Commonwealth Naval Reserves were entitled to the Blue Ensign in their own right.

In 1951 Captain H.L.Payne, Commodore of the British Rail Dover-Calais-Boulogne-Folkestone routes was refused a Blue Ensign warrant for the Ferry "Invicta" on the grounds that only foreign-trade vessels qualified. Vessels operating around the British Isles and between the United Kingdom and North European and Baltic ports were classed as Home-Traders. When this was challenged it was decided that the scheme should be extended to include Home-Traders and also the Fishing Fleets. Captain Payne was issued with a warrant, which was publicised in an Admiralty Press Release as, "the first warrant issued to a ship that was not foreign-going." This was disputed and found to be incorrect, as  Lieutenant-Commander T.C.Stiff, R.N.R., Master of the London and North Eastern Railway mail-steamer "St Dennis" on the Harwich-Hook of Holland route, had held a warrant from 29 December 1925 to 18 July 1928, and it was admitted that there never had been a requirement for applicants to be foreign-trade.

1953. Time expired R.N.R. ratings with 20 years in R.N.R. (mobilised time to count double) could be counted towards the qualifying number of reservists in a crew.
1958. Master and one other officer irrespective of R.N.R. rank now qualified.  In the same year the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve merged with the R.N.R.
1965. Captains R.N.R. qualified to fly Blue Ensign in their own right.

[National Archives (PRO) MT 9/20, MT 9/23, MT 9/30, MT 9/230, MT 9/370, MT 9/661, MT 9/5898, BT 238/137, ADM 1/7665, ADM 1/8335, ADM 1/8759/216, ADM 1/18936, ADM 1/19960, ADM 1/24002, ADM 1/25015, ADM 1/26271, ADM 7/891, ADM 116/2195].

David Prothero, 20 December 2006