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Queensland Red Ensign

Last modified: 2005-12-31 by jonathan dixon
Keywords: australia | queensland | red ensign | star | crown |
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[proported Queensland Red Ensign] image by Dylan Crawfoot

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Queensland Red Ensign

A note on a possible red ensign of Queensland, prior to 1901:

Following the 1865 British Admiralty directive, colonial war vessels and other ships employed in the service of public office were required to fly the British Blue Ensign bearing the Queensland badge. Merchant ships, however, used the British Red Ensign, as had been the practice on British merchant ships since 1674. Several Australian colonies flew red ensigns with distinctive badges as their merchant flags until federation in 1901, after which the Australian Red Ensign was adopted. I don't know if any of these defaced red ensigns were ever made official.

In Customs House on Queen Street in Brisbane, there is a large picture dated 1899, featuring photographs of the men working for Customs at that time. At the top of the picture is a painted representation of the Customs coat of arms and what seems to be a merchant flag. The flag is a British Red Ensign, featuring a crown and a gold, six-pointed star in the fly. Inside the star is a gold letter Q. The reverse side of the flag features the crown only. It is possible that this was the Queensland merchant flag, although it may simply have been the flag of the Customs Office. It is notable in that it uses a design that differs from the Queensland state badge used on the Blue Ensign. The Q obviously marks it out as being a Queensland emblem, and it may even have been a rejected design when the badge for the Blue Ensign was selected in 1876.

Does anyone know if such a Red Ensign was ever approved by the UK?
Dylan Crawfoot, 31 December 1998

The flag design has not been previously observed by Australian vexillologists.

It is possible that the flag was that of the Queensland Customs Department, but there is no known record of this. A number of Australian port authorities (such as the Maritime Services Board of NSW) used defaced blue ensigns, there is no record of the use of a Brisbane Port flag and none is listed in Malcolm Farrow's Colours of the Fleet.

I can categorically state, based on my own archival research, that the badge was not one of the alternate designs considered in 1876 for the Queensland flag badge. A Victorian red ensign was officially authorised in 1870, but this was the only Australian colony so authorised. Some red ensigns with Australian colonial badges do exist, but these were unauthorised and most probably used on land by persons not entitled to use the Colonial government's blue ensign. The flag pictured is unlikely to have any British official status.

The badge has strong resemblance to the badges of Nigeria (with its 6 pointed star and central crown) and British India (with Star of India within collar and surmounted by Crown) - but is presumably of local Queensland design with no connection to these two badges.
Ralph Kelly, 3 January 1999

I agree with Ralph Kelly that this is more likely to be the ensign of a government department, than a Queensland merchant flag, but think that any similarity to the badge of the colony of Nigeria, or the Star of India, is entirely co-incidental.

The Nigeria badge was a 1912 design, based upon a local emblem. The Star of India badge was a representation of the Order of Chivalry of that name.

Officially the use of defaced Red Ensigns by government departments ceased in 1864, but in Britain, the Customs and Excise department didn't change to a defaced Blue Ensign until 1872. Perhaps it took even longer in Australia?

Between 1817 and 1872 Customs and Excise flew a Red Ensign with a yellow crown. Between 1872 and 1949 the crown on the Blue Ensign varied in colour, sometimes plain yellow, sometimes in full colour. In 1949 the present portcullis and crown badge was adopted.

A crown on a Blue Ensign was used, probably without authorisation, by at least one overseas revenue service. In the Bahamas in 1921, the Out Island Commissioners, who were also Revenue Officers flew just such an ensign, which was known as the Revenue Flag.

The general design of the badge on this Queensland Red Ensign is broadly similar to two badges used briefly between 1815 and 1817, when the Admiralty were in charge of the Revenue Service. Excise vessels flew a Blue Ensign with the letters "EX" in white, on a blue circle, in a white eight-pointed star below a white crown. Customs vessels flew a Red Ensign with a similar badge except that the letters were "CH" in yellow, on a red circle, in a yellow eight-pointed star, below a yellow crown.

Most of the information about the Customs and Excise flags is from an article in Volume 1 (1953) of "Sheet Anchor", reprinted in "Model Shipwright" no.27 (March 1979). Written by Alec Purves, who gathered his material in the Customs and Excise Library.

David Prothero, 4 January 1999

I have just acquired a copy of The Flags of the World, Their History, Blazonry and Associations, written by F.E Hulme and published in about 1895. Plate XI, figure 107 is a Red Ensign with a gold crown. The relevant text on page 71 reads:

"The red ensign is employed by the Custom House and the Excise, in the first case having, as we see in fig.107, a golden crown in the fly, and in the second a crown and star."

>Obviously the addition of a letter Q to the excise flag would have been a
>simple local embellishment - with or without authorisation.
[Ed: message quoted appears to be from off-list from Ralph Kelly]

Thanks Ralph. Unfortunately it raises as many questions as it answers. It may explain why an artist in Brisbane, perhaps using Hume's book as a reference, drew the flags described by Dylan, but not why Hulme had them in his book.

The Customs' Red Ensign had officially been out of date for thirty years, and in practice not used for over twenty years. The reference to a star on a Customs flag is unexpected. It was in use for barely two years, 80 years earlier. I can't imagine why it was used. A star on a British flag of that period is unusual. Purves draws it as two concentric four pointed stars, with one star rotated through 45 degrees, and a circle superimposed; the circumference touching the inside angle of the points of the stars. I wonder if it might have been more like the "star" in the badge of the Coldstream Guards. I imagine there is a special name for it, but I don't know what. It is an eight pointed star, but each of the points has seven "rays", one long, two slightly shorter, two even shorter, and two at the inside angle that are the same length as the corresponding rays of the adjacent points.
David Prothero, 16 January 1999 to 18 January 1999

Doing further research on Queensland Customs and Customs House, I found the following passage which, although not flag related - sorry, further illustrates how liberal Customs and the Government could be in following correct protocol:

"Perhaps the most curious role in the ornamentation of the building was that performed by the Minister for Works, the Hon J.M. Macrossan, who personally designed a coat of arms specifically for Customs House. This was of course, quite outside the normal remit of his office. No Australian colony had received a coat of arms to this date, and so the enterprising minister acted unilaterally to rectify the deficiency where Queensland was concerned. For reasons not readily understood, he selected the reverse side of a medal struck in 1853 to mark the ending of the transportation of convicts to Tasmania. He adapted this to suit his own purposes, producing a particularly idiosyncratic kangaroo which was facing outwards, almost glancing over its shoulder. This resulting heraldic shield appears on all four pediments and gives the Customs House one of its most endearing curiosities. It also served to jog the memory of the imperial government to do the right thing, for Queensland became the first Australian colony to receive an official coat of arms in 1893."
"The Brisbane Customs House" by Malcolm I. Thomas

To me this seems to echo the Customs flag situation.
Dylan Crawfoot, 19 January 1999

The information about Revenue Cutter flags in 1815-17 seems to have originated in two articles written for the Mariner's Mirror by H.P. Mead and published in April 1951 and February 1952. An old guard-book, labelled "Description of Royal and Signal Colours" was found in 1949. It was a collection of drawings, letters and memoranda to do with the department of stores under the Navy Board, and used as guide, "as to the making, the dimensions and supply of standards, ensigns and signal flags for His Majesty's Service", covering the period 1734 to 1837.

Here is the greater part of the relevant entries.

21st Decr 1816; Portsmouth Yard. Drawings of Ensigns & Pendants worn by Revenue Cruizers. Custom House. A Red Ensign having in the fly a yellow eight-pointed star, voided and containing the letters "CH" in yellow; a yellow crown above. A long red pendant, having at the head the same star and crown of reduced size.

Minuted 10 Feb 1817, the Ensign is not directed to have a Star and letters as described in the drawing, and the Crown is to be in the Centre of the Red Jack (sic).

Excise. The same arrangement as Custom House except that the Ensign and pendant are blue, with white defacements, and "CH" is replaced by "EX".

Minuted 10 Feb 1817. This ensign is no longer in use.

Ensigns for the Cutters; 10 breadths and 5 yards fly (90 inches x 180inches=228x457cms) Ensigns for the Boats; 4 breadths and 2 yards fly (36 inches x 72 inches=91x182cms) Pendants; 2 breadths and 12 yards fly (18 inches x 432 inches=45x1097cms)

10th Feby 1817. Colours for Revenue Cruizers. The Commissioners of the Customs or Excise shall be allowed to wear a Pendant with a Red Field having a regal Crown described thereon at the upper part next the Mast; and for an Ensign a red Jack (sic) with a Union Jack in a canton at the upper Corner thereof next the Staff and with a Regal Crown described in the centre of the Red Jack (sic) instead of the Pendant and Ensign appointed by the Royal Proclamations bearing date the 18 Decr 1702 and 1st January 1801.

12 May 1817 Plymouth Yard. Drawing of the Ensign and Pendant made for Revenue Vessels, in pursuance of your general Warrant of 10 February last. Ensign. 8:15 Pendant. 35 feet. (420 inches=1066cms)

David Prothero, 24 January 1999