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National Colonial flag (Australia)

Last modified: 2005-03-19 by jonathan dixon
Keywords: national colonial flag | white ensign | stars (white) |
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[National Colonial Flag] by John Vaughan, 7 Jan 2005

See also:

National Colonial Flag of 1823-4

Crampton in Flag wrote: "The first flag to carry the four stars of the Southern Cross was the National Colonial Flag of 1823-4, which placed them on the red cross of the British White Ensign."

But Caley in Flag of Stars has: "They sent to the Lords of the Admiralty a design for 'a National Colonial Flag for Australia' and received official approval. That first 'flag of stars' in Australia's history was a white flag charged with the red cross of St George, having in each corner a star to symbolize the Southern Hemisphere under the constellation of the Southern Cross."

I interpret the descriptions as two quite different flags.
David Prothero, 12 May 1998

Captain John Nicholson and Captain John Bingle made the first recorded attempt to design a 'national' flag for Australia in 1823-1824. The flag, known as the National Colonial Flag, had a white ground charged with the red cross of St George and bore four white stars, one on each arm of the cross. Evidently, some time later, someone added a fifth star to the centre of the cross to represent the number of Australian Colonies. This was met with outrage by Bingle, who recorded in his 1881 memoirs, "the Illustrated Retrospect of the Present Century," that no such representation was ever intended.

He wrote that "Sydney in those days was Australia!" and so there were no other colonies to represent. Thus, he said, anyone adding another star to symbolise another colony was moved by "American Notions" and had not comprehended the original intention, which was simply to represent "the emblem of our Hemisphere THE GREAT SOUTHERN CROSS".

And, indeed, it is claimed that this was the first Australian flag to contain a representation of the Southern Cross.

According to Bingle's memoirs, the design of the National Colonial Flag was approved by the Lords of the Admiralty and accepted as an official Australian flag by Sir Thomas Brisbane, who was the sixth Governor of New South Wales. However, despite Bingle's assertions of official recognition, no evidence has as yet come to light to support his claims.

In any event, the flag never gained the support of the Australian people, primarily because while it was representative of those of English descent by virtue of containing the St George cross, it ignored the Irish and the Scots.
David Cohen, 13 May 1998

There appears to have been 6 or 7 somewhat similar flags, quite apart from variations in manufacture as noted from Carol Foley's book.

To quote from Mr. Crampton's flag book in the Eyewitness Guides series:

The first flag to carry the four stars of the Southern Cross was the National Colonial Flag of 1823-24, which placed them on the red cross of the British White Ensign. In 1831 the New South Wales ensign appeared, very similar to the Commonwealth Flag, but with stars of eight points. In due course this became the 'Federation' flag." There is a photograph of this flag; blue St. George's cross, 5 stars, 5 points, one point at the 12 o'clock position.

Another book lists 2 versions of the National Colonial Flag and 2 versions of the Federation flag without specifying the differences.

There was also a flag used in 1987 when a replica of the First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth to Sydney. The 'Bounty' wore as a jack a modified Australian Colonial Flag, with a pre-1801 Union Flag in the canton and the addition of a star at the join of the overall cross to represent 'Sirius', the flagship of the First Fleet.
David Prothero, 14 June 1997

In 1931, C.R. Wylie of Old South Head Road, Bondi, wrote to the Admiralty asking if they had records of the approval of the flag designed by Captain Nicholson and flown by Governor Brisbane before 1826. It was written to the Secretary to the Admiralty with reference to a previous letter NL 214/31 of 20 Feb 1931. It begins by observing that drawings of the Australian flag are not consistent and continues:

"As it is necessary that every child should be able to draw its countries flag without difficulty some regular arrangement of the positions and sizes of the stars should be made and I have worked out a very simple method of doing this from actual dimensions of parts of the Union and from cross lines from corners of the flag which cut each other at convenient points for the centres of the stars. I have communicated my ideas to the Secretary to the Prime Minister at Canberra." And later; "In an old collection of cuttings from newspapers etc. in the Mitchell Library here, I find a letter referring to an "Australian National Flag" designed in 1823-24 by Captain Nicholson, R.N., first Harbour-Master of Port Jackson. The design was a St George's Cross, in each corner of the cross, on a white field, there was a star, colour not mentioned. This design was sent to Their Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty at the date mentioned, and was approved by them as the Australian National Flag and was flown as such by Governor Brisbane before 1826. A fifth star was placed in the centre of the cross later on, and then the flag disappeared."
In his sketch, the St George's cross has quite broad arms, and the five-pointed stars, without being too large, take up the greater part of each quarter.

The description is so similar to Bingle's recollections, as quoted by A.C. Burton in Crux Australis [cxa], that the letter referred to could be based on the same source. It is interesting to have an "independent" interpretation that judges the flag to have been essentially a St George's Flag rather than a White Ensign. The Admiralty replied that they had no record of the flag but pointed out the similarity between it and the canton of the first New Zealand flag.
David Prothero, 3 & 10 May 2000

Both Crampton and Foley are sourcing their comments from John Vaughan's Flags of Australia poster (the source for the artwork for figure 23) which shows John's interpretation of a written description contained in the reference cited by Tony Burton. This document was a memoir of John Bingle written over 60 years after the event and is the only reference ever found (and it has since disappeared from the Mitchell Library files) . Vaughan inferred the Bingle design based on the later NSW ensign which appeared in the Post Office Calendar of 1832 deleted the central star and changed the colour of the overall cross from blue to the red suggested by Bingle's use of the words "St George's Ensign". I have trawled the archive records of Governor Brisbane and cannot find any reference to its approval either at a local level or more formally from the Admiralty or Colonial Office.

Personally I don't believe the flag ever existed as a separate design - I believe it was an old man's distant recollection of the origins of the NSW ensign (Australian ensign/ Federation flag), especially since he only commented on the addition of an extra star which he claimed as an "American Notion", and not on any change of colour from red to blue.

It is significant that Cayley did not make the connection between the Bingle flag and use of the Federation flag prior to its adoption by the Australian Federation League. I suspect that he never found the Nicholson flags in the Post Office Calendar of 1832 and therefore thought the Bingle Flag was entirely separate from the Federation flag.
Ralph Kelly, 7 May 2000

Crux Australis (Oct-Dec '92) shows a reconstruction of the National Colonial Flag with 8-pointed stars, whereas I drew it with 5-pointed stars. The description of the flag by its creator, John Bingle in the 1880's gives no indication of the number of points, although an 1832 flag chart shows similar flags, such as the blue-crossed NSW Ensign with 8-pointers. It should be noted though that there was a lack of consistency among various flags in this regard at that time, so 5-pointed stars I feel are equally likely to have featured.
Dylan Crawfoot, 24 April 1999