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United Kingdom: ensigns

Last modified: 2006-06-17 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | naval ensign | red ensign | meteor flag | master of the merchant navy | royal cypher | cypher | eiir |
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The Red Ensign:

[UK civil ensign] image by Martin Grieve

See also:

The Red Ensign

  1. For the flying of ensigns, the law is as follows:

    Subject to subsection (2) below, a British ship, other than a fishing vessel, shall hoist the red ensign or other proper national colours--

    1. on a signal being made to the ship by one of Her Majesty's ships (including any ship under the command of a commissioned naval officer); and
    2. on entering or leaving any foreign port; and
    3. in the case of ships of 50 or more tons gross tonnage, on entering or leaving any British port.
  2. Subsection (1)(c) above does not apply to a small ship (as defined in section 1(2)) registered under Part II.
The 1995 Merchant Shipping Act is not very well drafted as it does not say anything of Commonwealth ports (in English law "foreign" excludes Commonwealth). The Canadian version is more informative:

"The Canadian Shipping Act states that a Canadian ship shall hoist the flag on a signal being made to her by one of Her Majesty's Canadian ships, or any ship in the service of and belonging to the Government of Canada; on entering or leaving any foreign port; and if of 50 tonnes gross tonnage or upwards, on entering or leaving any Commonwealth port."

Obviously, maritime practice is to fly ensigns more often than this. How often is up to you.
Andrew Yong, 21 August 2003

In its original form the Red Ensign came into use as the Civil Ensign of England c1650 (having been previously adopted by the English Royal Navy in 1625), and received official sanction as such in a Royal Proclamation of 18 September 1674. As far as is known the Scottish merchant marine also flew a red ensign (although charged with the cross of St Andrew), but this came to an end with the Act of Union of 1707, after which the Civil Ensigns of both countries were charged with the Union Flag. In its present form, however, the Red Ensign dates from the change to the Union of 1 January 1801, it was largely given into the care of the merchant service by an Order in Council dated 9 July 1864, and was last regulated by Article 4 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.
Christopher Southworth, 3 December 2003

Perrin writing in "British Flags" page 132, 'From that date (1824) the red ensign alone has been the legal national colours of a British merchant vessel.'
David Prothero, 5 September 2003

The 1894 Merchant Shipping Act appears to confirm Perrin when it states that: "The Red Ensign usually worn by the merchant ships, without any defacement or modification whatever, is hereby declared to be the proper national colours for all ships or boats belonging to any British Subject".
Christopher Southworth, 5 September 2003

The red ensign is in informally, even affectionately, named the "red duster". There does not seem to be any agreement on how the expression arose. My theory is that Red Ensigns were hoisted and left until they were so dirty and tattered that they looked more like dusters than flags, and/or, because on British ships old flags were often used as rags before being thrown away.
David Prothero, 13 October 2003

I have not come across any reference to a (or the) "red duster" before about 1880, so I was wondering whether it had anything to do with its use by steam vessels? I have never heard the term used in anything other than in an affectionate way, although thinking of some I've seen at sea over the years 'faded red rag' or 'just recognizable as a flag' would be factually accurate descriptions.
Christopher Southworth, 13 October 2003

Concerning British red ensigns both "official" and unofficial, I am impressed that so many unauthorized (illegal) red ensigns were manufactured and apparently put into service. I have started a sort of quasi research project to find out. Why would so many risk the wrath of the empire:) Thus far, and in a nutshell, I have drawn a series of conclusions. First, a large number of unauthorized red ensigns were made by non-British flag manufacturers with a substantial number of those being made in the US. This was done for a couple of reasons, but the main reason was outright ignorance, or at least lack of understanding concerning British regulation, which could be ambiguous at times. Over the last 100+ years, there have been a number of circulated credible publications suggesting (erroneously) that the proper flag or ensign for civil use concerning any British colony would have been the defaced red ensign. As now, any attempt to get verification directly from a British government office would have perhaps proven fruitless as British government entities in my experience are notorious for not responding to enquiries. With that being said, manufacturers would have produced unwarranted red ensigns in good faith. They would have been used as courtesy flags abroad and would have represented their respective colonies on land. For example, a missionary working in Northern Rhodesia might speak in a US church while on furlough. The church may have ordered a Northern Rhodesian flag to put on display. Any of a number of flag companies may have made up a red ensign for the church based on what information they had.

The second thing I learned is more directly a British issue. There were evidently proud British territorials who took stock in their colonial identity. One of the ways they exercised this pride was to display their colony's badge on the red ensign. Was this "legal"? No. Were British authorities going to press the issue? Probably not. Last autumn here in Penang, I met a former British naval commander. He was surprisingly familiar with the red ensign issue and had been indirectly involved in a couple of incidents involving unwarranted samples being used by British subjects. He also commented that; "It would have cost more to prosecute the buggers than it was worth, and besides, we knew they were doing it out of a sense of civic pride. What's wrong with that?" As far as courtesy ensigns were concerned, ships and yachts were flying them to be; "courteous and respectful so we left them alone, no harm done."
Clay Moss, 11 June 2005

Construction details of the Red Ensign

[UK civil ensign] image by Martin Grieve

The Civil or Merchant ensign, also affectionately known as the "red duster" has overall ratio of 1:2 with the Union occupying one quarter of the field and placed in the canton. The specification given here is based upon figures published by the Ministry of Defence in BR20 (Flags of All Nations), but these are recommendations only and do not have the force of law.
Christopher Southworth, 3 December 2003

Merchant Navy Day

Merchant Navy Day" is a fairly recent innovation and the first was (if I remember rightly) 3 September 2000.
Christopher Southworth, 22 April 2004

Merchant Navy day is not a "compulsory" flag flying day, its optional. The red ensign is the appropriate flag to fly on the day as that is the flag of the Merchant Navy.
Graham Bartram, 23 April 2004

Meteor Flag

What is the origin of the term "meteor flag" as a nickname for the British red ensign? The oldest reference that I've run across is in the poem "Ye Mariners of England" by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844):

The meteor flag of England
Shall yet terrific burn
Till danger's troubled night depart
And the star of peace return . . . "
"Meteor" implies the red color, but I wonder of Campbell meant this as a reference to the British flag in general, rather than the red ensign in particular. The imagery seems to be of the meteor of war vs. the star of peace. I don't know the date of this poem, but it was written after 1805 because it mentions the death of Nelson. I've often seen the name "meteor flag" used with reference to Revolutionary War-era flags, and I wonder if this might be anachronistic.
Peter Ansoff, 19 April 2004

Was there not an HMS Meteor in action during the Napoleonic wars? Could there be a connection?
James Dignan, 22 April 2004

I thought "Meteor Flag" was used for a flag identical to the Red Ensign used by land forces in the late 18th Century.
Nathan Lamm, 22 April 2004

Meteor flag is a curious term which has puzzled me since I came across it for the first time. It seems to be more widely used in USA than in Britain. I think that few in Britain would know what it meant. It may have been invented by Thomas Campbell, and applied retrospectively to the 18th century Red Ensign.
The website at has "Original text: The Morning Chronicle. London, 1801- . First publication date: 1801", but "Where Blake and mighty Nelson fell" does suggest later than 1805, unless the poem was revised.
Can anyone quote an 18th century use of 'meteor flag' ?
David Prothero, 22 April 2004

I've pulled the thread on the "Meteor flag" story a bit, and the results are interesting. Thomas Campbell's poem was originally published in the Morning Chronicle on March 18, 1801. The context was the dispatch of the British fleet to the Danish Sound, which raised the specter of a war with Russia. According to his DNB entry, Campbell was in Altona, Germany, at the time, and returned to Britain with other expatriates aboard the "Royal George." (What color ensign would she have been flying?) [See response below.]

The modern version of the poem that appears on all the web sites has been significantly revised from the original. The most obvious change is the reference to Nelson -- the original line was "Where Blake (the Boast of Freedom) fell." Another is that the refrain "And stormy winds do blow" was "And the stormy Tempests blow" in the original. There was also a small but significant change in the verse about the Meteor flag, which I'll get to in a second.

So, who made the changes? I'm still pursuing that question, but there's a very interesting possibility that it was the American writer Washington Irving. Irving prepared Thomas' poetry for American release, and it was published in the US in at least two editions in 1810 and 1815. Irving was a well-known figure in literary circles, and one would expect that the books were widely read in the USA. This might well account for the fact that the term "Meteor flag" became well-known in the USA but not in Britain, even though it referred to a British flag.

The American publication dates are significant because they came at a time when relations between Britain and the USA were antagonistic (Irving served in the American army during the War of 1812). In that context, it's interesting that, in the original version, the verse referring to the Meteor flag started "The Meteor Flag of England/Must yet terrific burn," while the modern version reads ". . ./Shall yet terrific burn." The "Must" hints at the need for a firm defensive response to the potential (Russian) enemy, while the "Shall" suggests an aggressive British attitude (as perceived by someone who was an enemy of Britain?).
Peter Ansoff, 14 May 2004

What color ensign would she have been flying? - It would have depended upon when it happened. For the first half of 1801 the Royal George was Hyde Parker's flag ship, at which time he was an Admiral of the Blue, so a Blue Ensign. After June she was a private ship and would have flown a Red Ensign.
David Prothero, 17 May 2004

The information about the revisions to the poem is interesting. In Britain the poem is about as well known as you would expect, but the 'meteor flag' phrase has just not gained currency. The inspiration for the expression probably came from John Milton's "Paradise Lost", first printed 1667, Line 536.
"The imperial ensign, which, full high advanced, Shone like a meteor, streaming to the wind."
To confuse the matter slightly, I noticed the following in an editorial about the royal standard in The Globe of 10 February 1902. "The Meteor Flag of England is the Union Jack."
David Prothero, 17 May 2004

Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleet (proposed flag)

[Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleet] image by Martin Grieve

[Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleet - detail of royal cypher] image by Martin Grieve

Proposed but abandoned distinguishing flag of the Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleet and Royal Cypher of HM Queen Elizabeth II

The three masted sailing ship "Cutty Sark" was built in 1869 as a tea-clipper, and is now preserved in a dry-dock near the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. In 1954 she was still on the Thames waiting to be floated into the dock on the Autumn high tides, with re-rigging to be completed by Spring 1955. In May 1954 the Cutty Sark Preservation Society submitted a suggestion to the Duke of Edinburgh, Patron of the Society, that the ship should be a memorial to the Merchant Navy, and that the flag of HM the Queen as Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleet, (a title introduced by King George V in 1928) should be flown from Cutty Sark's main mast, day and night, after she has been berthed in the dry dock. The Queen agreed to the suggestion, and tentatively suggested that the flag might be the Red Ensign defaced with the Royal Cypher. The Head of Naval Law Branch wrote that the Admiralty had no objection, and that it was in any case not clear that the Admiralty had any say in the matter as Section 73 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 provided for the sovereign to issue warrants authorising flags. However the Head of the Military Branch pointed out that:

  1. Such a flag should be flown only to denote the presence of the sovereign, and suggested that it should be used only on merchant ships or fishing vessels in which HM was embarked.
  2. HM ships passing would be expected to pay respects to a flag bearing the royal cypher. Gun salutes were not fired in the Thames above Gravesend, and the only action that could be taken would be to lower the colours. In the absence of the sovereign herself this would be quite unacceptable. A merchant ship could salute a warship by lowering her colours, and the warship would respond, but a warship would never initiate an exchange of salutes with a merchant ship.
  3. A special flag for the sovereign as Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleet would also be a problem when the sovereign was in HMY Britannia and wished to honour the Merchant Navy by flying this flag. It could not replace the Royal Standard, the Flag of the Lord High Admiral or the Union Jack, and finding a suitable position to hoist the flag would be difficult.
  4. Suggested that a Red Ensign with the badge of Cutty Sark (if there was one) would be more suitable.
The proposal was abandoned, as was the idea of flying the houseflags of those merchant ships sunk during the 1939-45 War, on the day of the year that they had been sunk.
[National Archives (PRO) ADM 1/25476]

David Prothero, 14 October 2005

Red Ensigns Used by Yacht Clubs


Brixham Yacht Club, Devon
Royal Dart Yacht Club, South Devon
Royal Fowey Yacht Club, Cornwall
House of Commons Yacht Club, Hants
Lloyd’s Yacht Club, London
Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club, Bermuda
Royal Lymington Yacht Club, Hants
Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club, Suffolk
Royal Portsmouth Corinthian Yacht Club (1880-1930). Originally a red ensign with a crown on the Union, warrant cancelled.
Royal St George Yacht Club, Dublin, Ireland (1847-1895). Originally a red ensign with a crown on the Union, changed to crown on fly (1895 - current).
St. Helier Yacht Club, Jersey
Royal Victoria Yacht Club, Isle of Wight (1872-1898). Originally a red ensign with a crown on the Union, changed to crown on fly above VR
Royal Windermere Yacht Club, Cumbria
Royal Yachting Association, Hants,
West Mersea Yacht Club, Essex

Source: The Navy List (2005) (p. 234) 

Andrew Thomas, 14 November 2005

See also:

Use of red ensigns on yachts

The following is taken from "Flags and Signals" published by BP in conjunction with the Royal Yachting Association in 1969:

"In Harbour. In British waters the proper time for hoisting the Ensign is 0800 (8 a.m.) B.S.T. and 0900 (9 a.m.) in the winter months. (Summer months are from 25 March to 30 September inclusive.) Ensigns are always lowered at sunset or at 2100 (9 p.m.), whichever is earlier.

When abroad, the local custom should be followed; generally this will be found to be the same as in British waters, although, in most places with a temperate climate, colours are hoisted at 0800 (8 a.m.) throughout the year, while in extreme northern and southern latitudes, when sunrise is later than 0900 (9 a.m.) colours are made at sunrise. Similarly, during the summer months in high latitudes, when 'sunset' may not occur until a very late hour, it is customary to fix an arbitrary time (normally 2100) for lowering the colours.

Yachts should take their time for hoisting and lowering colours from the senior officer present. If ships of the Royal Navy are present, the ship of the senior naval officer is the senior officer present; if none of H.M. ships are present, the principal yacht club in the port should give the time by hoisting and lowering the Ensign at its flag staff, and on ceremonial occasions by a signal such as the firing of a gun. Failing either of the above, yachts should endeavour to follow the actions of the senior flag officer of a yacht club, if one is present. The flag officers of clubs should appreciate that they have this responsibility.

Although the above is the ideal and should be followed whenever possible, it is appreciated that the circumstances of many yachts preclude them from carrying out the procedure in its entirety. In some yachts there is a paid crew permanently living on board, and the owner is not always 'in effective control', but only, say, at week-ends, arrives on board after 0800 (on Saturday and leaving before sunset on Sunday). The owner is only 'in effective control' when on board or ashore for a short period of time and remaining in the vicinity of the port at which the yacht is lying. In many yachts there is no permanent crew. In view of these circumstances, deviation from the rule that the colours are hoisted at 0800 and lowered at sunset is permissible and it is in order for yachts to carry out the following procedure:
Yachts with a permanent paid crew. If the owner is not on board, the Red Ensign should be hoisted at 0800 (or 0900 in winter). If, during the day, the owner comes aboard and  assumes effective control, then, if the owner holds a warrant to wear a special Ensign, the Red Ensign may be lowered and the special Ensign hoisted. In the same way, if the owner gives up effective control of his yacht before sunset, then the Red Ensign should be substituted for the special Ensign.
Yachts with no permanent crew. If the owner arrives on board between the hours of 0800 (or 0900 in the winter) and sunset any Ensign which he is entitled to wear may be hoisted as soon as he arrives on board. If the owner is landing before sunset and not returning on board before sunset, or is leaving the port and giving up effective control, the Ensign should be lowered just before the owner leaves the ship.
This all sounds rather formal and dated now, but the basic idea is still of use as a method of co-ordinating the commendable practice of not flying a flag when it cannot be seen, and thus avoiding unnecessary wear and tear.  I understand that it is written into the rules of some yacht clubs, either as a routine to be followed, or as a recommended practice.

David Prothero, 7 June 2006

David Prothero