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United Kingdom: jacks

Last modified: 2005-03-19 by rob raeside
Keywords: jack | state jack | civil jack | pilot flag | cross: saint george | dunkirk jack |
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See also:

Naval jack

[Royal Navy jack'] by Graham Bartram

The Union Flag is the official jack of the Royal Navy - strictly speaking, this is the only time it should be called the 'Union Jack'.
Roy Stilling, 8 February 1996

The Union Jack is reserved at sea for the Royal Navy.
André Coutanche, 28 September 2000

A jack, a flag flown on a staff at the bow of a ship, is a relatively insignificant flag. Ensigns which indicate nationality are, I believe, regulated by international laws, but a jack would be subject only to the laws of the country in which the ship was registered. Thus, in very general terms as I understand it, Britain can prohibit ships registered in Britain from fly the Union Jack, but would not be able to enforce the prohibition against a ship not registered in Britain.
David Prothero, 29 September 2000

See below for the civil jack.

Jacks are probably not used much because most public service vessels do not want to involve themselves in all the rigmarole of lowering the jack when getting under way, and raising it again when not underway. In any case many departments have only small launches, in which a jack is unnecessary. Judging by photographs, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service now seem to use them, though this was not always so. A survey in 1922 found that of 66 RFA Oilers and Petrol Carriers only two carried jacks. It was pointed out at the time that, after the abolition of Squadron Colours, public service jacks served no useful purpose. They were introduce for public service vessels by the Royal Proclamation of 12 July 1694. At that time merchant ships flew the Red Ensign and no jack, while warships flew the Red, White or Blue Ensign and the Union Jack. Allocating a Red Jack to public service vessels, identified them as such, without allowing them to infringe the right of King's ships to be the only ships permitted to fly a Union Jack. In 1864 when Red Ensigns and Blue Ensigns ceased to be flown by ships of the Royal Navy, Blue Ensigns were allocated to ships in the service of any public office, the colour of the Jack was changed to Blue. But since warships flew the White Ensign, and merchant ships flew the Red Ensign, the Blue Ensign alone identified a departmental ship, making the jack redundant.
David Prothero, 15 January 2003

The St George was expressly laid down as being the jack to be used by English merchant ships in a Royal Proclamation of 1674, and continued so until the beginning of the 19th Century (by which time it was no longer possible to wear a Jack as sea anyway). The relevant part of the Proclamation of 1674 lays down the colours as:

"...those usually hithertofore worn on merchants' ships viz: the Flag and Jack white with a red cross (commonly called Saint George's Cross) passing through right through the same...".
Christopher Southworth, 18 August 2004

In the proclamation of 1674, from which Christopher quoted, "flag" was still being used in its original sense of "masthead colour". In "A Memorandum on Merchant Ensigns and Jacks" this note appears after a copy of the 1674 Proclamation.

"This Proclamation recognises the existence, in addition to the Ensign, of both a flag (in the sense of a masthead colour) and a jack for the Merchant Service, both identical in design ( White, with a Red Cross passing quite through the same), and it regularises their being flown on Merchant Ships."[National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/3566]
David Prothero 20 August 2004

For what it's worth, a model of the "Great Michael" in the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, has a square Scottish saltire in the bows. The real ship, built for King James IV in 1511, is said to have been, at 240 feet (probably over-all) (73m), the largest warship in the world. Photograph of the model is in 'The Story of the Scottish Flag' by McMillan and Stewart.
David Prothero, 19 August 2004

Give a sailor a mast and he'll generally stick a flag on it, but the English Royal Navy didn't actually begin to fly jacks on a regular basis until the 1630's (although there is at least one reference to the practice in the late 16th Century), but the Scots navy post-union and up to 1707 (if not previously) was miniscule and I would imagine that the Proclamation of 1634 reserving the Union Jack for ships in royal service applied equally to the Scots as well?

It is perfectly possible that the Scottish navy were in advance of the English and flew a Saltire Jack prior to the Union of Crowns, but Perrin and Wilson are both silent on the matter so the answer is I don't know?
Christopher Southworth, 19 August 2004

It would appear, from what evidence we have, that the wearing of a flag on the bowsprit was a comparatively rare occurrence before the early-17th Century. The wording of the Proclamation of 1606 (which established the Union Flag) strongly suggests, however, that the Cross of St George was customarily worn at the main masthead prior to that date (at least by merchant vessels), whilst its new position was laid down as being the fore topmast.

It became impossible to fly a jack at sea - at least from a jack staff - because of a change to the design of headsails. The relatively inefficient square-sail rigged from a spar below the bowsprit (in use from at least Roman times) was abandoned for the far more effective triangular headsails rigged from the foremast to the bowsprit. We have visual, if only fragmentary documentary evidence that the Jack was flown from a jack staff at sea as a matter of course (at least when the Ensign was flown) during the 17th Century and into the 18th. As far as I know the wearing of the Union Jack is a privilege rather a requirement, but it wasn't unusual for a warship in the latter half of the 18th and early-19th Century to wear a Union from the foretopmast when underway.
Christopher Southworth, 20 August 2004

State jacks

[Jack of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary] by Graham Bartram

I enclose an example of a state jack, in this case the jack of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, to show the square Union.

Graham Bartram, 11 December 1999

In my limited experience of such documents, an Admiralty Warrant granting the right to fly a defaced blue ensign also specifically mentioned an accompanying defaced blue jack, and this is repeated in those more recently issued by the Ministry of Defence. A typical example is Jersey where the Admiralty Warrant of 2 March 1907 states that (in addition to the ensign) '...the said vessel (in this case the steam tug 'Duke of Normandy') shall be permitted to wear a small blue flag with a Union described in the canton at the upper corner next to the staff, as a jack, with the badge of Jersey in the fly thereof'. This right is repeated in the MoD Warrants granted on 15 June 1967 and in August 1997. Such jacks are, properly speaking and by convention square, and as such carry a square Union in the canton. On the other hand, as far as I can find out the right to use them is rarely, if ever, exercised (at least nowadays).

Christopher Southworth, 14 January 2003

It is possible that the reference to a jack in the Admiralty Warrant for the Blue Ensign is peculiar to Jersey, and was included only because a jack was specifically requested in addition to the ensign. The warrant for Jersey was unusual in that it could not be issued under the provisions of the Order in Council 9 July 1864 which abolished Squadron Colours, since the States of Jersey were not a Public Department, nor under the Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865, since Jersey was not a colony. It was therefore issued as a special case under Sec.73(i) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894; "any other ship or boat for the time being allowed to wear any other national colour (other than the Red Ensign) in pursuance of a warrant from His Majesty or from the Admiralty."

David Prothero, 15 January 2003

Yes the three warrants I referred to previously were all for Jersey, and upon checking I find that I have only one other (I thought I had two more). This is a copy of the MoD Warrant granting the right to fly a defaced blue ensign to Guernsey. It is undated (but was sent with an accompanying letter of 3 July 2000) and also confers the right to fly a defaced blue jack.

Of course the Admiralty and subsequent MoD Warrants under discussion were issued by virtue of the various Merchant Shipping Acts (the current wording is, it would appear, almost identical to that of the original), as, I presume, were those of the fleet auxiliary (since it forms part of the Merchant Marine)? What we need to know, and what I await information from the MoD on (if it ever arrives), is whether the granting of a defaced blue jack is general for Warrants issued to Government authorities, or, if the two cases in my possession are unique? According to the Admiralty librarian, sight of any Admiralty Warrants would require a visit to the Public Record Office.

The appearance of such a jack in the Flaggenbuch - considering the lengths gone to in ensuring the accuracy of that publication - seems to confirm that the practice had (at least in 1939 if not now) some sort of official sanction?

Christopher Southworth, 17 January 2003

The civil jack (Pilot jack)

Border = one-third of union height (1-3-1)

[Pilot Jack] by Martin Grieve

Border = one-fifth of union height (1-5-1)

[Pilot Jack] by Martin Grieve

There is a different jack for civil vessels. This is an elongated Union Flag with a wide white border around it.
Graham Bartram
, 1 June 1999

The Pilot Jack (the white-bordered Union Jack) ceased to be a pilot signal in 1970. It is only used as the civil jack (also named merchant jack, but recreational boats may also use it). It is not very often used.
David Prothero, 31 July 2001, Jose C. Alegria, 2 August 2001

Can this flag be used on inland waterways like the River Thames? It is debatable as to whether the Merchant Shipping Act actually applies to inland waterways, however whether it does or not, the River Thames is a tidal river and as such should not (in my opinion) be so classed. It follows therefore, that Part 1.4(1)(a)(ii) of the Merchant Shipping Act (1995) comes into force and this specifically permits the use of "the Union Flag (commonly called the Union Jack) with a white border" as being one of the "distinctive colours" permitted to merchant vessels. The use of these "distinctive national colours" is nowhere forbidden in law in either inland or coastal waterways.
Christopher Southworth, 11 June 2004

See also:

Development of the Pilot Jack

In the latter part of the 18th century the Royal Navy adopted, as the signal for a pilot, a Union Jack flown at the topmast head of a vessel with one mast, or at the fore topmast head of a vessel with more than one mast. I don't know if the selection of the Union Jack for this signal was deliberate or by chance.

British merchant ships, for whom pilotage was compulsory in Britain, followed the example of the Navy and adopted the same signal. It is surprising that this was allowed as, since 1634, it had been an offence for a merchant ship to fly the Union Jack . The Admiralty eventually took action to rectify this after Captain Frederick Marryat published the "Code of Signals for the Merchant Service" in 1817, and included the Union Jack as one of the set of signal flags. A warrant was issued on 15 November 1822 repeating that it was an offence for a merchant ship to fly the Union Jack, but temporarily authorising its use as a signal flag until 1 January 1824.

The Ship Owners of London opposed this and asked the Admiralty to end restrictions on the use of the Union Jack. It was a necessary part of Marryat's Code, which was about to be adopted by the French and Americans. The Admiralty replied that the use of the Union Jack as the signal for a pilot had been admitted, and the indulgence had led to its indiscriminate use. They were prepared to allow its continued use as a pilot signal for British ships, but felt it would be highly inconvenient if the Union Jack were to become part of a general code, particularly if the code were to be introduced into the French and American Navies. Their Lordships could see no reason why a different flag should not be substituted for the Union Jack.

The Ship Owners asked Captain Marryat to resolve the problem. He thought that the best plan was to take advantage of the fact that all British ships, whether men- of-war or merchant vessels, carried the Red Ensign, which had the Union Jack in one corner. He thought that if a Red Ensign was trimmed to leave just the Union with a red edge at the bottom and fly, the alteration would not be great enough to cause confusion, but would be sufficient to satisfy Their Lordships. It did not. It was pointed out that the suggestion did not limit the size of the margin, which might be so small as to be indistinguishable, and it was suggested that a flag of yellow and blue, or any other distinct colours, could replace the Union Jack. The Ship Owners proposed a Union Jack with a six inch red border on all sides. They thought this would be cheaper than introducing a new flag, as every ship already had a Union Jack. They also suggested that in the proposed Regulations relating to Pilotage the same flag should be specified as the signal for a pilot. Their Lordships agreed to this, but the border was to be white instead of red, and the size of the border was to be a proportion of the size of the flag.

The new flag was warranted on 8 July 1823, the details published in the London Gazette on the 9th, to be effective 1 January 1824. The change was included in the fourth edition of Marryat's Code published in 1826. The same white-bordered Union Jack was adopted by the Royal Navy as 'the Pilot Signal in all parts of the world' on 5 December 1826.
[Based on Memorandum on Merchant Ensigns and Jacks, 1674 to 1879.
Copies in PRO docs ADM 116/3566 and BT 103/308.
Article "The British Merchant Jack" by Cdr. Hilary P. Mead, R.N. in Mariner's Mirror Volume 21, pages 395-410, October 1935.]
David Prothero
, 6 September 2003

The white-over-red Pilot flag was first created by a British statute in 1808 (during the reign of George III). The 1808 Act provided that the pilot flag: (1) was to be carried in boats carrying the pilot, and then (2) in the ship in which the pilot was "carried off" to perform his services. In later years, these provisions were incorporated into the Merchant Shipping Act, and later into the successive Pilotage Acts. Since 1808, this white-over-red flag has thus been the Pilot Distinguishing Flag for Britain, and due to accession, for many Commonwealth nations as well. Many European nations copied the British practice, too, because it was widely understood. The Pilot Distinguishing Flag has been part of British law since 1808. No exceptions. (The flags used by ships to summon pilots have changed, however.) And in a fair number of nations, the simple white-over-red is the "Pilot Flag" also.

The International Code of Signals (to which Britain subscribes) provides that code flag "H" means "I am carrying a pilot" --but this provision speaks to ships under pilotage, not really to pilot boats offering their services and certainly not to pilothouses where the pilots await their jobs. The International Code Flag "H" --which is divided vertically white/red -- first appeared in Marryat's Code of 1817, and was later incorporated into the successive International Signal Codes. The use of this red-and-white "H" flag to convey a pilot-related message clearly stems from the practice started in 1808. Also, under the COLREGS, the lights displayed by a pilot boat at night are white over red; "White over red; pilot ahead!"

Britain's 1808 law did not apply to the USA, of course, and the white-over-red flag never caught on in the USA. In many US ports, the code flag "P" (Blue Peter) was used to mark pilot boats in the 19th century. This provision is still part of the law in Louisiana to this day (and was part of some states' laws for many years). The pilot boats of Houston, Texas, still carry the "P" flag in rigid form. The use of the "P" flag is at variance with the meaning assigned in the International Code, yet it is very firmly entrenched in local custom. "P is for pilot." Many Latin American nations followed the US custom, and used "P" (or at least a blue-and-white flag of some sort). Some US and Latin American pilot boats are painted blue. A few nations created unique pilot boat flags that follow neither the UK nor US traditions. This said, a few US pilots are now using the International "H" flag as a pilot boat flag (instead of "P"), under a broader interpretation of, "I am carrying a pilot".
James T. Liston, 16 March 2003

I have found no reference to the Union Jack with a white border before its introduction in 1823 as a signal for calling a pilot in the 'Code of Signals for the Merchant Service' of Captain Frederick Marryat which went through 10 Editions before being replaced by 'The Commercial Code of Signals of the use of All Nations' in 1857 (which was itself changed to 'The International Code' about 1880). If it had been introduced for any other purpose, I am sure we would have heard about it. The Union Jack was certainly used by the Royal Navy for signaling (as was the Ensign) prior to the introduction of an organized flag code, but always without defacement of any sort. The merchant marine are known to have flown a Union Jack - as a Jack - upon occasion, but this was strictly illegal and had been so since 1634.
Christopher Southworth, 4 September 2003

See also:

Anchor Ball and Pilot Jack

As the pilot jack today can only be used in harbour or at anchor, when used at anchor does it or can it act as a substitute for an anchor ball?
David Ward, 3 September 2003

The anchor ball is an option, not a requirement, and therefore the use of a jack as a substitute does not arise. The 1951 Seamanship Manual made the point that a warship did not normally hoist a black ball when at anchor, but the fact that she was at anchor (or made fast to the shore or a buoy) might be indicated by her jack flying from the jack staff.
David Prothero, 3 September 2003

Dunkirk jack

[St George's Cross] by Vincent Morley

There is a special jack - the red St George's Cross on white - that is reserved for vessels which took part in the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in World War II.
Graham Bartram
, 1 June 1999

Does this mean the actual vessels? Or is it parallel to the French practice of a Free French honour jack, as mentioned by Ivan Sache on the Free French Forces page, "Nowadays, ships that have a name previously belonging to a ship that joined the FNFL (Forces Navales Françaises Libres) use the FNFL ensign as honour jack." If the practice is the first-mentioned, more restricted use, are there any vessels left today?
Ole Andersen, 24 September 2000

I thought that this was a squarish but perfectly ordinary St George's flag that could be flown as a jack by anyone. It was selected as a means of identifying those vessels that were used in the evacuation when they are taking part in ceremonies. One ship that took part in the anniversary commemorations last June is now registered in Malta and flew the Maltese Ensign and St George's Jack.
David Prothero, 24 September 2000

In Norie and Hobbs (1848) a flag of this design is referred to as the St. George's Jack.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 12 November 2001

Interesting background information can be found on this web page. "The term Little Ship applies to all craft that were originally privately owned and includes private yachts, barges, British, French, Belgian and Dutch fishing vessels and pleasure steamers, but the Association does include some ex-Service vessels, which are now privately owned, and ex-Lifeboats."

As to the flag shown on top of this page: "It was then (first Annual General Meeting, 13 Dec. 1967, jm) decided that we should have a House Flag. Permission was given by the Admiralty, the College of Heralds and the City of Dunkirk for the Cross of St. George (the flag of Admiralty) to be defaced with the Arms of Dunkirk for use as the Association's House Flag. This can be worn by Member Ships at any time when the owner is aboard. In addition, when in company, we fly the undefaced Cross of St. George at the bow. Again this is by Admiralty Warrant. To avoid any possible confusion with barges wearing an Admiral's flag, the Dunkirk Little Ships must wear the Red Ensign when flying the undefaced Flag of St. George at the bows."

A better view of the Dunkirk coat of arms (undoubtedly drawn by Jiri Louda) is offered by Ralf Hartemink's site, International Civic Heraldry: per fess: or a lion sable passant armed and langued gules, argent a dolphin azure naiant embowed finned and langued gules. In other words, picturing a (former) Flemish city and harbour.
Jan Mertens, 13 February 2004

Jacks in Wartime

The photograph of a warship with two ensign staffs, pointed out by Jan Mertens at reminded me that towards the end of the 1939 - 1945 war, British warships were completed without a jackstaff, and hoisting a jack in any ship of the Royal Navy was not resumed until late 1946 or early 1947. I have been unable to find out whether the use of jacks was suspended at the beginning of the war, or some time later. Did this happen in the 1914 - 1918 war, and was it common wartime practice in other navies?
David Prothero, 28 December 2003

I have a photograph of HMS Lion taken at Scapa Flow in 1916, and she is wearing a jack. Whether this was normal practice during the First War I simply don't know, but it does seem likely? What is certain, however, is that gun salutes were dropped for the duration.
Christopher Southworth, 28 December 2003

This photo of HMS Lion may well have actually been taken pre-war (a 'stock' photo if you like), and the same might well apply to your photograph of the Grand Fleet?
David Prothero, 30 December 2003

I've had a look at various books, including H.M. Le Fleming's 'Ships of World War One' (that covers the RN and the German Navy), and none of the pictures that can be definitely dated to 1914-18 shows ships wearing jacks (even though they have the jackstaff rigged), and this includes a shot across some crowded destroyer pens at Rosyth.
Ian Sumner, 30 December 2003

It seems that in a prolonged war there does come a time when a navy may decide that jacks are more trouble than they are worth.

1914 - 1918.
Ian pointed out there are photographs in H.M. Le Fleming's book 'Warships of World War 1' showing British warships not underway, but not flying a jack. Those photographs that do show a ship flying a jack are probably, in some cases definitely, post-war. The photograph of HMS Lion, mentioned by Chris, might have been 'stock', or she may have been an exception, as she was the flagship of Admiral Beatty's Battle-Cruiser Squadron.

1939 - 1945.
I found my notes about the resumption of the use of the Union Jack. [National Archives (PRO) ADM 1/18176]
5 July 1945. It was noted that Union Flags were not supplied to minor war vessels and certain major war vessels.
3 September 1945. Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet hoped that use of the Union Jack could be resumed without delay. 1 January 1946 was suggested as a possible date for resumption. However it was necessary that all ships in commission should resume at the same time, and some ships (e.g., landing ships) had been built without jack-staffs or even ensign staffs, and most were without rigging wires for dressing ship.
3 December 1946. Admiralty Fleet Order (AFO) 7028/46. Notice of resumption.
3 January 1947. AFO 1/47. Resumption of normal procedures in accordance with King's Regulations & Admiralty Instructions, article 117.

There was a reference to AFO 6072/42, which would have been issued late November or early December 1942. Perhaps it introduced the restriction effective 1 January 1943 ?
David Prothero, 31 December 2003

If so, the restriction was not reflected in the 1943 edition of King's Regulations & Admiralty Instructions. I checked it at the U.S. Navy Department Library yesterday, including updates effective through November 1943, and the portions concerning display of "Union Flag at the jackstaff" were the normal ones--always displayed when in harbor. (Note that the flag was nowhere referred to as "Union Jack", even when flown as a's that for pedantry?)
Joe McMillan, 31 December 2003

I can say with a fair degree of certainty that all the South African 'little ships' (minesweepers and escort vessels) that served in the Med, wore the RN's White Ensign and the SA national flag as a jack throughout the war. When the jackstaff was struck for the armament right forward in the bows (as was the case for all our converted whale catchers), the jack was hoisted at the starboard yardarm. As our ships strictly followed RN practice as ordered by the Admiral Commanding Mediterranean(?), I would have thought that the same applied to the RN as a whole. How certain are you that the RN ceased flying the jack later in the war?

As for WWI, I have a vague memory of seeing a photograph of the Grand Fleet anchored in Scapa Flow and as far as memory goes they were all flying their jacks. The absence thereof would have certainly made an impression.
Andre Burgers, 29 December 2003

I do not know if Admiralty Fleet Orders applied to all fleets or just the Home Fleet. However it seems that the South African ships did not follow RN practice entirely, as an RN vessel would not have hoisted the Union Jack at a yardarm ?
David Prothero, 31 December 2003

I did find a note in a copy of Mariner's Mirror, vol.23 (1937) pp.229-30, signed simply 'A.L.', which quoted Admiralty Interim Order No.62 of 14th September 1914, ordering the flying of the Union Flag on or near the foremast as an extra national device, in addition to the White Ensign, because of the similarity between the White Ensign and the German Naval Ensign.

This usage was cancelled on 16th November 1914 by the Admiralty by Interim Order S.55 (and repeated by S.266 of 26th November 1915), whereby the Union Flag was replaced by the Red Ensign. The Admiralty reversed themselves once more on 11th January 1916, which once more authorised the use of the Union at the foremast. This was cancelled again by S.13 of 1916.

Now, could it be the use of the Union as a jack was abandoned, either formally or informally, because of its explicit use at the masthead?

Ian Sumner, 31 December 2003

The Union Jack was withdrawn during the 1939 - 1945 War, but only from smaller vessels:
Admiralty Fleet Order 6072/42. 10 December 1942. Union Flag Allowances HM Ships.

  1. As a measure of economy the Union Flag is withdrawn from,
    (a) All minor war vessels except Coastal Forces.
    (b) Certain major war vessels; Submarines, Netlayers, Fleet Minesweepers, Corvettes and Surveying Ships.
  2. Coastal Forces should retain one Union Flag on board, and bases should maintain sufficient flags to provide one spare for each craft attached.
  3. All Union Flags in excess should be returned to stores.
This perhaps suggests that Coastal Forces (Motor Gun Boats, Motor Torpedo Boats and various Motor Launches) flew the Union Jack at sea, in the same way that it was used during the 1914 -1918 war? General use of Union Jacks was resumed in 1946.
Admiralty Fleet Order 3499/46. 16 May 1946. M4542/45.

Wearing of Union Flag at the jack staff and Ensign at the ensign staff by HM Ships in harbour is to be resumed as soon as practicable. The 3 December 1946 Admiralty Fleet Order 7028/46. Notice of Resumption, seems to have been a repeat of the May Order.

David Prothero, 20 January 2004