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Origins of the New Zealand Flag (1898-1903)


Last modified: 2005-04-23 by jonathan dixon
Keywords: nz | blue ensign | stars: southern cross | disc (white) | stars: 4 | star: 5 points (red) |
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New Zealand Signalling flag (1899)

[ Signalling Flag 1899 ]
by Sam Lockton, 30 August 2002

In 1887 the British Board of Trade set up a committee to revise the International Code of Signals. Details of the revised code, due to come into use on 1st January 1901, were published in 1898. It continued the existing practice that, "A ship wishing to make a signal hoists her ensign with the code flag under." A new ensign was introduced to identify British colonial merchant ships, a white circle in the fly of the Red Ensign, with the badge of the colony inside the circle.

The Nautical Adviser to the New Zealand Marine Department recommended that four red stars should be set in the circle on the Red Ensign, and a similar badge used on the Blue Ensign. The New Zealand Government agreed to this, and a request for approval of the ensigns was forwarded to London on 5th July 1898 by the Governor, the Earl of Ranfurly. The ensigns were authorised by an Admiralty Warrant dated 7th February 1899, announced in the New Zealand Gazette on 23rd November 1899, and came into use on 1st January 1900. The white circle on the image of the blue ensign by Sam Lockton is possibly a little over-size. The Red Ensign version is similar.

Although intended only for use at sea, the ensigns were also flown on land. William Hall-Jones, Minister of Public Works, and also Minister of Marine, wrote to the Secretary of Public Buildings, and to the Secretary of the Marine Department, "I think it should be clearly understood that the New Zealand flag is that which has been used for so many years (without the disc) and that the Blue and Red Ensigns with the white disc are simply signal flags used to indicate that the vessel is a Colonial one."

On 6th July 1900, questions were asked in Parliament; why had these flags been introduced, and by whose authority? Sir Richard Seddon, the Premier, explained that the government had been persuaded to fall in line with the practice in other colonies. However the flags were being harmed, by their use in commercial advertising, and he proposed to introduce a Bill, re-instating the previous flag, and regulating its use.
David Prothero, 3 January 2005

The New Zealand Ensign Bill

[ National Flag of New Zealand ]
by Sam Lockton, 31 August 2002

The New Zealand Ensign Bill was introduced on 13th July 1900. As originally drafted, it also contained provision for the two code ensigns with white circles, but they were struck from the Bill before it was given its final reading in the early hours of 20th September.

Normally a Bill became a legal Act of Parliament after formal approval by the Governor, but in 1884, Britain had reserved the right to make Bills dealing with certain matters subject to Royal Approval; flags were one were one such matter. A clause reflecting this had been included in the Bill, which was sent to the Governor's office.

The Governor, Earl Ranfurly, was temporarily absent from New Zealand, and the Chief Justice of New Zealand, Sir Robert Stout, a former Premier, was acting as Deputy Governor. He wrote to Seddon that it was the prerogative of the Governor, not of Parliament, to decide whether or not a Bill was reserved. He added that a clause referring to it should not have been included in the Bill, and the one that was included was not in the form prescribed.

On 25th October 1900 Stout forwarded the Bill to Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, with a despatch that practically invited rejection of the Bill. "You will observe in my memorandum to the Premier, No.107, that I warned him that I would not be surprised if the assent of Her Majesty were refused to the Bill." In his reply, on 21st March 1901, Chamberlain did not object to the clause or its wording, merely observing that, "I prefer the form which was suggested in Lord Derby's circular despatch of 20th June 1884, but the form used in the present Bill appears to me to be sufficient for all practical purposes." However the Admiralty had objected to the use, in the preamble, of the words "for all purposes", as this would have allowed New Zealand merchant ships to fly the New Zealand Blue Ensign. The Governor was asked to consider the matter.

On 27th June 1901, the Governor, Ranfurly, wrote to Chamberlain forwarding a memorandum from the Premier, in which it was proposed that the Bill should be modified "by providing that the ensign may be used for all purposes ashore, but shall not be worn by any vessel, other than the vessels owned and used by the New Zealand Government, except in pursuance of a warrant from His Majesty or the Admiralty." The Admiralty agreed to this.

A new Bill was introduced on 21st October 1901. It was passed by Parliament on 5th November, received Royal Assent on 24th March 1902, its Proclamation was signed by the Governor on 9th June, and published in the New Zealand Gazette on 12th June. A description of the Ensign followed on 27th June.

An anomaly in the Act, which was pointed out to Ranfurly by Chamberlain in a despatch of 1st April 1902, is that the flag is described as ' the Blue Ensign of the Royal Naval Reserve ', and not ' the Blue Ensign of His Majesty's Fleet ', as it should be.

The New Zealand Red Ensign had not been changed by this Act, but in the following year, the Shipping and Seamen Act, Part XIV, (No.96) section 341, replaced the white disc in the fly of the Red Ensign, with four five-pointed white stars.
David Prothero, 4 January 2005