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The Australian flag as a colonial flag

Last modified: 2020-02-15 by ian macdonald
Keywords: britain | colony | australia | oceania |
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Design of Australian flags as colonial flags

The flags of all six Australian states are true colonial flags even though they're no longer colonies. The Australian national flag is a little different in that an extra device (the federal star) was added beneath the jack in addition to the southern cross on the fly. Pictures of the historical Australian state and national flags can be found on the Ausflag web site.
Brendan Jones, 6 February 1996

Civil flag on land and the Flag Act of 1953

Until the Flag Act was passed in 1953, the official national flag was the Union Jack.
Roy Stilling, 6 February 1996

Theoretically, Australia had no civil flag for use on land (i.e. what we normally think of as the 'national flag') until 1953. The blue ensign was the state flag for use on land (i.e for the use of the Government only) and the red ensign was used for the merchant marine service, as it is today. Any use of these flags by private citizens on land was customary only and, strictly speaking, a breach of protocol.

Some research by Ralph Kelly, an Australian flag historian, dug up some pretty conclusive documentation that the 1900 flag competition only ever intended to design flags for government and merchant use. It was assumed that private citizens on land would continue to fly undefaced Union Jacks, i.e. effectively Australia's 'official national flag' remained the Union Jack.

That of course changed in 1953, whereupon the blue ensign first gained legal status as Australia's national flag and indeed seniority over the undefaced Union Jack.
Brendan Jones, 7 February 1996

Until the 1953 act, the Australian red ensign was the official civil flag, but the the act changed it to the blue one, which (I believe) had already seen significant de facto use. Both flags were in official use from about 1909 in their respective uses. Earlier versions were in use from about 1901 and were officially approved by London in 1903. The difference in versions had to do with the number of points on each star - the basic designs did not change. In 1975, Australia got its own white ensign, and stopped using the UK one.
Christopher Vance, 2 October 1996

Some of what Christopher says requires further comment, based upon later research. To say that the Australian Red Ensign was the official civil flag before the Flags Act is misleading. Years of research cannot support this. At best it can only be referred to as an officially-tolerated civil flag. The Commonwealth government usually stated that there were no reservations on, or official objections to its use, which was not really encouraging the Australian public to fly it. In other publications they suggested its use by 'commercial institutions' but said nothing directly about it's flying by individuals and organisations.

The civil flag until 1954 was actually the Union Flag, but the Commonwealth government appears to have done virtually nothing about publicly promoting flags at all in the twenty years from 1910 to 1930. From January 1924 they periodically sent a circular advising on flag-flying matters to the six State Premiers which suggests that they saw public flag-flying education as a state government responsibility. They do not seem to have sent these circulars to the Territory Administrators as the Australian Blue Ensign appears to have been the flag flown for all on-land purposes in most of the territories.

As for the Australian Blue Ensign, this flag was visible throughout the Australian community but in a mainly Commonwealth government context. Until 1941 the only entities actually invited to fly the blue flag were the six state governments if their own blue ensigns were not available. Some flag makers would only sell the blue flag to Commonwealth government buyers, seeing it in a similar restricted way to the defence ensigns. The press release signed by Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1941 encouraging its general use does not seem to have caught on, perhaps due to the war. Significant de facto use of the blue flag as a civil flag only seems to have started after a similar press release signed by Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1947.

Christopher's statement that 'Both flags were in official use from about 1909 in their respective uses' would be more accurate as 'Both flags were in official use from about 1909 in their current design forms'. They were being flown in their respective uses before this year, in their earlier design form with the six-point Commonwealth Star of course.

As for the main subject of the above discussion, the three known federal flag competitions of 1900 and 1901 all called for what were in effect British colonial ensigns, and as far as I know, not a 'national flag'. Also the two flags would have to be submitted to the Imperial authorities for approval simply because they were constituted under British laws (the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, and the Colonial Regulations) and their compliance with those laws would have to be confirmed by London. However the whole circumstance of these competitions suggests that the flags were intended to be more than simple colonial ensigns. Firstly, the government competition was a worldwide one, and the resulting flags differed considerably from the usual model for British colonial ensigns as they had two badges, one filling the fly instead of being confined to a white disc. There was also the Governor-General's badge for the Union Flag which was a much more elaborate version of the one on the ensigns. This was contrary to the usual practice in which the badges on the ensigns and Union Flag were supposed to be the same. And finally, a variant of the Federation Flag was also included in the despatch belatedly sent to London, although why this was sent, what function it was supposed to fulfill and what the Imperial authorities were expected to do about it is unclear.
Jeff Thomson, 5 January 2020

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