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Murray River flag (Australia)

Last modified: 2016-10-07 by ian macdonald
Keywords: australia | murray river flag | stars: southern cross | southern cross | stripes (blue and white) |
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Murray River flag

I'm also intrigued by the Murray River flag of which there seems to have been two or three versions.
David Prothero, 12 May 1998

Complete detail on these flags is tantalisingly vague. Foley [fol96] just mentions them in passing - the most complete description is in Cayley - he put a couple of possible representations in his book. This tantalising bit from Cayley: 'Although the Murray River Flag was flown on the barge Eureka in 1853, no connection, other than the coincidence of name, has been traced between the Murray Flag and the flag of revolt that flew over the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat in the following year.' Cayley also makes the point that another flag flown on the Murray featured a black swan, long before it first appeared on the flag of Western Australia. So, there isn't much definitive detail on the Murray River flags. But there must be answers out there somewhere.
David Cohen, 13 May 1998

The relevant passage from "Flag of Stars," Frank Cayley, published 1966 [cay66]:

No specimen or fragment of the original Murray River Flag is known to exist. So one can only guess about the design. The eyewitness description quoted ("The flag at the forepeak of the Eureka excited particular notice, the device being novel. It bears a red cross with four horizontal bars of blue, the cross being charged with five stars as emblems of the different Australian colonies, while in the upper corner in token of British connection is depicted the Union jack. It has been named, I understand, the Murray River Flag.") is not at all precise, It can be interpreted in different ways.

Because the description mentions first a 'red cross', that cross seems most likely to have been the flag's most prominent feature. In an imaginary reconstruction of the Murray Flag, therefore, it seems logical to place the red cross of St George in full dimension on the traditional white ground, with a white star at each extremity of the cross and one in the centre. The Union jack belongs in the top left-hand corner. Deciding where to place the 'four horizontal bars of blue' is more difficult. Two possible versions are shown in this book. On the second one, my own reconstruction, the four bars of blue are not of equal length. Two are short because of the position of the Union Jack; the other two go across the flag, seemingly passing underneath the lower arms of the cross of St George. To have long stripes and short stripes on the one flag is not unusual. Such stripes - in red - appear of the flag of the USA. This is an important point, for a description of the Murray River Flag published in the South Australian Register during March 1853 says: "The flag had the Union Jack amalgamated with the alternate stripes of the United States."

David Cohen, 01 June 1999

Cayley suggests that the stars are at the extremities of the arms of the cross, but neither of our reconstructions place them there, although Cayley could merely be using "extremity" to indicate an arm of the cross rather than the tip of the arm

The original writer's lack of reference to the white ensign suggests that he is unfamiliar with flags, meaning that the "novel device" should probably be read as "new design", not "innovative design". Let's then say this was the National Colonial Flag (five star version), to which "four horizontal bars of blue" were added. If the number of stripes on a two coloured flag is odd, which colour is the field and which is the stripes? I'd say the outer stripes appear to be the field, the others the bars. If the writer saw a white flag with blue bars, then I guess the upper and lower edges were white.

Having assumed that the Colonial flag, a white ensign, was the basis, I expect the added stripes left the flywise arms of the cross free, resulting in a fly of W,B,W,B,W,R,W,B,W,B,W. (this construction of cross and bars has been used elsewhere, as has the cross fit in between two stripes, but I can't recall either of them.)
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 11 January 2001

I think it's worth pointing out that "extremities" is Cayley's word, not from the contemporary descriptions, and his own reconstructions put the stars in the middle of the arms. It follows that we shouldn't read too much into the word.
Jonathan Dixon, 7 September 2016

Modern Versions

Two variants are in common use. The Upper Murray River Flag is used on the upper Murray, in New South Wales. It was also the house flag of the Murray River Steam Navigation Co. which suggests that it was indeed a lineal descendant of the original. On the other hand, the lower Murray flag, used throughout South Australia and on the Murray Lakes, has also been long in use. The Penguin Book of Australian Flags, published briefly in the '60s, gave both.
Tim Fatchen, 7 May 2001

They are sort of equivalent to unofficial regional flags in that they represent sections of a river which runs through a state border. The Murray River flags have definitely been in continuous use by boats navigating this river for quite a while now.
Raymond Morris, 18 April 2005

I was recently in a city called Mildura in North Western Victoria. It was the first town in Australia to be irrigated entirely from the Murray River and is an Oasis in otherwise Desert/Malley lands.

When I was on a steamboat I saw the 'Upper Murray flag' being flown on a large flagpole, with all of the previous major floods marked out on it with their dates. The tour guide on the boat mentioned that the stars on the flag represented all of the major floods to have occurred in the known history of the Murray River.
Sam Tapner, 14 April 2007

Lower Murray River Flag (South Australia)

[Lower Murray River Flag (SA)] image by Ian MacDonald, 4 September 2016

The Lower Murray Flag has the Union Jack in the canton. The colonial cross, as in the upper Murray River flag, is red with five white stars, but is placed in the upper fly. The four azure blue stripes run the full width of the flag, in the lower half. The stripes are reminiscent of the United States flag, which is not the case for the Upper Murray River flag. Hence, the description of the Murray River Flag published in the South Australian Register of March 1853 --"The flag had the Union Jack amalgamated with the alternate stripes of the United States." --fits the lower Murray River flag very well.
Tim Fatchen, 7 May 2001

The light blue bars represent the Murray, Murrumbidgee, Darling and Goulburn Rivers, folklore hath it; whatever, the blue and white bars should be equal width.

The 2-to-1 ratio is standard.

Note that this layout is much more reminiscent of the US flag than is the upper Murray flag; but who knows which is the "real" flag as flown on the "Eureka" in 1853? As far as anyone can work out, both variants have been around for a least a century.

However, the lower Murray River flag is uniformly flown on the Murray River and the Murray Lakes throughout South Australia. This might be significant, since it's on the lower Murray that the river trade began, the barge "Eureka" was being built at Goolwa, where there were a lot of Yankees left over from the whaling days (schooners on the lakes, even!), and the provenance of the US-style stripes thus readily demonstrated. Someone, somewhere in this region, might have retained a memory of what the flag was actually like (other than the "Register" report), whereas this would be unlikely 500 miles upstream from where the event actually took place.
Tim Fatchen, 12 May 2001

Flags of Australia [vau83] calls this the "Murray River Flag (SA)" and states:

This variation of the flag is popular in the South Australian part of the Murray River. A similar design with dark blue stripes instead of the light blue is often flown by Victorian vessels on the Murray. A newspaper description of the flag in 1853 was not precise and left the original concept of the flag open to interpretation.
This suggests there may in fact by three "versions".
Blas Delgado Ortiz and Jonathan Dixon, 13-15 September 2001

Today I spotted a water taxi near the naval base in Sydney flying the South Australian version of the Murray River ensign.
Miles Li, 7 October 2001

I found one more different Murray River flag here.
Valentin Poposki, 22 March 2006

The flag used in South Australia has the Union Jack and starred cross on white background in the first two quarters, and the four stripes in lighter blue in the bottom half. This flag is consistently called the Lower Murray River flag. The light blue colour varies a bit, but is always lighter than the blue of the Union Jack. (See one of the darker versions at
Jonathan Dixon, 5 September 2016

Upper Murray River Flag (Victoria)

[Lower Murray River Flag (Vic)] image by Ian MacDonald, 4 September 2016

On Flickr is a photo of this version (with dark blue), showing it as yet another version in current use!

The location is given as Mildura, the same town as where out correspondent Sam Tapner saw a “NSW” version used.
Jonathan Dixon, 23 February 2009

Upstream, where the river forms the border between New South Wales and Victoria, there are two different flags, both seen in places such as Echuca and Mildura. Both have sometimes been called the "Upper Murray River flag", presumably simply in contrast with the Lower Murray version. [In other contexts, the "Upper Murray River" is much further upstream again...] One version is similar to the Lower Murray River Flag, but with darker stripes, and with a blue background to the starred cross.
Jonathan Dixon, 5 September 2016

Combined Murray River Flag

[Upper Murray River flag] image by Miles Li, 15 September 2015

This flag, used on the upper Murray, in New South Wales, was the house flag of the Murray River Steam Navigation Co. I suspect that the Upper Murray River flag may well have come into being by the general adoption of what was the River Murray Steam Navigation Co's house flag as the actual River Murray Flag. But then, others argue that the RMSN Co adopted the River Murray Flag as its house flag, not vice versa.
Tim Fatchen, 12 May 2001

This version is described in Flags of Australia [vau83] as simply the "Murray River Flag", as opposed to the "Murray River Flag (South Australia)". The chart also states that the flag can "still be seen flying from some Murray River Craft today" and suggests that the design was influenced by the National Colonial Flag and the NSW Merchant Flag.
Jonathan Dixon, 15 September 2001

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