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Origins of the New Zealand Flag (1898-1903)

Last modified: 2013-10-10 by ian macdonald
Keywords: nz | blue ensign | stars: southern cross | disc (white) | stars: 4 | star: 5 points (red) |
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New Zealand Signalling Blue and Red Ensigns (1899)

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

[ Signalling Flag 1899 ] image by Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 13 June 2010

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 red ensign would have been used by NZ registered merchant ships, as opposed to government ships. It was replaced by the current red ensign - no disc, white stars) in 1903, to match the disc-less national flag/blue ensign confirmed in 1901/1902.
Jonathan Dixon, 28 February 2010

Is there any record for the series on the origins of the NZ flag, and can it be confirmed that they have the red and blue ensigns undergoing the same process? While the 1869 NZ blue ensign was authorised by warrant, in 1903 a warrant was given only for the Australian red ensign, not for the blue.
Jonathan Dixon, 16 June 2010

I have extracted and shortened the relevant sections of "The New Zealand Ensign" by W.A. Glue, produced by the Historical Publications Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1965"

On 10 January 1867 a warrant signed by the Governor, Sir George Grey, directed by notice in the New Zealand Gazette that all vessels belonging to or permanently in the service of the colony, but not commissioned as vessels of war, should wear the blue ensign with the letters N.Z. in red in the fly. Each letter to extend over an area of not less than eight inches high by eight inches broad, and to have its lines not less than two inches broad, and surrounded by a margin of white not less than one inch in breadth, thus making the letters ten inches high over all, and four inches broad in the lines over all. These dimensions were for a 10 ft ensign, and were to vary in proportion with the dimensions of a larger or smaller flag.

Proclamation in the New Zealand Gazette of 23 October 1869, by which the Governor, Sir George Bowen, thereby appointed that 'the seal or badge in future to be worn, in accordance with the Queen's Regulations, as the distinctive badge of the Colony, by all vessels belonging to or permanently employed in the service of the Colonial Government of New Zealand, shall be the Southern Cross,  as represented in the Blue Ensign by four five-pointed red stars in the fly, with white borders. The Governor further ordered 'that the temporary badge, consisting of the letters N.Z., at present in use in Colonial vessels, shall from and after this date be discontinued.'

The blue ensign, with the Union jack in the first quarter and the Southern Cross in the fly, came to be recognised as New Zealand's national flag. Officially it was a maritime flag, to be flown only by Government vessels; it was not permitted to be flown over forts and other military installations on land, which usually flew the Union jack.

Merchant ships continued to fly the red ensign 'without any defacement or modification'. The British Merchant Shipping (Colours) Act of 1889 had declared the red ensign, unadorned, to be 'the proper national colours for all ships and boats belonging to any subject of Her Majesty'.

The final report of a committee to revise the International Code of Signals was received in New Zealand in March 1898. To distinguish colonial merchant ships the Board of Trade proposed the inclusion of a white disc in the fly of the red ensign, with the badge of the colony inside this circle. The Nautical Adviser to the New Zealand Marine Department recommended that a similar white disc should also be added to the blue ensign. The New Zealand Government agreed, and suggested in its dispatch to the Colonial Office that on both the blue and red ensigns the four red stars of the Southern Cross 'should in future be placed in a white circle'.' Admiralty approved these changes on 7 February 1899 and issued a warrant, subsequently published in the New Zealand Gazette of 23 November 1899, authorising merchant vessels registered in New Zealand to wear the badge of the colony on the red ensign.

The flag with the disc, introduced on 1 January 1900 was a signal flag, intended for use at sea or in foreign ports, but unhappily its use spread on shore. Flags with the disc were flown from public buildings and were sometimes used by commercial houses for advertising purposes. 'I think it should be clearly understood,' wrote the Hon. William Hall-Jones, in the dual capacity of Minister for Public Works and Minister of Marine, to the Hon. Joseph Ward, Colonial Secretary, on 27 July 1900, 'that the New Zealand Flag is that which has been used for so many years (without the disc) and that the blue and red ensign with the white disc are simply signal flags used to indicate that the vessel is a Colonial one. If you concur in this kindly instruct officers in charge of Public Buildings accordingly.'

Questions were asked in the House. 'By whose authority and for what reason' had the New Zealand blue ensign 'been altered by the insertion of a white disc in the blue field?' the Prime Minister, the Right Hon. R. J. Seddon, was asked on 6 July 1900. The Prime Minister replied that the change had been caused by the British Board of Trade, and that the Government had agreed to fall into line with what had been done by the other colonies. Commercial houses, he said, 'were commencing to injure our flag by using it for advertising purposes . . . . he would pass an Act making it illegal for the flag to be used for any such purposes.'

The New Zealand Ensign Bill was introduced on Friday, 13 July 1900. It had its second and third reading on 19 September 1900. In its passage through the House the Bill acquired a preamble. 'Whereas, by Proclamation under the hand of His Excellency the Governor, dated the 23rd day of October, 1869, it was declared,' in accordance with the Queen's Regulations made under the provisions of an Act of the Imperial Parliament entitled "The Colonial Defence Act, 1865," that the flag hereinafter described should have the distinctive seal or badge of the Colony of New Zealand for all vessels belonging to or permanently employed in the service of the colony. And whereas the said flag has since been in general use for the purpose aforesaid, and also as the recognised ensign of the colony: And whereas it is desirable that the same flag should be by law established as the ensign of the colony for all purposes.
Mr Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary, conveyed the objections of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to the proposed use of the blue ensign 'for all purposes', as stated in the preamble to the Bill. This would permit New Zealand merchant vessels, however small, to fly the blue ensign "as a right", and in the Admiralty's view 'would doubtless lead to claims from the mercantile marine of this country and of other colonies to a similar privilege'.'

The New Zealand Government agreed to meet these objections. It undertook to modify the Bill 'by providing that the ensign may 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 Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty approved this amendment, and on 14 September Mr Chamberlain advised the Earl of Ranfurly that he would defer submitting the Bill to His Majesty in Council pending the enactment of an amending measure. The New Zealand Ensign Act,1900, acclaimed by the New Zealand Parliament almost exactly 12 months before, thus remains on statute book, 'in a state of suspended animation', as one member described it, as a Bill which did not receive royal assent.

Its successor, the New Zealand Ensign Act, 1901, was introduced in the House on 21 October 1901 and passed on 5 November. A speaker claimed that the Southern Cross on the ensign was wrongly shown ('according to his observations of the heavens,) with four stars instead of five, as on the Australian flag. The Prime Minister admitted that 'the small fifth star . . . was sometimes discernible', but added that it was not 'as a rule' placed on the flag.

The New Zealand Ensign Act, 1901, was reserved for the signification of His Majesty pleasure thereon. This was given on 24 March1902 and on 9 June the Governor signed the proclamation notifying His Majesty's assent; published in the New Zealand Gazette 12 June 1902.

In 1903 the white disc was removed from the fly of the red ensign and four five-pointed white stars, "without any defacement or modification, substituted. Authority for this change was given by the Shipping and Seamen Act,1903, which  declared the red ensign with the Southern Cross "to be the proper colours for all merchant ships registered in New Zealand."

In September 1907 New Zealand became a dominion. Minor changes in the wording of the New Zealand Ensign Act, 1901, were made necessary by this change in status, and these were given effect to in the Shipping and Seamen Act, 1908. The 1908 Act was in turn replaced by the Shipping and Seamen Act, 1952, which is at present (1965) in force.
David Prothero, 16 June 2010

Blue-disk version

[ National Flag of New Zealand ] image by Keir Heath, 16 September 2013

The stars are within a blue circle as opposed to the white one usually depicted for the New Zealand signalling flag instituted by the International Code of Signals in 1899, but what else could this be?
Keir Heath, 16 September 2013

The blue disc with white edged red stars probably did come from a New Zealand Red Ensign used 1899 to 1903. A drawing of this ensign in the Flag Section of the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 1966, shows a Red Ensign with four red stars on a blue disc. It is likely that the Admiralty Warrant authorising the ensign was not specific about the design of the badge, but merely called it the badge of the Colony of New Zealand. This raised the question, what was the badge of New Zealand, was it just four red stars, or was it four red stars on a blue ground ? It appears that some thought that it was the former, in which case the stars were on a white disc, but some thought it was the latter, in which case the stars were on a blue disc.
David Prothero, 20 September 2013


The New Zealand Ensign Bill

[ National Flag of New Zealand ] image 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


 
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