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United Kingdom: Sledge Flags

Last modified: 2004-06-12 by rob raeside
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Sledge flags were the idea of Captain Horatio Austin. He was in charge an expedition, mounted by the Royal Navy in 1850, to look for signs of Sir John Franklin's expedition of 1845. There had been no news of Franklin, who set out to find a North West Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, since the summer of 1847. The search was in the general area of Prince of Wales Island and Lancaster Sound, and included some journeys over the ice using sledges hauled by seamen. "To retain esprit de corps, and a naval atmosphere, each sledge was given a name, motto and flag."

"It was a grand sight to see the whole fifteen sledges, loaded and manned, marching in two long lines over the ice morning after morning, with the frowning cliffs of Griffith Island as a background. There was Captain Ommanney's Maltese Cross on a red field, the blue cross of McClintock, the St George's Cross of Bradford, Osborn's white cross on blue, the arm with a pierced heart of Mecham, the sawn tree of Hamilton, and many more."
[Life of Sir Leopold McClintock by C.R.Markham]

The flags were two feet by three feet (60cms x 90cms).

Details of these flags are derived mainly from an article "Sledge Flags" by H. Gresham Carr in the Mariner's Mirror January 1941, and "Royal Navy" (volumes 6 and 7) by William Laird Clowes.
David Prothero, 22 December 2003

"Much information concerning the construction and equipment of sledges is to be found in the Journals of certain polar explorers. Indeed, they contain the smallest details, but, in almost every case, little or no mention is made of sledge flags. This will come as no surprise to the student of flags, for he is well aware that this  particular branch of the science of heraldry has been sadly neglected by all but a few." H.Gresham Carr, who wrote the article 'Sledge Flags', and was editor of Warne's 'Flags of the World' from 1953 to 1961.
David Prothero, 23 December 2003

Flags of 1850 Expedition (search for Franklin)

Captain Erasmus Ommanney, sledge Reliance

[Captain Erasmus Ommanney, sledge Reliance] by Martin Grieve

Francis Leopold McClintock, sledge Perseverance

[Francis Leopold McClintock, sledge Perseverance] by Martin Grieve

George Fredrick Mecham, sledge Succour

[George Fredrick Mecham, sledge Succour] [Colours not known] by Martin Grieve

[Mecham arms]

The flag design of Mecham's flag as shown here differs slightly from what it most probably was. It comes from the Mecham crest and features a hand-held dagger tranfixing a human heart, emitting blood, rather than the arrow. The scan shows the Mecham Arms with crest; from which Lt. Mecham designed his flag. Note the drops of blood from heart. I expect the colour to be similar. The arms awarded to his father, Capt.George Mecham 3rd Dragoons, in 1812 (George Mecham of Garrycastle, co.Westmeath, Ireland). Lt Mecham became a  Commander after these expeditions, but died in Honolulu, in command of HMS Vixen, in 1858, aged only 30 years.
Mick Mecham, 3 April 2004

Lieutenant Sherard Osborn, sledge True Blue

[Lieutenant Sherard Osborn, sledge True Blue] by Martin Grieve

Richard Vesey Hamilton, sledge Adventure

[Richard Vesey Hamilton, sledge Adventure] [Colours not known] by Martin Grieve

This is based on a description, "and the sawn tree of Hamilton", using the drawing in Parker's Heraldry with the coronet and motto removed.
David Prothero, 22 December 2003

See also: scan of reference pages from 1857 book of expedition, written by Resolute's Master.
Provided by Mick Mecham, 3 April 2004

Flag of 1852 Expedition (search for Franklin)

[Flag of 1852 Expedition] by Martin Grieve

Only one flag from the 1852-53 five-sledge expedition which was commanded by Captain Henry Kellet. Francis McClintock again, with a sledge named 'Star of the North'.
David Prothero, 23 December 2003

Flag of 1857-1859 Expedition (search for Franklin)

[Flag of 1857-1859 Expedition] by Martin Grieve

The Admiralty lost interest in continuing to search for any signs of Sir John Franklin's expedition after silver cutlery from the expedition was found by Eskimos, and the 1857 expedition was financed by his widow. McClintock, now a captain, was in charge of the steam yacht 'Fox', which flew the Blue Ensign of the Royal Harwich Yacht Club. Yellow lion rampant in the fly; see Jose Alegria's web-site -

McClintock's sledge was named 'The Lady Franklin', and the flag included the Franklin motto: Nisu.

David Prothero, 23 December 2003

Flag of 1875 Expedition (to North Pole)

Flag of Albert Hastings Markham.

[Flag of 1875 Expedition] by Martin Grieve

Expedition to the North Pole, commanded by Captain George Nares. One sledge reached 83 degrees 20 minutes, the nearest to the North Pole then achieved.

Francis McClintock was not directly involved this time, but was Admiral-Superintendent at Portsmouth where the expedition fitted out. On the suggestion of Sir Clements Markham, Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, the sledge flags were designed as standards. The only one of four known from this expedition is that of Sir Clements' cousin, Albert Hastings Markham. He is remembered for designing the New Zealand flag, and for ramming and sinking the flagship of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet. 42 inches by 12 inches (107cm x 30cm)

After this most sledge flags tended to be of a similar style; the personal flag of a sledge commander, rather than the flag of the sledge, or its crew. Early examples had rounded ends, but later the ones were pointed.

David Prothero, 24 December 2003

Robert Falcon Scott's First Antarctic Expedition, 1901 - 1904

Royal Geographic Society pennant

[Pennant of the Royal Geographical Society] by Martin Grieve

Pennant of the Royal Geographical Society which was presented to the expedition ship Discovery in Dundee. The badge in the image is black, with some detailing, omitted as the correct colour is not known.
David Prothero, 24 December 2003

Robert Scott's flag

[Robert Scott's flag] by Martin Grieve

Ernest Henry Shackleton's flag

[Ernest Henry Shackleton's flag] by Martin Grieve

From Scott's 1901 expedition, and presumably Shackleton's own expeditions. "Red stripe charged with three buckles lozengy, tongues upwards, palewise. On red canton a yellow cross humettee" Flag of Ernest Henry Shackleton, who was Scott's Third Lieutenant. Shackleton led his own Antarctic Expeditions in 1908 and 1914.

Scott's 1910 Expedition

Captain Scott's sledging flag is made of silk and measures 30.5 cm x 88 cm. It is a standard with the Cross of St George nearest the hoist, with the remainder of the flag divided horizontally with two stripes (cream above blue), the legend 'Stretched wings towards the South' worked in blue on the cream stripe, above a pair of
predominantly blue wings supporting a small green ball overlapping the join between the two stripes and the edge of the pennant worked with twisted cream and blue cord. From
David Prothero, 29 December 2003

Shackleton's 1914 Antarctic Expedition

James Wordie's flag

[James Wordie's flag] by Martin Grieve

Flag of James Wordie, geologist on Shackleton's 1914 - 16 expedition.

This flag was made from photographs of a video of the television programme The Antiques Roadshow. The flag was valued at between twenty-five and thirty thousand pounds sterling. More information on sledge flags can be found at
David Prothero, 27 December 2003

Congrats for the very good likeness of the James Wordie Sledging flag. I have just had it restored and you will be pleased to hear it is not going to be sold (the Antiques Roadshow had a ludicrously high value).
William Wordie Stancer, 17 March 2004