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Early Australian flags

Last modified: 2003-07-18 by
Keywords: australia | new south wales ensign | national colonial flag | murray river flag | victoria | eureka flag |
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The 'New South Wales Ensign'/Federation Flag

[Federation Movement] by Jorge Candeias

A White Ensign with an overall blue St George's cross with five stars, sometimes four stars, sometimes possibly no stars, is variously called 'Australian Colours', 'Colonial Ensign', and 'New South Wales Ensign'. It was definitely used at sea in the 1880's, but apparently as an unofficial merchant ensign.
David Prothero, 30 April 1998


Undoubtedly the most popular early 'national' flag was the Australian Federation Flag (AAF), which was regarded as the unofficial flag of Australia for nearly 70 years. Indeed, so popular was this flag that it was one of the flag designs officially submitted to the Imperial authorities for possible selection as the Australian National Flag in 1901...

The AAF was originally designed as the proposed New South Wales (NSW) Ensign in 1831 by Captain John Nicholson, one of the designers of the National Colonial Flag. Captain Nicholson was the son of a Bermondsey baker in England and later joined the Royal Navy and fought in the Napoleonic Wars. He eventually emigrated to Australia, where his past naval experience led to his gaining the position of Harbour Master of Sydney.

According to Australian vexillologist Tony Burton, the NSW Ensign seems to have been widely used. This is not surprising, because, as Burton says, New South Wales at that time included both Victoria and Queensland, and consequently the colony of New South Wales extended across the entire eastern seaboard, thereby constituting most of colonial Australia. Thus, the NSW Ensign became known over time as the 'Australian Flag' or the 'Australian Ensign'.

The 'Australian Ensign' ultimately became the symbol of the federation movement, which gained momentum in the 1880s and 1890s, and was used by such groups as the Australian Natives Association and the Australian Federation League. The League's slogan was 'One people - one destiny - one flag'.

The AFF [Autralian First Flag] (...) was subject to some variation depending on the manufacturer. Sometimes the cross was dark blue and sometimes light blue, and often the stars had five points instead of eight and occasionally they were differently positioned on the arms of the cross.

The AFF was so popular and so identified with Australia that it was the national symbol used on the official invitation to the inaugural celebrations of the new Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901. It was also used extensively, along with the Union Jack, throughout the federation celebrations and was still flown in Australia in the 1920s, well after the official adoption of the current national flag in 1903.
David Cohen (quoting [fol96]), 10 May 1998


The flag was referred to in a Crux Australis article as "Australia's Forgotten Flag" (Issue no. 36 Oct 1992). The design was first recorded in 1832 and it was widely used in New South Wales as a local shipping ensign until 1883 when the British Admiralty banned its continued use at sea. The design was revived as a land flag in the late 1880's by political groups supporting federation of the colonies and it was used as an unofficial national flag in parts of Australia until the current flag was adopted in 1903. Examples of the flag exist in a variety of design details - dark blue or light blue cross, 4, 5or 6 stars of 5, 6, 7 or 8 points arranged centrally or at edges of the crosses.
ralph kelly, 1998-DEC-14


The so-called Australian Federation Flag, widely flown in the 19th century in the lead up to (and after) federation. Never official, but it did feature prominently in federation celebrations and was submitted to the British Admiralty as a proposal (along with the current flag) for Australia's National Flag. Has anyone ever seen one flying anywhere? Not neccessarily original ones, but recreations? IMHO it's quite a nice flag indeed.
dylan crawfoot, 1999-FEB-03


This came up a few months ago when someone saw it; but only on a T-shirt.

There is a picture of the Federation Flag, as it appeared on invitations to the Inaugural Celebrations, on page 78 of Smith [smi75b] with an inaccurate caption which reads, "The Commonwealth of Australia had no official flag when it came into being on 1 January 1901, although unofficially the British Union Jack and Eureka Stockade flag were combined."

It can't be a combination of the UJ and the Eureka flag since the "Federation Flag" already existed in 1832 as the NSW Ensign, while the Eureka flag wasn't devised until 1854. See Nicholson Flag Chart, Sydney 1832 in Crux Australis No.36.
david prothero, 1996-FEB-06


Victoria colony

[Victoria colony flag] by Al Fisher Jr

This image is from trading cards manufactured by the American Tobacco Company circa 1910. I'm not sure if at least one of these (Victoria) existed. Unfortunately, I don't have the proper reference material at home to check it out.
al fisher, jr 1997-JUL-14


National Colonial Flag of 1823-4

Crampton in Flag wrote: "The first flag to carry the four stars of the Southern Cross was the National Colonial Flag of 1823-4, which placed them on the red cross of the British White Ensign."

But Caley in Flag of Stars has: "They sent to the Lords of the Admiralty a design for 'a National Colonial Flag for Australia' and received official approval. That first 'flag of stars' in Australia's history was a white flag charged with the red cross of St George, having in each corner a star to symbolize the Southern Hemisphere under the constellation of the Southern Cross."

I interpret the descriptions as two quite different flags.
david prothero, 1998-MAY-12


Captain John Nicholson and Captain John Bingle made the first recorded attempt to design a 'national' flag for Australia in 1823-1824. The flag, known as the National Colonial Flag, had a white ground charged with the red cross of St George and bore four white stars, one on each arm of the cross. Evidently, some time later, someone added a fifth star to the centre of the cross to represent the number of Australian Colonies. This was met with outrage by Bingle, who recorded in his 1881 memoirs, "the Illustrated Retrospect of the Present Century," that no such representation was ever intended.

He wrote that "Sydney in those days was Australia!" and so there were no other colonies to represent. Thus, he said, anyone adding another star to symbolise another colony was moved by "American Notions" and had not comprehended the original intention, which was simply to represent "the emblem of our Hemisphere THE GREAT SOUTHERN CROSS".

And, indeed, it is claimed that this was the first Australian flag to contain a representation of the Southern Cross.

According to Bingle's memoirs, the design of the National Colonial Flag was approved by the Lords of the Admiralty and accepted as an official Australian flag by Sir Thomas Brisbane, who was the sixth Governor of New South Wales. However, despite Bingle's assertions of official recognition, no evidence has as yet come to light to support his claims.

In any event, the flag never gained the support of the Australian people, primarily becasue while it was representative of those of English descent by virtue of containing the St George cross, it ignored the Irish and the Scots.
david cohen, 1998-MAY-13


There appears to have been 6 or 7 somewhat similar flags, quite apart from variations in manufacture as noted from Carol Foley's [fol96] book.

To quote from Mr. Crampton's flag book in the Eyewitness Guides series:

The first flag to carry the four stars of the Southern Cross was the National Colonial Flag of 1823-24, which placed them on the red cross of the British White Ensign. In 1831 the New South Wales ensign appeared, very similar to the Commonwealth Flag, but with stars of eight points. In due course this became the 'Federation' flag." There is a photograph of this flag; blue St.George's cross, 5 stars, 5 points, one point at the 12 o'clock position.

Another book lists 2 versions of the National Colonial Flag and 2 versions of the Federation flag without specifying the differences.

There was also a flag used in 1987 when a replica of the First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth to Sydney. The 'Bounty' wore as a jack a modified Australian Colonial Flag, with a pre-1801 Union Flag in the canton and the addition of a star at the join of the overall cross to represent 'Sirius', the flagship of the First Fleet.
david prothero, 1997-JUNE-14


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, 1998-MAY-12


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, 1998-MAY-13


The Eureka Flag

The Southern Cross, those five stars which were shining over this land before it was even formed, featured in literature as early as the 13th Century, when the Italian writer Dante (1265-1321) mentioned it in his work: Purgatorio, which was part of the Paradisio-Inferno-Purgatorio trilogy.

Dante must have been told of this cross in the South and it must have been so low on the horizon, because the fifth star now known as Epsilon, the faintest of the five, was not mentioned.

Amerigo Vespucci recorded having seen "four magnificent stars'' in 1502 and then in 1515, Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed with Magellan on mankind's first voyage around the world, wrote of "a wonderful cross, most glorious of all the constellations in the heavens".

The cross was finally defined as a separate constellation in 1679 when French astonomer Augustine Royer first coined the term: Crux Australis - Southern Cross.

To the four brightest stars of this Southern Cross, Dante in Purgatorio, attributed the admirable virtues of Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude.

The names of the stars as featured on the present Australian flag, are the spectacularly-imaginative: A, B, C, D and E, the first five letters of the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon.

That Italy's most famous writer should name the stars, continues the remarkable multicultural history of The Eureka Flag _ Eureka being Greek for the exclamation "I have found it!".

It was designed by a Canadian digger called Lieutenant Ross (who died defending the Eureka Stockade on Sunday, December 3, 1854) and it was made, according to German Frederick Vern (who first moved the diggers burn their licences) by "two English ladies".

The leader of the diggers at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat in December, 1854, was an Irishman called Peter Lalor (MLC 1855-56, MLA 1856-57, 1874-89, Speaker 1880-89).

The first digger to be acquitted in Melbourne after the Eureka stockade battle was a black American named John Josephs.

Members of the Independent Californian Rangers' Revolver Brigade helped defend the stockade and the six recognised leaders at Eureka (apart from Lalor and Vern), were Irishman Timothy Hayes, Welshman John Humffray (also elected to Parliament), George Black, an Englishman and Kennedy, a Scot.

Italian Raffaello Carboni, later elected a Member of the Local Court at Ballarat, was one of the 13 Eureka prisoners.

Henry Lawson later wrote "20 minutes freed Australia at Eureka long ago" and American writer Mark Twain, described this lost struggle against tyranny as "another instance of a victory won by a lost battle".

In the dark, early hours of that Sunday, when only 120 of the previous night's 1500 volunteers were still present at the stockade, the English Queen's soldiers and police troopers attacked and 22 diggers were killed, more than 100 were imprisoned and the bullet-ridden Eureka flag was torn down and dragged through the dust.

This same flag is now at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

It must be about the only original flag in the world.
sue flavel, 1998-NOV-4

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