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United Kingdom: regulations for blue ensigns

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[UK naval reserve ensign] by Graham Bartram

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Regulations concerning the use of the Blue Ensign

I have accumulated some information on this subject from the Public Record Office. Here is a summary:

In 1864 it was announced that a British merchant ship would be allowed to fly the plain Blue Ensign providing that the ship's master was an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and the crew contained a specified number of reservists. Ships were to carry two guns for drill purposes, but this requirement was modified in 1865, and abandoned in 1866. The necessary number of reservists in the crew was one quarter of the crew, increased to one third when guns were made optional and reduced to master plus ten in 1866. Permission to fly the Blue Ensign was in the form of a warrant, issued in the name of the ship by the Registrar General of Seamen, for one voyage only.

1884. The warrant was made personal to the master and effective for subsequent voyages providing that the crew requirements were fulfilled.

Masters who were on the Retired List of the Royal Navy became entitled to apply for the Blue Ensign, and reserve obligations were eased so that more seamen qualified as reservists. In the same year Admiralty subvented liners that could be fitted with guns for use as Armed Merchant Cruisers became entitled to fly the Blue Ensign with no conditions relating to the master or crew.

1903. Masters were allowed to retain their warrant if transferred to another ship in the same shipping company.

All Blue Ensign warrants were cancelled on 21 August 1914, and the system re-introduced, "with some reluctance" on 19 May 1919. The crew requirement was still master plus ten but subject to variation under the Quota System. This made the qualifying number of reservists in the crew proportional to the total number of reservists employed in foreign-going merchant ships, with a maximum of ten and a minimum of six.

"The system was not only a privilege, prized by shipping companies and masters, but also an inducement to men to join the reserves, as it helped them to obtain employment afloat. Eligible masters favoured a low quota number which made it easier for them to qualify for the warrant, while other officers and ratings wanted the number to be high, as it increased their value to the master, making it easier to obtain employment."
David Prothero, 31 August 2001

1916. When the Ministry of War Munitions requested a Blue Ensign in 1916 the Head of Naval Law Department wrote on the file that was raised.

'The Blue Ensign to be carried by all vessels employed in the service of any public office with the seal and badge of the office to which they belong' in the Order in Council of 9th July 1864, is considered to constitute a warrant from His Majesty within the meaning of Section 73(2) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, and to dispense with the need of a warrant from the Admiralty under the same section." 30th July 1916. [National Archive (PRO) ADM 1/8464/183]
David Prothero, 25 June 2003

From 1927 until 1938 the qualifying number was either 6 or 7. Between 1923 and 1939, 162 warrants were issued and 48 cancelled.

All Blue Ensign warrants were cancelled in 1939 (see explanatory note) and the system re-introduced on 24 January 1947, with a qualifying crew of master plus six. Only 38 warrants were issued between then and January 1951, with 11 cancelled.

1951. Qualifying crew reduced to master plus four. Commodores on Active or Retired List of RNR or Commonwealth Naval Reserves were entitled to Blue Ensign in their own right.

1952. Qualifying crew reduced to master and two if the crew were mainly Asian. Applications accepted from Home Trade vessels and the Fishing Fleet.

1953. No applications from Home Trade or Fishing Fleet. Time-expired RNR ratings could be counted towards qualifying number of reservists in crews.

1958. RNR merged with Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. RNR masters permitted to fly Blue Ensign if just one other officer was RNR.

1965. Captains RNR qualified to fly Blue Ensign in their own right.

David Prothero, 31 August 2001

During an investigation of the wreck of the Empress of Ireland in 1914, I have made a search to determine what flag was at the Empress stern during her last voyage: the red ensign or the blue ensign? I found at McGill University the regulations for the use of the naval reserve flag. I'm happy to share with you this information.

  1. The ship, if a sailing vesel, must not be of less burden than 800 register tons: and if a steamer, she must not be of less burden than 1000 tons gross register tonnage.
  2. The Officer Commanding and Chief Officer of the ship must be Officers of the Naval Reserve.
  3. These Officers must be bonČ fide officers of the ship appointed for the voyage and entered in the agreement accordingly.
  4. One-third part of the seamen of the crew must be belonging to the Royal Naval Reserve.
  5. Before hoisting the blue ensign the ship must be provided with an Admiralty Warrant.
Source: Regulations respecting the Blue Ensign, Prepared and issued by the Admiralty and Board of Trade, London. Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode, For Her Majesty's stationery office, 1865
Alain Vézina 25 August

In the past, warrants were not required for defaced Blue Ensigns of United Kingdom Government Departments or Public Bodies. They had general authorisation under the Order in Council of 9 July 1864, which abolished Royal Navy squadron colours. Similarly, warrants were not required for defaced Blue Ensigns of Colonial Governments, which had general authorisation under the Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865 (28 Vic., cap.14). All the warrants that I have seen (not very many) were extremely vague. Nothing about the appearance, size, or position of the badge. Just, "... with the badge of .............. on the fly thereof."
David Prothero, 6 June 2003

Cancellation of Blue Ensign warrants in 1939

This cancellation in 1939 sounds like the Admiralty didn't want merchant ships flying the blue ensign in time of war. Any idea why? Are there perhaps different laws of naval warfare that would put a ship flying the red duster into a different target category than one under the blue?
Joe Mcmillan, 31 August 2001

I suppose that as reservists were called-up there would have been no eligible RNR Blue Ensign warrants left, and it was easier to cancel them all at once than one by one. Yacht club special ensigns were also cancelled, possibly because it was thought that a vessel flying a Blue Ensign was more likely to be attacked. At the beginning of WWI (1914) "auxiliaries flew the Red Ensign to lessen their exposure to enemy attack. Experience showed that this made no difference and Blue Ensigns and Red Ensigns were flown indiscriminately. [ADM 1/8612/171]

In 1918 Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, (manned by civilians but Admiralty owned) were ordered to fly a Blue Ensign defaced with the Admiralty anchor, and Mercantile Fleet Auxiliaries (merchant ships chartered by the Admiralty) the Red Ensign. Admiralty Fleet Order 2575 of 8 August 1918. [ADM 1/8530/205]

1916. Ensign staffs had been removed on armed merchant ships in order to give the gun, a clear field of fire. It was proposed that the ensign staff should be removed from all merchant ships and that the ensign should be flown from the fore or main mast. There were objections that this would identify British ships to the enemy, that masters would ignore the instruction, and that it would unfairly give the impression that unarmed ships were armed. It was decided that staffs that had been removed would be replaced with hinged staffs as on naval vessels, and that when in action Armed Merchant Vessels should fly their ensign from the triatic stay, where the ensign should be kept bent-on for immediate hoisting. [MT 23/545]

31 Jan 1915. Admiralty to all ships in Home Waters.
Watch for submarines and display the ensign of a neutral country, or no colour, anywhere in the vicinity of the British Isles. British ensign must be displayed to British and Allied men of war. House Flags should not be flown and identity marks should be obscured.

12 Mar 1915. Director of Transport.
Instructions for Transports and Merchant Fleet Auxiliaries.
Long distance transports and those on regular routes around the United Kingdom should be supplied with neutral flags provided they carry valuable cargoes. Names may be obscured but false names should be painted only in exceptional circumstances decided by Transport Officer at port of departure. Numbers should be carried on boards and exposed only when approaching Examination Grounds or Allied Ports.

9 March 1916. Admiralty Secretary's Department wrote that Owners and Masters had been advised that the use of false colours and disguises by merchant vessels in order to escape capture was permissible. Exceptional methods of painting and conspicuous funnel marks not resembling those of neutrals should be avoided. Red Ensign must be hoisted when a British merchant vessel is ordered to stop by a British or Allied warship.
Recommended flags.
Bristol Channel and southern Irish Sea; Norwegian, Greek or Italian.
Liverpool, Glasgow and northern Irish Sea; Spanish or Norwegian.
East Coast north of Hartlepool; Scandinavian.
South of Hartlepool; Dutch or Spanish.
Cross Channel transports fly no colours.

In February 1916 the Admiralty collier Vittoria was stopped for flying the Spanish flag in an area designated for use of Scandinavian flag. The master explained that he had been supplied by the Admiralty with US, Norwegian, Danish and Argentine flags but preferred to hoist the Spanish flag as few Spaniards could speak German. [MT 23/516]

David Prothero, 2 September 2001

Blue Ensigns used by yacht clubs

Yacht clubs allowed to use the plain blue ensign are: To know to which one, you needed to see the burgee of the club (either on top of the mast, or under a spreader), or the club's initials under the name of the boat (if the burgee is not flying).

Jose C. Alegria, 1 September 2001

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