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United Kingdom: ensigns

Last modified: 2004-06-19 by
Keywords: united kingdom | union jack | civil ensign | naval ensign | naval reserve ensign | red ensign | white ensign | blue ensign | yellow ensign | meteor flag |
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The Red Ensign:

[UK civil ensign] by Martin Grieve

See also:

The Red Ensign

  1. For the flying of ensigns, the law is as follows:

    Subject to subsection (2) below, a British ship, other than a fishing vessel, shall hoist the red ensign or other proper national colours--

    1. on a signal being made to the ship by one of Her Majesty's ships (including any ship under the command of a commissioned naval officer); and
    2. on entering or leaving any foreign port; and
    3. in the case of ships of 50 or more tons gross tonnage, on entering or leaving any British port.
  2. Subsection (1)(c) above does not apply to a small ship (as defined in section 1(2)) registered under Part II.
The 1995 Merchant Shipping Act is not very well drafted as it does not say anything of Commonwealth ports (in English law "foreign" excludes Commonwealth). The Canadian version is more informative:

"The Canadian Shipping Act states that a Canadian ship shall hoist the flag on a signal being made to her by one of Her Majesty's Canadian ships, or any ship in the service of and belonging to the Government of Canada; on entering or leaving any foreign port; and if of 50 tonnes gross tonnage or upwards, on entering or leaving any Commonwealth port."

Obviously, maritime practice is to fly ensigns more often than this. How often is up to you.
Andrew Yong, 21 August 2003

In its original form the Red Ensign came into use as the Civil Ensign of England c1650 (having been previously adopted by the English Royal Navy in 1625), and received official sanction as such in a Royal Proclamation of 18 September 1674. As far as is known the Scottish merchant marine also flew a red ensign (although charged with the cross of St Andrew), but this came to an end with the Act of Union of 1707, after which the Civil Ensigns of both countries were charged with the Union Flag. In its present form, however, the Red Ensign dates from the change to the Union of 1 January 1801, it was largely given into the care of the merchant service by an Order in Council dated 9 July 1864, and was last regulated by Article 4 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.
Christopher Southworth, 3 December 2003

Perrin writing in "British Flags" page 132, 'From that date (1824) the red ensign alone has been the legal national colours of a British merchant vessel.'
David Prothero, 5 September 2003

The 1894 Merchant Shipping Act appears to confirm Perrin when it states that: "The Red Ensign usually worn by the merchant ships, without any defacement or modification whatever, is hereby declared to be the proper national colours for all ships or boats belonging to any British Subject".
Christopher Southworth, 5 September 2003

The red ensign is in informally, even affectionately, named the "red duster". There does not seem to be any agreement on how the expression arose. My theory is that Red Ensigns were hoisted and left until they were so dirty and tattered that they looked more like dusters than flags, and/or, because on British ships old flags were often used as rags before being thrown away.
David Prothero, 13 October 2003

I have not come across any reference to a (or the) "red duster" before about 1880, so I was wondering whether it had anything to do with its use by steam vessels? I have never heard the term used in anything other than in an affectionate way, although thinking of some I've seen at sea over the years 'faded red rag' or 'just recognizable as a flag' would be factually accurate descriptions.
Christopher Southworth, 13 October 2003


Construction details of the Red Ensign

[UK civil ensign] by Martin Grieve

The Civil or Merchant ensign, also affectionately known as the "red duster" has overall ratio of 1:2 with the Union occupying one quarter of the field and placed in the canton. The specification given here is based upon figures published by the Ministry of Defence in BR20 (Flags of All Nations), but these are recommendations only and do not have the force of law.
Christopher Southworth, 3 December 2003


Merchant Navy Day

Merchant Navy Day" is a fairly recent innovation and the first was (if I remember rightly) 3 September 2000.
Christopher Southworth, 22 April 2004

Merchant Navy day is not a "compulsory" flag flying day, its optional. The red ensign is the appropriate flag to fly on the day as that is the flag of the Merchant Navy.
Graham Bartram, 23 April 2004


Meteor Flag

What is the origin of the term "meteor flag" as a nickname for the British red ensign? The oldest reference that I've run across is in the poem "Ye Mariners of England" by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844):

The meteor flag of England
Shall yet terrific burn
Till danger's troubled night depart
And the star of peace return . . . "
"Meteor" implies the red color, but I wonder of Campbell meant this as a reference to the British flag in general, rather than the red ensign in particular. The imagery seems to be of the meteor of war vs. the star of peace. I don't know the date of this poem, but it was written after 1805 because it mentions the death of Nelson. I've often seen the name "meteor flag" used with reference to Revolutionary War-era flags, and I wonder if this might be anachronistic.
Peter Ansoff, 19 April 2004

Was there not an HMS Meteor in action during the Napoleonic wars? Could there be a connection?
James Dignan, 22 April 2004

I thought "Meteor Flag" was used for a flag identical to the Red Ensign used by land forces in the late 18th Century.
Nathan Lamm, 22 April 2004

Meteor flag is a curious term which has puzzled me since I came across it for the first time. It seems to be more widely used in USA than in Britain. I think that few in Britain would know what it meant. It may have been invented by Thomas Campbell, and applied retrospectively to the 18th century Red Ensign.
The website at http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem377.html has "Original text: The Morning Chronicle. London, 1801- . First publication date: 1801", but "Where Blake and mighty Nelson fell" does suggest later than 1805, unless the poem was revised.
Can anyone quote an 18th century use of 'meteor flag' ?
David Prothero, 22 April 2004

I've pulled the thread on the "Meteor flag" story a bit, and the results are interesting. Thomas Campbell's poem was originally published in the Morning Chronicle on March 18, 1801. The context was the dispatch of the British fleet to the Danish Sound, which raised the specter of a war with Russia. According to his DNB entry, Campbell was in Altona, Germany, at the time, and returned to Britain with other expatriates aboard the "Royal George." (What color ensign would she have been flying?) [See response below.]

The modern version of the poem that appears on all the web sites has been significantly revised from the original. The most obvious change is the reference to Nelson -- the original line was "Where Blake (the Boast of Freedom) fell." Another is that the refrain "And stormy winds do blow" was "And the stormy Tempests blow" in the original. There was also a small but significant change in the verse about the Meteor flag, which I'll get to in a second.

So, who made the changes? I'm still pursuing that question, but there's a very interesting possibility that it was the American writer Washington Irving. Irving prepared Thomas' poetry for American release, and it was published in the US in at least two editions in 1810 and 1815. Irving was a well-known figure in literary circles, and one would expect that the books were widely read in the USA. This might well account for the fact that the term "Meteor flag" became well-known in the USA but not in Britain, even though it referred to a British flag.

The American publication dates are significant because they came at a time when relations between Britain and the USA were antagonistic (Irving served in the American army during the War of 1812). In that context, it's interesting that, in the original version, the verse referring to the Meteor flag started "The Meteor Flag of England/Must yet terrific burn," while the modern version reads ". . ./Shall yet terrific burn." The "Must" hints at the need for a firm defensive response to the potential (Russian) enemy, while the "Shall" suggests an aggressive British attitude (as perceived by someone who was an enemy of Britain?).
Peter Ansoff, 14 May 2004

What color ensign would she have been flying? - It would have depended upon when it happened. For the first half of 1801 the Royal George was Hyde Parker's flag ship, at which time he was an Admiral of the Blue, so a Blue Ensign. After June she was a private ship and would have flown a Red Ensign.
David Prothero, 17 May 2004

The information about the revisions to the poem is interesting. In Britain the poem is about as well known as you would expect, but the 'meteor flag' phrase has just not gained currency. The inspiration for the expression probably came from John Milton's "Paradise Lost", first printed 1667, Line 536.
"The imperial ensign, which, full high advanced, Shone like a meteor, streaming to the wind."
To confuse the matter slightly, I noticed the following in an editorial about the royal standard in The Globe of 10 February 1902. "The Meteor Flag of England is the Union Jack."
David Prothero, 17 May 2004

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