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United Kingdom: Use and Status of the Flag: Part 2

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Last modified: 2012-10-08 by rob raeside
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[Flag of the United Kingdom] 1:2 | image by Clay Moss, 16 December 2006

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Use of the Red Ensign as the National Flag

It was noted that in Photographic Memories of Scotland (1995) many Scottish scenes from the period between 1890 and 1905 show flags in them. I noticed in several photos that red ensigns were flown from buildings ashore. I discovered that there seemed to be a break at the year 1900. In no photo prior to 1900 did I see a red ensign flown ashore, only Union Jacks. However in the 1900 and later photos, all flags flown ashore that I could identify were red ensigns, and NO Union Jacks. The pair of photos that brought this immediately to my attention were two of the same scene in different years. The scene is the Argyll Hotel in Dunoon. In a photo dated 1897 the Argyll Hotel and two nearby buildings are all flying Union Jacks. On the same page, in a photo dated 1904, the same three buildings are all flying red ensigns. Why are red ensigns being flown ashore? And why are they flown apparently to the exclusion of the Union Jack from 1900 to 1905 in these photos?

Devereaux Cannon

In 1902 - just about when it appears the Union Jack was eliminated from the scenes in the book described above - it seems that moves were taken to in fact grant it at least semi-official recognition as Britain's National Flag. This transition seems to have started with Edward VII's coronation, and the preparations therefore. In the spring of 1902, St Michael's Church, Folkestone, purchased a new Royal Standard, (for the not inconsequential price of ten pounds), with the full expectation that as loyal subjects they would be allowed to fly it in conjunction with the coronation's festivities. Unfortunately, for the parishioners of St Michael's, the King issued the now well-known general prohibition against the use of His Royal Standard when he was not personally present. Upset at their apparent waste of good money, the Rector of St Michael's wrote to the Palace seeking an exception for his church. Not surprisingly, he was denied special dispensation, but the King's secretary, (Lord Francis Knolly), in an apparent attempt to ease the parish's disappointment, pointed out that " can always fly the Union Jack".

This correspondence was revealed in the London Times of 7 June 1902, (p. 12.), and apparently came as quite a surprise to many "in the know" for it seemed to have sparked quite a controversy, with a series of editorials and letters to the editor on the subject, running in the paper through to the end of the year. It is also worth noting, in this regard, that the respected journal "Notes and Queries" also had a spat of exchanges on the subject at about the same time. The debate centred around the question: what is the British National Flag?; with positions coalescing around the Red Ensign (since it is the private subject's national flag at sea); and the Union Flag, (based upon the King's Private Secretary's statement given to the Rector of St Michael's, quoted above). Those in favour of the Red Ensign's usage ashore, claimed that Lord Knolly's statement could only be considered a mere "obiter dictum", (i.e., an incidental remark providing no basis for decision); but supporters of the Union Flag suggested (and I think fairly) that "we may be sure that (his opinion) was not given lightly". He did, after all, speak for the King. Since this debate was in fact national - and included participants right across the UK - it seems reasonable to suggest that the owners (or at least decision-makers) for the Scottish hotels in the photographs (as well as, indeed, Scots in general) must have been aware of the debate. Since the debate was never really satisfactorily resolved, perhaps the owners or decision makers for these hotels (and the people flying flags in the other photos) once becoming aware of the debate, decided that the arguments proferred in favour of the red ensign, vice the union flag, made more sense to them, and as a result simply decided to switch flags.I would never bet my mortgage on this, however; but I am afraid that in the absence of a piece of evidence, in the mode of a "smoking gun" (such as an in-house memorandum specifically explicating the change), I fear that reasoned speculation, (such as I hope I have just presented) is all we have to go upon.

Glen Hodgins

Use at Sea

The Union Flag (union jack) is used in the following ways at sea:

  1. as a jack
  2. to signal a court-martial is in progress
  3. to indicate the presence of an admiral of the fleet
  4. when the monarch is on board the ship (see "Documented Uses with Monarch Aboard" below)

Joe McMillan, 4 June 2003

Documented Uses with Monarch Aboard

This statement might be true if applied only to merchant or other private vessels--anyone know the flag rules for a royal visit to a non-state-owned ship?
Joe McMillan, 4 June 2003

The flags which may legally be flown by a British merchant vessel are exactly defined (as we know) and the UJ is not amongst them? The presence of HM The Queen aboard a civil vessel would (I assume) mean it flying the Royal Standard as a matter of course, but the remaining flags should remain unaltered? If the rules for a royal visit aboard a vessel of Trinity House are anything to go by, the Royal Standard is the only flag which acknowledges HM's presence (although all allowed flags are flown including a jack whilst underway).
Christopher Southworth, 4 June 2003

When under way a naval ship flies a Union Jack at the bow if it is flying the Royal Standard, or if it is escorting a ship flying the Royal Standard. Merchant ships vary. When King George V went to France in 1923 on the Southern Railway Steamship 'Biarritz', Naval Stores supplied a White Ensign, a Royal Standard and an Admiralty Flag, but not a Union Jack. [ADM 1/8650/237]

In 1939 King George VI went to Canada in the RMS Empress of Australia. The Canadian Pacific House Flag was flown at the bow and the White Ensign at the stern. However when the SS Gothic was used for a Royal Tour of Australia in 1951 it was arranged that a White Ensign or a Red Ensign would be flown, as directed by the King; a Union Jack with the White Ensign, and the Company House Flag with the Red Ensign. Princess Elizabeth had to take the place of the King and the arranged procedure was followed, with Admiral Lambe advising which ensign should be flown. [ADM 1/25471]
David Prothero, 4 June 2003

The actual flags flown were:

Jack: house flag of Shaw Savill and Albion Line (which was almost identical to the NZ flag of the 1830s)
Foremast: Admiralty flag
Mizzenmast: Royal Standard
Ensign: Red Ensign

Also note that the year of the tour was in 1953-54
Miles Li, 4 June 2003

Confusion over the name of the parts of a flag was revealed in a 19th century trial

Admiralty Sessions, Old Bailey, Friday 25 April 1823. Solicitor's Department, Customs.
King versus Marinel Krans and Others.

H.M.Revenue Cutter 'Badger' in the service of the Customs Department encountered a vessel that was suspected of smuggling, and hoisted a red pendant and a Revenue Ensign as a signal that the vessel was to heave-to. When it did not, an unshotted gun was fired to draw attention to the signal. The vessel, which proved to be a cutter named 'Four Brothers', continued on its way and hoisted no colours. A shot was then fired into the 'Four Brothers', which returned the fire. After a three hour engagement, in the course of which one member of the Custom cutter's crew was killed, the 'Four Brothers' was boarded when off Dieppe and the crew called for quarter.

At the trial the prosecution had to show that the signal requiring a ship to stop, had been hoisted correctly. The relevant regulation was an Order in Council of 1 February 1817. Before firing, a Revenue Cutter should, "wear a pendant with a red field having a regal crown described thereon at the upper part next the mast", and, "for an ensign a red jack with a Union jack in a canton at the upper corner thereof next to the staff, with a regal crown described in the centre of the red jack."

The prosecution stated that before firing, a Revenue Pendant, having a red field with a crown next the mast, was hoisted at the masthead, and a Revenue Ensign, Union at the upper corner in a red field, at the peak-end.

Justice Park, and King's Advocate Jervis, questioned the Revenue Cutter's Commander, Henry Nazer, a Lieutenant in His Majesty's Navy, with a commission from the Excise Department.

Park. Describe what the field of the ensign was.
Nazer. The field was red.
Park. Have you any technical term for that in the navy ?
N. No. I should call it the Revenue Ensign.
Park. Is there any such thing in your naval description as a jack ?
N. Yes.
Park. Had it a jack ?
N. Yes, at the corner.
Jervis. What was the Union jack in ?
N. In the ensign.
Jervis. Have you any word to describe that ?
N. No.
Jervis. Have you such a word as a 'canton' ?
N. No.
Jervis. At what corner was it ?
N. The upper corner next to the peak.
Jervis. Is that what you call the staff ?
N. Yes, it should be.
Park. Tell us what it was, not what it should be.
N. It was next the peak; the upper corner of the ensign.
Jervis. What is the peak ?
N. The gaff of the main sail.

Pendant and ensign produced in court.
Park and Jervis question Badger's 1st Mate.

Park. Is that the ensign ?
1st Mate. Yes.
Park. Which would go next the mast ?
1st Mate. This part (the end containing the Union jack).
Park. Is there any regal crown there ?
1st Mate. Yes, in the centre.
Park. Do you know the word 'jack' at all ?
1st Mate. Yes.
Park. Which is the 'jack' ?
1st Mate. This (pointing to it).
Park. Just open that part again where the crown is in the ensign; what is that chequered thing in the middle ?
1st Mate. That is what we call the Union. This (pointing to the red part) is what we call the field.
Jervis. He does not know the term 'canton'. It is a term of heraldry. Are those the usual signals ?
1st Mate. Yes, they are.
Park. And you put them up before you fired the unshotted gun ?
1st Mate. Yes.

Gurney, prosecuting, and Brougham, defending, questioning John Ferrier,Vice-Admiral of the Red.

Gurney. You saw the jack displayed just now ?
Admiral. Yes.
G. Is that a red jack with the Union jack in a canton at the upper corner ?
Admiral. It is usually called a Red Ensign, the 'jack' is commonly called the 'canton'.
Judge. Is that an ensign; a red jack with a Union jack in a canton at the upper corner there, next the staff, and with a regal crown described in the centre of the red jack ?
Admiral. It is what is usually called a red ensign.
Judge. Does it bear that character ?
Admiral. Yes it does, it is the usual way in which ensigns are made.
Brougham. What is a canton ?
Admiral. It is generally understood as the upper part of the ensign, next to the staff, where the Union jack is fixed, attached to the ensign.
B. Is it not a part of the flag partitioned off by a separate division ?
Admiral. It is attached to it. It is what they call the Union jack, which forms the ensign, and is a quarter of the flag.
B. Is it not enclosed in lines of some different colour ?
Admiral. The Union jack is formed of different colours.
B. You say, if I understand you, that the ensign and Union jack is in the canton ?
Admiral. No, it is termed the canton.
B. The Union jack is called a canton of itself ?
Admiral. No, I do not mean to say that.
B. Is it in a canton ?
Admiral. Yes, it is in a canton.
B. Is the Union jack in a canton; is that the nature of the thing ?
Admiral. I do not exactly understand you.
B. You tell me the Union jack is in a canton.
Admiral. I tell you what is generally done.
B. Does that not imply that the Union jack is in a part called the canton ?
Admiral. I did not exactly understand before. The ensign is to be considered as composed of four cantons.
B. What do you understand by 'Union jack in a canton' ?
Admiral. As forming one part of the ensign. Supposing it divided into four parts, that in the upper part of it; and it is generally hoisted next the mast or ensign staff.
B. You would call those four parts the canton ?
Admiral. I suppose so. I do not know that it is so.
B. It appears that the jack is in one of the four cantons ?
Admiral. Yes.

Justice Park in summing up said.
"On the subject of the canton, which is an heraldic phrase and, which every person acquainted with the subject knows, forms a small district in that ensign separated from the rest and surrounded with crowns. That is the description in books of heraldry of what a canton is. Therefore I think upon that part of the case it is as well to relieve your minds from it at the outset."

Krans and the crew were acquitted by what the judge called 'a merciful jury', as the ship was foreign owned and more than half of the crew were foreign born. The seizure was made off Dieppe, which was within 'limit for natives' but beyond 'limit for foreigners'. Locally it was known, but not proved, that most of the crew were English simulating ignorance of the English language, and that the vessel's owner lived in Folkestone.
[National Archives (PRO) CUST 143/11]

David Prothero, 30 December 2008

Protocol for flying flags in an array

The Union Jack only goes in the centre of an odd number of flagpoles if the other poles are empty, or the central pole is taller than the others (quite common in Britain). Otherwise it is left to right as in the USA. We used to have a very complex centre, left of centre, right of centre, left of left of centre, right of right of centre, etc. A complete nightmare that no one understood so we scrapped it. Left to right is so much simpler and the general public can understand it. We also discourage flagpoles of different heights in the same stand as these make things so much more complex.
Graham Bartram, 8 December 2007

Law concerning flagpoles

An amendment to the 1993 Local Government Regulations specifically exempts our national flags from planning restriction. This means that, where before we needed local planning permission to raise a flagpole (often very difficult if not nearly impossible to get), we can now do so without applying for Local Government consent providing it is to fly the flags of the UK, England, Scotland or Wales (if there is an extension of this I would be interested to hear about it).
Christopher Southworth, 17 September 2003

Class 7 in Schedule 3 is sub-divided (by Regulation 6) into Classes 7A and 7B. The present Class 7 in the 1992 Regulations (an advertisement in the form of a
flag on a single flagstaff projecting vertically from the roof of a building) becomes Class 7A but is otherwise unchanged.

A national flag of any country. Any national flag may be flown on a single vertical flagstaff, so long as it does not have anything added to the design of the flag or any advertising material added to the flagstaff.

Thus, if my understanding of all the wordage is correct, a flagpole may be erected anywhere, now, within the curtilage of a property, not just projecting from the roof; if:

  • it is not in a conservation area;
  • is not on a listed building and affecting the nature of that building permanently;
  • is not in an area deemed of amenity value and therefore subject to special restrictions (like a national park I suspect)
  • is not in a conservation area;
  • does not impede view of the highway for road traffic;
  • there is only one;
  • it is only used for any national flag.

Marten Gallagher, 18 May 2004

A change in the law in September 2012 has resulted in flags which can now be flown without permission:

  • Not only the national flag of a country, but also civil ensigns and civil ensigns. (The new regulation also spells out that 'country' includes any Channel Island, the Isle of Man and any British Overseas Territory.)
  • Not only flags of the Commonwealth [of Nations], the EU and the UN, but any international organisation with the UK as a member.
  • Not only flags of any English county, but any island, county, borough, burgh, parish, city, town or village in the United Kingdom, and indeed any administrative area of a country outside the UK. The regulations also explicitly mention historic counties and list other regions, namely, the Black Country, East Anglia, Wessex, Parts of Lincolnshire and Ridings of Yorkshire. (The flag of a saint associated with the local county is no longer mentioned - presumably all such flags are now considered flags of the county itself. There also doesn't seem to be allowance to respond for creation/adoption or even registration of flags for other regions in the future.)
  • And also the flags of St Patrick, St David, the armed forces and the Armed Forces Day flag.
There are also additions to the situations where flag-flying is deemed to have consent. (The permission may be revoked later, but there is no need to apply for it in the first place.) A single vertical staff on the roof of a building has deemed consent for not only flags of occupants or current events in the building, but also flags with devices of sports clubs, the rainbow flag, and Eco-Schools, Queen's Award for Enterprise, and Investors in People award flags.

A single staff on a building in some other arrangement or in the immediate surrounds is now given consent for the same sorts of flags, other than in certain areas which are generally subject to stricter controls. Deemed consent is limited to at most two flagstaffs within the immediate surrounds, with only one actually on the building.

A single staff in a beach or marina has consent for a Blue Flag award flag and a single staff in a park, garden or other green space has consent for a Green Flag Award or Green Flag Community Award flag.

The amendment to the regulations can be found at
Jonathan Dixon, 25 September 2012

Flag Desecration in Britain

What constitutes a flag under English Law?
As far as I can find, the term "flag" is nowhere defined in English constitutional law, although the term occurs in (for example) the Local Government Regulations in it is apparently assumed that the definition is as is generally understood. It is very probable, however, that in common law anything which is designed to look like (or represent) a flag could and probably would be so considered. In other words, to burn a paper representation of the Union Flag is to burn the Union Flag?

Is the law different for Scotland?
I don't know

Are there penalties in either or both legal systems for flag desecration?
I cannot comment about Scottish law, but under English law the desecration of a flag is not (in itself and of itself) a crime, however, in so doing the perpetrator could possibly be committing another offence?

Does this apply also to the desecration of foreign flags?
Yes it does.

Ron Lahav and responses by Christopher Southworth, 14 April 2004

Proposed (2011) relaxation of regulations

The speech [by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles] was the keynote at the Flag Institute's Spring Meeting. The official press release can be found at In it he suggested relaxation of flag flying rules. There are no firm proposals as yet, only a desire to make the flag flying rules less restrictive. There will be consultations by the Department of Communities and Local Government with interested parties before firm, detailed proposals are put before Parliament.
Ian Sumner, 16 May 2011

Use and Status of the Flag continued