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A History of Yacht Club White Ensigns (United Kingdom)

Last modified: 2013-07-30 by rob raeside
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Yacht Club Special Ensigns 1815 - 1864

Events from 1815 to 1859 have been covered in the series "Yacht Club White Ensigns" apart from the following.

1843. Paragraph 1 of Section VI in the Chapter 'Ceremonies and Distinctions' of the 1824 Regulations for His Majesty's Service at Sea was amended. To the words, "All Ships and Vessels, belonging to His Majesty's Subjects, shall wear a Red Ensign, with the Union in the Upper Canton next to the Staff " was added, "except such Yachts or other Vessels as may have Warrants from the Admiralty to display other Ensigns, Colours, or Pendants."

1844. First original defaced Blue Ensign warrant issued to the Royal Mersey Yacht Club .

1847. First warrant for Red Ensign defaced in the fly issued to the Royal Yorkshire Yacht Club, and the first overseas warrant outside Europe was issued to the Royal Bermuda.

1862. First Canadian warrant issued; a Blue Ensign for the Halifax YC which was renamed the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron in 1880.

1863. First Australian warrant issued; a Blue Ensign for the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron.

1864. The end of squadron colours in the Royal Navy changed the status of the Blue Ensign. It would have been sensible if all yacht club Blue Ensign warrants had been withdrawn and replaced by warrants for defaced Red Ensigns, leaving the defaced Blue Ensign solely for official vessels, and the plain Blue Ensign for vessels with naval reserve obligations. The Board of Trade Registrar General informed the Admiralty that many officers were resigning their commissions in the Reserve because they thought that, relative to the Blue Ensign, their obligations to serve in HM Fleet was considered to be of no more account than membership of some yacht clubs.

Yacht Club Special Ensigns 1864 - 1891

1872. First warrant issued to an armed forces club; a Blue Ensign for the Royal Engineer YC.

1875. First warrant for a Blue Ensign defaced with a crown on the Union canton issued to the Torquay YC, which was renamed Royal Torbay Yacht Club in 1885.

1880. Special ensign warrants were issued only to registered vessels due to the difficulty of tracing unregistered vessels that flew the Blue Ensign in foreign waters in contravention of article 105 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1854. In home waters this restricted special ensigns to vessels of 15 tons or over, since the Board of Trade would not register a vessel of less than 15 tons unless the owner insisted upon it for the purpose of a foreign voyage. However on 22 November the Customs Commissioners directed that, "yachts under 15 tons may be admitted to the registry without a statement that vessels are to be employed in foreign waters."

1883. Admiralty Circular of 24 May announced that British yachts in the Dardanelles that were not flying a Red Ensign would be treated as ships of war by the Ottoman Government, and were required to obtain an Imperial Irade.

1884. A proposal that the secretaries of clubs having a warrant should issue certificates for special ensigns to their members was rejected.

1891. First South African warrant issued; a defaced Blue Ensign for the Royal Natal YC.

Yacht Club Special Ensigns 1893 - 1894

1893. The British Consul in Nice asked whether a British yacht lent to an American could fly the U.S. flag. The Board of Trade replied that article 105 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1854 was not concerned with temporary hiring or giving of a yacht, only with intentional concealment of national character. A foreign flag could be flown on a British ship loaned or hired to a foreigner.

1893. At this time it was widely believed that a club with the title 'royal' was more likely to be granted a special ensign than a club that did not have the title, and some applications for the title were based upon this belief. In practice the Home Office referred such applications to the Admiralty, asking whether the club had a special ensign, and if not, would one be granted if one was requested. If the Admiralty replied 'no', the club was not granted the title. The Admiralty criteria for a special ensign was whether the club was of good standing, and had a considerable number of yachts with a substantial aggregate tonnage.

1894. All existing warrants were cancelled and replaced by a new warrant dated 15 May. Clubs were issued with a General Warrant to indicate that members were eligible to apply for a Yacht Warrant. The Yacht Warrant now included, "The ensign shall not without our authority in writing be worn on board a vessel belonging to the ............. Yacht Club while such vessel is lent, on hire or otherwise, to any person not being a member of the club, or, when being a member of the club, is not a natural born or naturalised British subject."
The new warrant also abolished flags other than the ensign. No personal flags were sanctioned in any yacht club. On occasions the Admiralty had authorised jacks and commodores' flags for some clubs, and I presume that the restriction applied only to these flags.

1894. It was noted by the Foreign Office, in contradiction (or reversal ?) of the Board of Trade's ruling of 1893, that a yacht belonging to a British subject did not forfeit national character while leased to, or hired by, a foreigner and must not fly a foreign flag.

 Yacht Club Special Ensigns. 1896 - 1906

1896. The first New Zealand warrant was issued; a Blue Ensign for the Port Nicholson. (Royal Port Nicholson after 1921) The Auckland YC, which was renamed Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in 1902 when it was granted a Blue Ensign, had been using a defaced Blue Ensign since 1890, but it appears to have been unauthorised.

1896. The Admiralty informed the Home Office that Their Lordships had no present intention of increasing the number of yacht clubs that held special ensign warrants.

1897. It was again declared that "refusal of Admiralty warrants was universal".

1903. The Admiralty Circular of 1883 about yachts in the Dardanelles was repeated in The London Gazette of 9 June.

1903. "Admiralty refusal to grant Blue Ensign now universal. Only granted where special claims exist." Since then Blue Ensigns have been granted to a total of seventeen clubs but only in certain categories; eight overseas, five motor yacht, three naval, and one Scottish. It seems to have been policy to issue only plain Blue Ensign warrants to coastal motor yacht clubs on the grounds that a motor yacht flying a defaced Blue Ensign might be mistaken for a vessel operated by a government department.

1903. The schooner-yacht 'Kon' (formerly 'St Bernard') owned by a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron was issued with an Admiralty Warrant to fly the Blue Ensign. The yacht was used by the Royal Society to mount a scientific expedition to New Guinea. Dr. Charles Seligman mortgaged and lent it to an American citizen, Mr.William Cooke-Daniels, also a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, who was to be in command of the yacht. It is possible that the yacht was actually owned by Cooke-Daniels, but transferred to Seligman so that it could be put on the British register and sail under a British flag.

1905. First motor yacht club warrant issued; a Blue Ensign for the British Motor Boat Club. The BMBC was dissolved in 1933, and oldest existing motor yacht warrant was issued to the Royal Motor Yacht Club in 1906.

Yacht Club Special Ensigns 1914 - 1925

1914. On 7 August special ensign warrants were suspended for the duration of the war.

1919. On 19 May the suspension of yacht club special ensigns was removed, with some reluctance. In the opinion of the Head of the Naval Law Branch it was an anomaly that private yachts should fly a flag proper to a public ship. Continuance of the privilege for yachts was suffered on grounds of utility. Naval Law also suggested that club secretaries should be allowed to issue certificates permitting the use of special ensign to club members, as had been considered in 1884. Law Officers advised that the words, "we do hereby authorise said warrant" could be replaced on a certificate by "the said ensign may be", making the document a certificate of a title to fly the ensign. The Fourth Sea Lord disagreed. He wrote that the work imposed on the Admiralty was acceptable in order to retain full control of the system.

1921. Clarification of special ensigns on chartered vessels. It was to be allowed only if the owner was entitled to fly a special ensign and the person chartering was a member of the same club.

1924. Blue Ensign warrant issued to Royal Singapore YC. Except for three naval clubs, this was the last issued until 2007 when one was granted to the Royal Victorian Motor YC.

1924. The Register of Canadian Yachts was transferred from the Admiralty to the Department of National Defence, Canada.

1925. First inland-water warrant issued; a defaced Blue Ensign for Royal Lake of the Woods YC, Winnipeg, Canada.

Yacht Club Special Ensigns 1926 - 1927

1926. The way in which special ensigns for yacht clubs were administered was reviewed. The existing warrants were considered unsatisfactory as they authorised the use of special ensigns by all club members without making it clear that a further warrant was required for each yacht. This led to several colonial clubs thinking that individual yacht warrants were unnecessary. The General Warrant was abolished, and the names of those clubs whose members were eligible to apply for a Yacht Warrant was to be published annually in the Navy List. Applications signed by the owner were forwarded to the Admiralty by club secretaries, who issued the warrant to the owner. Secretaries were required to send a complete list of their club's registered yachts with the names of the owners, and to return cancelled warrants on 1 November of each year. Those clubs that had not been actively applying for warrants had their special ensign withdrawn.  The new measures became effective 1 November 1927, or 1 May 1928 for clubs in Australia and New Zealand.

New warrant forms, coloured to match the ensign, were ordered; 500 White Ensign, 2000 Blue Ensign, 1500 defaced Blue Ensign, 500 defaced Red Ensign. The warrant now included the words, "shall have on board Our Authority in writing". The Royal Bermuda and Royal Lake of the Woods had been exempt from carrying warrants on board. The special exemption for the Royal Bermuda was ended, but that for Royal Lake of the Woods allowed to continue as long as the vessels were on inland waters, where the warrant was not legally necessary.

1927. An owner who belonged to more than one club that was entitled to the plain Blue Ensign was now required to have a warrant for each club. It had been proposed that tenders would need to be registered, and would require a warrant to fly a special ensign. This was amended to allow the flying of a special ensign by tenders that could be hoisted on board the parent yacht.

1927. The Head of Naval Law made the following observations.
1. A special ensign is a national emblem and not a club flag or personal flag.
2. A burgee is the House Flag of a club. It may be flown without the ensign, but not vice versa.
3. Ensigns are national colours none the less for being defaced.
4. A burgee is not a personal flag despite the fact that it is usually hauled down when an owner is not on board.

1927. Special ensigns for Dominion and Colonial clubs were granted providing the application was supported by the Governor-General or the Colonial Office. It was not necessary for a club to be of certain size or aggregate tonnage for first issue of a warrant. The Head of Naval Law objected to this privilege. He wrote that, "Since the clubs are small to begin with, they cannot later be removed because they are small; only if they are inactive."

Yacht Club Special Ensigns 1928 - 1930

Warrants issued:
1927-1928. 1,851.
1928-1929. 656.
1929-1930. 753.
Over the three years 929 warrants were cancelled, not counting re-issued cancellations.

1928. Royal St Lawrence of Montreal asked if the burgee of a non-warranted club could be flown with a warranted ensign. The answer was, no. Only a Red Ensign should be flown with the burgee of a club that had not been granted a special ensign.

1929. An application from the Royal Cork for a yacht warrant was refused. When the Irish Free State was created in 1922 it was agreed that the Royal Irish and the Royal St George would be treated like the privileged yacht clubs in any other Dominion, that being the Free State's political status at the time. The Royal Cork was not included because no yacht warrant applications had been received since 1909. The Dominion Office would not raise the matter with the Free State government in case it resulted in objections to the continuation of the privileges of the other clubs.

1929. Oldest defaced Red Ensign (Royal Yorkshire) cancelled and replaced by defaced Blue Ensign. Oldest current defaced Red Ensign now Royal Dart Yacht Club of 1870 (or 1868 ?)

1930. Clubs applying for a special ensign were expected to have a potential total net registered tonnage of 2,000, over a large number of yachts. Service clubs were granted an ensign even when this requirement could not be met.

1930. Efforts were made to prevent motor-boats using the Blue Ensign on inland waters, where some thought that the Admiralty had no right to regulate flags. In the opinion of the Law Officers the expression "hoisting colours on any ship or boat" as used in section 73(2) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, applied anywhere. "It is not material where the boat happens to be."

1930. Query whether there was an obligation to hoist the club burgee when the Blue Ensign was flown. The point was not covered in the warrant. The Admiralty's view was that if the ensign was flown, the club burgee should be flown. It was not a requirement, but was considered correct. It was not specified in the regulations due to occasions when it might not be appropriate. By custom the burgee was used to show whether the owner was on board.

Yacht Club Special Ensigns 1931

1931. After sending a questionnaire to selected clubs it was decided as an experiment to restrict the special ensign to vessels of 2.5 gross registered tons and above. The application form for a special ensign was altered to include both gross registered tonnage and net registered tonnage. A Royal Yacht Squadron domestic rule restricted the White Ensign to vessels of 30 tons or more.

1931. The Treasury suggested that there should be a charge for issuing yacht club warrants as it was not right that the taxpayer should subsidise those persons able to afford the expense of a yacht. The Admiralty argued that:-
1. The system enabled them to control the use of maritime flags.
2. Yacht clubs were valuable as a naval reserve.
3. The ensigns were a stimulant to yachting and established a connection between yacht clubs and the Admiralty. This would disappear if the Admiralty were transformed from a dispenser of privileges to a licensing department.
4. The expense of operating the system was negligible. Twenty per cent of the time of one clerk, plus less than that of a supervisor, and an insignificant amount of stationery.
5. Difficulties would arise in dealing with Dominions, which would affect the unity of the Navy.
6. Legislation would be necessary.
The Treasury decided not to pursue the proposal.

1931. Query whether an owner who was a member of two clubs, only one of which had a special ensign, could, on occasions, fly the special ensign with the burgee of the unwarranted club. This was considered to be incorrect. The appropriate burgee should be flown when a special ensign was hoisted. No other burgee should be flown, except that when visiting the waters of a foreign club, the burgee of that club could be hoisted at the main masthead. If, when visiting another club in home waters, the owner wanted to fly the burgee of the club being visited, the ensign should be a plain Red Ensign, or the special ensign of the club being visited, if the owner was a member of that club.

Yacht Club Special Ensigns 1932

1932. Memo by Head of Naval Law. It was recognised that yacht clubs were now composed of small yachts and new yacht owners. The redistribution of wealth and the development of motor yachts had forced the Admiralty to a stricter control of the use of naval ensigns by private yacht owners. The Admiralty legislated for the least responsible owner, of the least responsible club.

1932. Question of "effective control" raised. The Admiralty ruled that if the special ensign was flown when a yacht was lying in a port, the owner must be present, or in the vicinity. Friends or relations of the owner did not count. This safeguarded control of ensigns as the Admiralty could exercise a measure of control over the owner of a warrant, but not over his friends or relations. The Royal Yacht Squadron had objected to this restriction when warrants were revised in 1927, and temporary warrants were introduced specifically for RYS, to allow their yachts to fly the White Ensign in Cowes Roads in the absence of the owner, the Squadron being considered to be in effective control.

1932. The Admiralty investigated a complaint that a motor launch on the Thames in the Maidenhead area flew the Blue Ensign. The owner agreed to apply for a warrant through the Royal Motor Yacht Club. A warrant was refused because the launch was below the minimum size (two and a half tons gross registered tonnage). The owner threatened to challenge Admiralty jurisdiction over inland waters, through parliamentary questions and action in the High Court. The view of the Registrar of Admiralty Court and Treasury Solicitor was that, although not tested in courts, Admiralty jurisdiction extended to inland waters under Section 73 of Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. "The notion that special ensigns might be flown on the upper Thames or the Cumberland lakes without a warrant was quite incorrect." Warning notices were displayed at all Thames Conservancy locks.

1932. Admiralty Memo noted that to qualify for a special yacht ensign a boat had to be:-
1. Registered as a British ship.
2. Owned by a British subject.
3. Owned by a member of a listed yacht club.
4. Capable of cruising; house-boats not eligible.
5. Not commercial.

1932. Special ensigns not to be flown on a yachts lent or chartered. An exception was made in the case an entitled member of same club, when a temporary warrant could be issued.

Yacht Club Special Ensigns 1936 - 1940

1936. Memo noted that special ensigns worn by yachts under the authority of an Admiralty Warrant were issued to the yachts not to the owners; they were the national colours of the yachts, not the personal flags of the owners, and the owners had no shadow of right to fly the yachts' flags elsewhere than on the yachts.

1936. First ensign for an Association as opposed to a Club : Royal Naval Sailing Association, Blue Ensign.

1937. First overseas defaced Red Ensign : Point YC, South Africa.

1937. 31 March. Responsibility for special ensigns of Canadian clubs transferred to Canada. The nine Canadian clubs affected were authorised to fly Canadian Blue Ensign.

1937. Query whether a warrant holder breached the terms of the warrant if a Blue Ensign was flown while he had paying guests on board. Answer. The terms were broken if used purely for the purpose of taking paying guests, but not by the presence on board of occasional paying guests to assist in maintenance costs.

1938. A club asked the Home Office whether the title Royal was "contiguous with a special ensign warrant." It was noted that of eighty-seven clubs having a warrant, seventy-nine had the title Royal. Reply. " 'Royal' may be used only with the express permission of the King. The grant of a warrant confers no right to use the title and does not imply permission to use of title, now very sparingly given." In the draft, but not sent; "Applications for HM permission should be made by means of a petition addressed to the Secretary of State giving full particulars, standing and financial position of club, and grounds on which title is sought, plus copies of balance sheet, statement of accounts, membership of club, and details and tonnage of yachts owned by members."

1939. 14 September. Wartime restriction on special ensigns imposed. Suggestion that Canada should prohibit the Blue Ensign granted to yacht owners under Canada Shipping Act.

1939. 30 November. Restriction extended to colonies.

1940. Restriction also applied to flying the ensign ashore, but the Royal Irish, Dublin, was permitted to fly the defaced ensign on its premises.

Yacht Club Special Ensigns 1945 - 2007

1945. May. Resumption of special ensigns. Initially only Europe and Atlantic coastline. Extended to Far East in September. Noted that, "For some years before the war it has been the practice to restrict the privilege to ten years in the first instance."

1949. The Admiralty agreed to issue temporary warrants in the circumstances where a member of a yacht club that had been granted a special ensign, chartered or was loaned a boat owned by a person not eligible for a special ensign warrant.

1949. Query whether charging fees for giving navigational instruction in a yacht invalidated a special ensign warrant if the special ensign was not flown while doing so. The warrant was cancelled and it was noted that the practice of flying a Blue Ensign at one time and Red Ensign at another was irregular and not to be encouraged.

1949. Owners of British registered yachts, who were members of 'royal' yacht clubs now in the Republic of Ireland, or the Republic of India, that had been granted special ensigns, were allowed to retain their warrants.

1949. Combined total tonnage of 2,000 registered net tons was the normal requirement for a yacht club to be considered for a special ensign. Service clubs were normally granted an ensign even when this requirement could not be met. Royal Armoured Corps was approved even though tonnage was low (11 yachts totaling 378 tons), but to be for reviewed in ten years. The Royal Signals Sailing Association, and the Royal Air Force Sailing Association were refused for insufficient tonnage.

1951. Following consultation with selected yacht clubs the minimum tonnage requirement for a special ensign was reduced from 2.5 tons to 2 Registered Net Tons except for White Ensign. The Admiralty deducted one third from Thames Tonnage to calculate Registered Net Tonnage.

1985. Royal Yachting Association became responsible for administering United Kingdom special ensign warrants on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. Clubs are provided with permits which are issued to authorised members. Members of non-UK clubs apply for individual warrants which are issued by the Second Sea Lord on behalf of the Secretary of State for Defence.

1986. Defaced RAF Ensign authorised for Royal Air Force Sailing Association, which is run independently and issues its own permits.

2007. Most recent warrant : Blue Ensign for Royal Victorian Motor YC, Melbourne.

List of sources

Documents in the National Archives, Kew, that refer to special yacht ensigns. The 'titles' are mostly mine, not necessarily the documents' official title.

FO 83/139. 1850. French List of British privileged yacht clubs.
HO 45/6620. 1858. Holyhead YC.
FO 83/313. 1869. Foreign Office List of yacht club ensigns.
HO 45/9295/8624. 1871. Clyde YC.
HO 45/9381/43087. 1875. Dorset YC crown on burgee.
HO 45/9441/66666. 1877. Southampton YC.
HO 144/19/47924. 1875. Torbay YC.
HO 144/90/A10769. 1881. Highland YC.
MT 10/314(7970). 1886. Registration of yachts under 15 tons.
ADM 116/284. 1888. YC ensigns from 1875 Admiralty Flag Book.
HO 144/340/B12564. 1892. Southport Corinthian YC.
HO 144/347/B13878. 1893. Start Bay YC.
HO 144/351/B14545. 1893. Kingstown YC.
MT 9/471. 1893. Foreign flags on British yachts lent to foreigners.
HO 144/399/B22312. 1896. No more club warrants.
HO 144/408/B23915. 1897. No more AW. 'Royal' relative to warrant.
FO 881/7961X. 1903. Use of Red Ensign by British yachts in Turkey.
ADM 1/7700. 1903. Blue Ensign for RYS yacht.
HO 144/529/A42020. 1904. Warrant/Royal relationship.
HO 144/598/B16959. 1894-1907. Fowey YC.
HO 144/634/B37144. 1901-08. Warrant/Royal relationship.
HO 144/875/163339. 1908. Liverpool YC rule book.
HO 144/605/B26398. 1898-1909. Norfolk & Suffolk YC. AW and RT.
HO 144/1060/188865. 1909. Southern YC. Warrant details.
HO 144/1060/188871. 1909. Northern YC. Scottish Blue Ensigns.
HO 144/1060/188873. 1909. Cinque Ports YC.
HO 144/1060/188874. 1909. Yorkshire YC.
HO 144/1060/188875. 1909. Western YC of England.
HO 144/1060/188880. 1909. Irish YC.
HO 144/957/B1447. 1887-1914. Windermere YC.
MT 23/522. 1916. Ensign for specific Patrol Yacht.
HO 144/22923. 1920. Solent YC.
ADM 1/8607/104. 1921. Blue Ensign refused for chartered yacht; R.Northern YC.
ADM 1/8618/6B. 1922. Right to fly White Ensign Royal Yacht Squadron.
HO 144/1758/426431. 1922. Sussex Motor YC.
ADM 1/8685/150. 1925. R Nassau SC.
ADM 1/8690/213. 1925. R Lake of Woods YC.
ADM 116/2500. 1926-28. Priviledged Yacht Clubs: revision of special ensign Warrants.
ADM 116/2501. 1926-28. Priviledged Yacht Clubs: revision of special ensign Warrants.
HO 144/9413. 1927-28. Burnham YC. Crown on burgee
ADM 1/8725/112. 1928. Matching Special Ensigns and Burgees.
HO 144/10105. 1909-29. Title royal; granted and refused.
ADM 1/8744/139. 1930. Royal Thames advised against applying for White Ensign.
ADM 1/8744/141. 1930. Under-used warrants.
ADM 1/8746/162. 1930. Irish Free State YCs with privilege ensigns.
ADM 1/8751/179. 1931. Relationship between burgee and special ensign.
ADM 1/8751/183. 1931. Flags flown for dressing ship in foreign waters.
ADM 1/8751/187. 1931. Minimum size yacht for warrant. List of warranted clubs.
ADM 1/8752/200. 1931. Proposal to charge for warrants.
ADM 1/8759/211. 1932. Effective contol by owner.
ADM 1/8760/235. 1932. R.Motor Y.C.
CO 323/1182/3. 1932. YCs. Barbados, Jamaica.
HO 144/17258. 1908-33. R.Motor YC.
HO 144/18452. 1933. Household Brigade YC. Crown on burgee
ADM 1/8770/149. 1933. Refusal Blue Ensign, British Exhibitor, Tai Mo Shan.
HO 144/18871. 1911-34. Alexandra YC.
CO 323/1333/6. 1935. R.Nassau SC.
HO 144/20166. 1935-36. Portsmouth YC
ADM 1/9154. 1937. Paying Guests.
ADM 1/22962. 1937. Little Ship Club
ADM 1/9481. 1938. RYS and White Ensign in Turkish waters.
ADM 1/18910. 1938. Inactive clubs.
HO 144/21138. 1938. Hamworthy/B'mouth YC.
HO 144/21127. 1938. Poole Harbour YC. Crown on burgee refused.
CO 323/1642/2. 1939. Discontinue YC special ensigns.
ADM 1/18936. 1919/45. Resumption special ensigns.
CO 323/1870/25. 1945. Colonial Yacht Club Ensigns.
FO 371/50491. 1945. YC Special Ensigns' resumption.
CO 323/1870/21. 1946. Cancellation and resumption of warrants.
ADM 1/23991. 1947-52. St Helier YC.
ADM 1/24013. 1949-52. Service YC's and general qualifications needed.
ADM 1/21260. 1948-56. Status of owners in India and Irish Republic.
ADM 1/21636. 1949. Temporary warrants for loaned boats.
ADM 1/21643. 1949. Warrants cancelled for commercial activity.
ADM 1/21976. 1949. House of Lords YC
ADM 1/21971. 1950. Minimum tonnage reduced to two tons.
ADM 1/26072. 1955. YC flags on Royal Yacht Britannia.

David Prothero, 13-23 January 2008