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A History of Yacht Club White Ensigns (United Kingdom)
Last modified: 2008-07-19 by rob raeside
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Recreational sailing in the English Channel became possible when the Napoleonic
Wars ended in 1815. At this time the Red Ensign was not only the merchant
ensign, but also the senior naval ensign and, with a badge in the fly, the
ensign of vessels belonging to public departments. The White Ensign was the
ensign of the next most senior naval squadron. The Blue Ensign, the junior naval
ensign, was also flown by some Admiralty transports and, with a badge in the
fly, by Customs cutters when in pursuit.
The Yacht Club was formed on 1
June 1815 and "adopted a plain white burgee, with which should be worn, as
ensign, a white flag with the Union in the upper corner of the hoist". This
resembled the naval White Ensign, but was not authorised. Most yachts were
cutters or brigs, and when flying the Red Ensign were indistinguishable from
merchant ships and fishing vessels. Any ensign that was different to the Red
Ensign was going be used if possible. There was an advantage if it made yachts
look like a naval vessels, since the latter ususally received favourable
treatment in foreign ports.
The Prince Regent, who was a member of the
club, became King George IV in 1820 and granted the club the title 'Royal'. At
about the same time the 'white flag with Union' was replaced by the Red Ensign.
Without any known authorisation the letters R.Y.C. were added to the Red Ensign
in 1824, and in 1829 the Admiralty issued a warrant to each of the one hundred
and fifteen yachts owned by club members authorising, "a St George's or white
ensign to be worn on board '....' so long as that vessel shall belong to a
member of the Royal Yacht Club".
David Prothero, 7 January 2008
In 1831 three more clubs were granted a special ensign; "a blue ensign" for the
Royal Northern, a White Ensign with the arms of Ireland in the lower fly for the
Royal Irish, and a Red Ensign, "the Union (with
the harp and crown on a green field in the centre) in the corner" for the Royal
Cork. Unlike the Royal Yacht Club, these clubs were not issued with individual
warrants for each vessel owned by a club member, but with one warrant which
covered "the respective vessels belonging to the club".
year the Admiralty refused to grant a green ensign that was requested by the
Royal Western of Ireland. The club was offered the choice of one that was red,
white or blue and chose an ensign, "white with red cross; a crown in the centre
surrounded by a wreath of shamrock, and an union at the head of the ensign".
Flag 655 in Steenbergen.
Over the next eight years more special ensigns
1834 Royal Western of
Plymouth; "Ensign - White with red cross, a crown in the centre, surrounded with
a wreath of roses, intertwined with oak leaves, and a union at the head of
1835 Royal Thames; "An Union Jack and crown with the letters
R.T.Y.C. in red." This is the complete description but I assume that it should
have been preceeded by 'on a white flag'.
1836 Royal Eastern; "Ensign, blue."
1837 Gibraltar; "White ensign."
1840 Wharncliffenote; "Ensign - Plain white with
an union in the corner."
1840 Royal Southampton; "A white ensign, with the
crown and Southampton arms in the centre."
After eleven years, special ensigns were
white for English clubs and Irish clubs, apart from Royal Cork which probably
chose a defaced Red Ensign for sentimental reasons connected with the 18th
century Water Club of Cork, and blue for Scottish clubs.
8 January 2008
Wharncliffe Sailing Club has always been a mystery as the only place in Britain
named Wharncliffe is near Sheffield with nothing better than a small reservoir
on which to sail. James Liston has found that the name refers not to a place but
a person; James Archibald Stuart- Wortley-Mackenzie, 1st Baron Wharncliffe.
"The Wharncliffe Club was established in 1839, for the promotion of sailing in
squadron on the Thames, under the command of the noble commodore, Lord
Wharncliffe. The yachts rendezvous, from May to July, opposite the Club House,
Wates's Hotel, Gravesend; and the lovers of this amusement are weekly gratified
by seeing some eight or ten beautifully-constructed vessels, from twenty to
thirty tons, sailing in company
out to sea. " [The Sporting Review, 1842 ]
David Prothero, 1 March 2008
In the early 1840s the Royal Yacht Squadron, as the Royal Yacht Club had been
named after 1833, frequently complained to the Admiralty and to the Foreign
Office about the improper conduct abroad of members of other yacht clubs, who
were mistakenly assumed to be members of the Royal Yacht Squadron. The Commodore
of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the Earl of Yarborough, asked the Admiralty to
grant the Squadron sole permission to carry the White Ensign, and suggested
"that the other British and Irish clubs should have a warrant to
carry a Blue
Ensign with the wreath or harp they now have in their White Ensign".
Admiralty adopted this suggestion and wrote to six clubs on 22 July 1842
cancelling their White Ensign warrants and replacing them with warrants for Blue
Ensigns defaced with the distinguishing mark of the club, observing in its
covering letter that, "as it is an ensign not allowed to be worn by merchant
vessels, my Lords trust that it will be equally acceptable to the members of the
club". The Royal Western of Plymouth is the only club recorded as having
objected to the change. Based upon its use of the White Ensign, the club had
negotiated special arrangements with port authorities overseas, and asked for
time in which to tell the Ministers of fifteen foreign countries about the
change to their ensign. The Admiralty allowed the club to retain its White
Ensign until the end of the year, and also agreed to the club's request, made
later in the same year, for a plain Blue Ensign instead of a defaced Blue
David Prothero, 9 January 2008
Mistakes were made when the letters cancelling the White Ensign warrants were
written. One was sent to the Royal Eastern that did not have a White Ensign, and
the Admiralty failed to write to two clubs that did have White Ensigns, the
Royal Irish and the Royal Western of Ireland. That of the former was replaced by
a defaced Blue Ensign in 1846, but that of the latter continued to be used. In
June 1849 the club asked
whether this was correct, and was told by the
Admiralty that their White Ensign had not been withdrawn. Four years later the
club realised that although all other clubs with a special ensign had been
issued with individual yacht warrants, none had been issued for the yachts of
Royal Western of Ireland. On 26 March 1853 the club therefore presented
the Admiralty with a list of the yachts of its members, and requested a warrant
for each one. This time the Admiralty replied that permission to carry the White
Ensign had been withdrawn in July 1842. The club, they said, had not been
contacted at that time because there had been no applications from the club for
any yacht warrants, and consequently the existence of the club had been
overlooked. This ignored the fact that none of the other clubs whose White
Ensign had been withdrawn in 1842 had ever been issued with yacht warrants,
which were not introduced, for clubs other than the Royal Yacht Squadron, until
September 1844. When this was later pointed out, the Admiralty then claimed that
it had not written separately to the Royal Western of Ireland as it thought that
the club was part of the Royal Western of Plymouth. This was clearly incorrect
as separately letters granting White Ensign warrants to both the Royal Western
of Plymouth and the Royal Western of Ireland were among correspondence which the
Admiralty was later ordered to deposit with the House of Commons.
Royal Western of Ireland protested that the club should not be deprived of the
right to wear the White Ensign and made to suffer for the mistakes of Admiralty
officials. The Admiralty reversed its decision and issued the club with a new
general warrant and ninety-eight yacht warrants. The Earl of Wilton, Commodore
of the Royal Yacht Squadron, expressed his regret at the Admiralty's decision.
He wrote that the Royal Western of Ireland compared most unfavourably with the
Royal Yacht Squadron and he hoped that the Admiralty would reverse its decision.
A vote on the matter in the House of Commons led to the Royal Western of Ireland
retaining the White Ensign.
David Prothero, 10 January 2008
Between 1842 and 1857 another thirteen clubs had been granted special ensigns,
four plain Blue Ensigns, seven defaced Blue Ensigns, one defaced Red Ensign and
one Red Ensign defaced on the Union. In 1847 applications for the White Ensign
from the Royal Bermuda and the Royal St George of Dublin were refused, as was an
application from the Royal Irish in March 1849. However when the Marquis of
Conyngham, Commodore of the Royal St George, applied for a White Ensign warrant
in June 1858 on the grounds that it was no longer exclusively the ensign of the
Royal Yacht Squadron, he was told by the Admiralty that the warrant granted to
the Royal Western of Ireland would be withdrawn. The Royal Western of Ireland
was informed of this on 26 June, and issued with a new warrant for a Blue Ensign
"with the distinctive marks as hitherto worn on the White Ensign". The secretary
of the Royal Western of Ireland wrote that a large proportion of the club's
members were away on foreign cruises and asked the Admiralty to suspend its
decision until a meeting of members could be arranged to consider the matter.
The Admiralty replied that its decision was final, but agreed that the White
Ensign warrants would remain in force until 31 December 1858.
1858 the Admiralty received a petition from the club asking the Admiralty to
reconsider its decision. It had been forward by the Earl of Eglintoun & Winton,
Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, and patron of the club. He observed that it was
questionable whether the privilege should have been granted in the first place,
but that having been granted it was not unreasonable for the club to complain if
the privilege was now removed. The petition, signed by 153 members, referred to
the club's involvement in the development of fisheries in Ireland and its offer
of assistance when the formation of a volunteer coastal defence force had been
considered. It concluded; "Your memorialists humbly submit that they have not
merited the marked disgrace of being deprived of a flag they have carried and
worn for twenty-six years, and a time-honoured and deeply prized privilege.
Irrespective of this disgrace upon an Irish club, your memorialists have
advanced considerable sums of money, their security being their flag, and which
will become totally lost to them. The change of flag alone will involve the
yacht owners of the club in a pecuniary loss of fourteen hundred pounds. Your
memorialists regretfully submit, and at the same time most humbly and
respectfully, that if your Lordships think proper to deny them the prayer of
this their memorial, the dissolution of this club will at once take place, as
they cannot accept any other flag."
On 20 December 1858 the Admiralty
informed the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland that although dissolution of the Royal
Western of Ireland would be regretted, an exception in favour of the club could
not be made without reversing the decision of 1842 and thus allowing all yacht
clubs that had once worn the White Ensign to wear it again.
Prothero, 11 January 2008
The matter was again raised in Parliament, and in April 1859 the Admiralty were
ordered to send to the House of Commons all correspondence relating to yacht
clubs and the White Ensign. In the same month the Royal Western of Ireland
presented another petition to the Admiralty, this time signed by thirty-six
Members of Parliament. The Admiralty replied that they could not give an answer
"as papers have been moved for in the House of Commons". A resolution of the
matter was delayed by the dissolution of Parliament followed by a General
Election on 31 May. The governing Whig party was re-elected and the Royal
Western of Ireland re-submitted the petition that had been signed by Members of
Parliament. The Admiralty once again replied that it was not possible to give an
answer until the subject had been considered in Parliament.
Western of Ireland represented itself as an Irish equivalent of the British
Royal Yacht Squadron, and therefore entitled to comparable treatment with
respect to flags, but this was not correct. Members of the Irish club owned 122
yachts, but only 41 were from Irish ports. The Irish yachts were generally small
with an aggregate tonnage of 890, while most of the English, Scottish and Welsh
yachts were twice as large with an aggregate tonnage of 4,798. The secretary the
Royal Western of Ireland was in the habit of writing to the owners of yachts
belonging to other clubs describing the flag of the club and offering membership
to anyone not resident in Ireland for a two guinea entrance fee and annual
subscription of two guineas. It enabled owners, that were unable to become
members of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the privilege of wearing the White Ensign.
The House of Commons voted to uphold the Admiralty's decision to restrict the
White Ensign, as a yacht club ensign, to the Royal Yacht Squadron.
[Parliamentary Paper 1859, III, Sess,2 in National Archives (PRO) Microfiche
David Prothero, 12 January 2008
Royal Western of Ireland Yacht Club indeed dissolve, either because their
members didn't want to change the club's ensign, or because their only reason
for being members was being allowed to use a white ensign?
Peter Hans Van
den Muijzenberg, 13 January 2008
The name has just been (re-)adopted
by the Western YC whose history says that the RWIYC ceased to exist in the early
Separately I found that in 1884 the club's premises were sold in connection with
a civil action at law. The original club's signal flags can be seen at
13 January 2008