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Australian National Flag

formerly the Australian Blue Ensign also called the Commonwealth Ensign

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Before Federation the Australian colonies made use of the flags of Great Britain - the Union Flag and the British Red, White and Blue Ensigns. On 1 January 1901 the six colonies united under the name of "Commonwealth of Australia" and our people became one nation.

The Union Flag or Union Jack. This flag was considered the Flag of the British Empire and was given pride of place in any grouping of Empire and Commonwealth Flags. Until 1953 the Australian flags were referred to as Ensigns. The word ensign indicates a junior ranking or position. The Australian Blue Ensign had a legal change of name and became the Australian National Flag in 1951 with legislative backing coming in 1953.
British Red Ensign British White Ensign British Blue Ensign
The SOUTHERN CROSS When did we start use it on our flags?
Unofficial. Two local residents designed this unofficial flag in about 1823/24. It was based on the British White Ensign and had four eight pointed stars of the Southern Cross.

 It was never officially recognised although Governor Brisbane is reputed to have used it. It is referred to as the National Colonial Flag for Australia.

Unofficial. From 1831 on the colour changed to blue, another star was added and the name was changed to "Australian Federation Flag". It was in common use till 1901 but remained unofficial.

It was featured by the political movement and groups pushing for Federation in the 1880s and 1890s.

Official. The Admiralty’s recommendation to the Colony of Victoria is indicated in the following extract from the Naval and Military Gazette, 30th April, 1870. In this Gazette appears to be the first official reference to the use of the Southern Cross in an Australian flag’s design.

‘The new Victorian flag has been formally adopted, and the Colony now possesses its own National Ensign. The inauguration ceremony which took place on board H.M.V.S. Nelson on February 9th was made the occasion of a very pleasant trip down the Bay. The new flag which has been adopted at the suggestion of the Admiralty to distinguish the vessels of the Victorian Navy consists for vessels in the service of the Government of the Blue Ensign with five white stars, representing the constellation of the Southern Cross in the fly; and for Merchant vessels the Red Ensign with the same badge in the fly.

This 1899 souvenir booklet of the Victorian & Tasmanian Contingents leaving for the Boer War clearly shows a flag (probably the Victorian Red Ensign) that , with the addition of the Federation Star, we would later call the Australian Red Ensign. 

This indicates to me that the flag design was actually in use well before the "official" acceptance of the design.

Wording: British Transvaal War 1899-1900 Wording: Success to 1st Aust Imperial Contingent
This 1900 medallion appears to carry the Australian Flag (Federation Star missing or covered) or a design very like it. This is another indication that the design was in use before it was "officially" recognised.

Shortly before the opening of the first Federal Parliament it was decided to hold a worldwide competition to obtain designs for two Australian flags - one for official and naval purposes and the other for the Merchant Navy service. The competition was conducted in conjunction with a newspaper, The Review of Reviews. On 3 September 1901 the designs were displayed in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne. Over 30 000 designs were submitted and five were selected as being of equal merit. The prize of £200 (£75 from the Commonwealth, £75 from The Review of Reviews and £50 from the Havelock Tobacco Company) was divided among five persons: Mrs. A. Dorrington or Perth, Mr. E.J. Nuttall of Melbourne, Mr. Ivor Evans of Melbourne, Mr. Leslie Hawkins of Sydney and Mr. W. Stevens of Auckland.

On the day the winners were announced by the then Prime Minister, Mr. E. Barton, a large flag embodying the designs was flown on the Exhibition Building, Melbourne. Photographs of the day show it as having a design quite similar to that officially proclaimed later. Under the Union of the British Blue Ensign was a large white star with six points representing the six States. In the fly of the flag there were five white stars representing the Southern Cross.

Image courtesy Australian National Flag Association.

This 1901 version flag (ensign) was later approved (with minor changes) in red and blue versions. The original concept was to represent the relative brightness of each star in the constellation with the stars of the Southern Cross having 9, 8, 7, 6 and 5 points. The Commonwealth Star, symbol of Australian Federation, had six points, representing the six States.

In February 1903 it was announced in the Commonwealth Gazette that King Edward VII had approved a design for the Flag of Australia, and also one for the Flag of the Merchant Navy. Both designs were shown in colour plates in the Gazette.

In 1908 the Government decided that a seven-pointed star, symbolical of the six States and the Territories, should replace the large six-pointed star shown in the original designs of the Flag - to represent the Territories and to conform with the star in the Crest of the Coat of Arms granted that year.

For many years the Commonwealth Blue Ensign was regarded as an official flag, and its use on land was restricted to government establishments. 

  • The flying of the Blue Ensign on land by individuals and non-government bodies was discouraged. 
As a result of that and also the commonly held belief at that time that the Union Jack was the 'flag of the Empire' most people used the Union Jack for matters relating to the war effort in both World Wars. They also took to using the Red Ensign as a de-facto Civil Flag.
Click to enlarge Maryborough, Qld, 1916-08-26. Patriotic carnival procession. This horse-drawn float was sponsored by G. Horsburgh and Company ltd, and gained first prize. The placard on the side reads "The flag of freedom. It is our flag." 

Children in costumes of various countries stand beneath the Union Jack. (donor C. Mungomery)

Click to enlarge 1940-12. Union Jack flag bearing the signatures of members of 2/21st Battalion, 23rd Brigade, 8th Division, 2nd AIF, with their colour patch in the centre. (donor E. Guy)

In 1941 the Prime Minister, Mr. R.G. Menzies, directed that there should be no restriction on the flying of the flag.

In February 1947, the Prime Minister, Mr. J.B. Chifley, issued a press statement encouraging the application of the directive given earlier by Mr. Menzies that there should be no restriction on the flying of the Commonwealth Blue Ensign on shore. Its greater use on public buildings, by schools and private citizens was not only permitted but would be appreciated provided it was flown in a manner appropriate to the use of a national emblem. Australian merchant vessels were to continue to fly the Commonwealth Red Ensign.

Nevertheless, it had not been clearly established that any particular flag was the "National Flag" until 1951 when King George VI approved a recommendation by the Government that the Commonwealth Blue Ensign be adopted as the Australian National Flag.

The Flags Act 1953 (Act No. 1 of 1954) was passed by the Commonwealth Parliament in December 1953 proclaiming definitively the Australian Blue Ensign as the National Flag and the Australian Red Ensign as the proper colours for merchant ships registered in Australian. Act No 58 of 1954 corrected a slight error concerning the outer diameter of the large star in the design of the Australian National Flag. The correct terms now for these flags are the "Australian National Flag" and the "Australian Red Ensign". Act No. of 1981 removed reference to the Navigation Act 1912 in section 4(1) and moved the description of the Australian Red Ensign from section 4(2) to a revised First Schedule.

By a Proclamation under section 5 of the Flags Act 1953 the Governor General appointed the  Australian White Ensign to be the ensign of the RAN.  Until that date the RAN only flew the Australian flag as a battle flag or the Australian Red Ensign before a ship was commissioned. At all other times the RAN had to fly the British White Ensign.

By a Proclamation under section 5 of the Flags Act 1953 the Governor-General appointed the Royal Australian Air Force Ensign to be the ensign of the Royal Australian Air Force. This was announced in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 89 of 6 May 1982.

  • Note. The Australian White Ensign and the Ensign of the RAAF are ensigns (junior flags) to the Australian National Flag not the Union Jack.

The Australian ARMY does not have or want it's own flag. It is the protector of the National flag. It does have a Banner.

some wording from

Specifications of the Australian National Flag

Click to enlarge
  • This image details the correct specifications for the Australian National Flag.
  • Image is a thumbnail, Click to enlarge.

Use of the 5 star Southern Cross

Australia is not alone in using the 5 star Southern Cross as an icon as this WW2 era Brazilian Army Sergeant's hat badge shows.

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