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History of the Australian national flag

Last modified: 2006-01-21 by jonathan dixon
Keywords: australia | southern cross | stars: southern cross | star: 6 points |
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Unofficial Competitions

In the lead up to federation, some local journals conducted competitions to design a flag for the new commonwealth. The first of these, conducted by the Melbourne journal the Evening Herald required that the Union Jack and Southern Cross be included in the design.


The winning design is depicted in Foley [fol96] as No. 30 in the illustrations section. It shows: in the hoist, a British union, below a white field with 6 red stripes, on the fly the southern cross on blue:

[Winner of Evening Herald competition, 1900] image by Phil Nelson, 12 May 2003


The Review of Reviews, also a Melbourne journal, but claiming an Australasia-wide audience, considered that the Evening Herald competition was not broad enough, and so launched their own competition in October 1900 with the following announcement, which can be found on the Australian National Flag Association website.

A competition open to all Australasia.
The Premiers of the Federating Colonies to be Judges
A prize of 50 to be offered.

The coming Australian Commonwealth will need a Flag, and many efforts are already being made to evolve a graceful, characteristic, and effective national symbol a flag that shall at once express kinship with the Empire and yet be characteristic of the new and great political entity which has come into existence.

A Melbourne journal, the "Evening Herald" offered a prize of 25 for the best design for a Federal Flag, and we reproduce on our Cover the Flag which won that prize.

But the competition which evolved this Flag was purely local, and the competition was fettered by the conditions that the Federal Flag must include both the Union Jack and the Southern Cross. A flag, perhaps, which omitted these symbols might have small chances of success; yet it seems unwise to fetter the competition with any such absolute limitations.

The proprietors of the Australasian "Review of Reviews" offer a prize of 50 for the best design for a Federal Flag; the competition to be open to the whole of Australasia.

The following gentlemen have very courteously consented to act as judges:
Sir William Lyne, Premier of New South Wales
Hon. Alan McLean, Premier of Victoria
Hon. F. W. Holder, Premier of South Australia
Hon. R. O. B. T. Philp, Premier of Queensland
Hon. W.H. Lewis, Premier of Tasmania
Right Hon. Sir John Forrest, K. C. M. Q., Premier of West Australia
The Premiers of the six federating colonies will of course constitute a jury of unrivalled impressiveness and authority, and the Flag they choose will have an excellent chance of fluttering high for generations to come as the symbol of the Australian Commonwealth.

The following are the conditions of the competition:
Each competitor must forward two coloured sketches of his design - one for merchant service and one for naval or official use not less that 6 inches by 3 inches in size.
All designs must be endorsed on the cover "Commonwealth Flag" and addressed to the Business Manager of the "Review of Reviews" 167-169 Queen Street, Melbourne.
Each design must bear a motto or nom de plume, and must be accompanied by a sealed envelope, bearing on its face the motto or nom de plume with which the design is signed, and enclosing the name and address of designer.
Designs must be sent in not later than February 1, 1901, and the award will if possible be published in the February number of the "Review of Reviews."
The award of the judges, or of a majority of them, will be final and no appeal against it will be permitted. The prize of 50 will not be awarded to any to any design which in the opinion of the judges, or of a majority them, is not superior to the successful design of the Melbourne competition reproduced on our cover. But a consolation prize of 10 will, in that event, be paid to the designer of the Flag judged to be the best amongst those sent in.
The right to publish any design submitted, whether it takes a prize or not, is specially retained by the proprietors of the "Review of Reviews."

The appeal here made is to the artistic imagination, and designing skills of the seven colonies. It ought to have the effect of giving birth to a Flag which will hold a proud and long enduring place amongst the Flags of the civilized world.

contributed by Joe McMillan, 21 August 2002.


The Government Competition

On 29 April 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette Number 27 published the following invitation for entries in a competition to design the new flag:

Design for a Federal Flag

The Government of the Commonwealth of Australia invite competitive designs for a Federal Flag, such designs to be forwarded by post or otherwise not later than the 31st May, 1901.

The designs will be judged by a Board to be appointed by the Federal Government for the purpose, and a sum of 75 will be paid to the designer of that selected as the best.

Each competitor will be required to forward two coloured sketches-- one for the merchant service, and one for naval or official use--not less than 6 inches by 3 inches in size.

All designs must be indorsed on the cover "Commonwealth Flag," and must be addressed to "The Secretary to the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia, Melbourne."

Each design must bear a motto or nom de plume, and must be accompanied by a sealed envelope bearing on its face the motto or nom de plume with which the designer signed, and enclosing the name and address of the designer.

The successful design will be submitted to the Imperial authorities.

The award of the Board, however, will be final, and the prize will be given in accordance with their decision, even if the design be not accepted by the Imperial authorities.

Edmund Barton

from the Australian National Flag Association website, contributed by Joe McMillan, 21 Aug 2002


According to Foley [fol96], the Review of Reviews competition was never judged, but the information was turned over to the governmental competition. Foley cites a letter from the judges to the Prime Minister on 2 September 1901 where they note:

"it was apparent that a Commonwealth flag, to be representative, should contain -
1. The Union Jack on a blue background.
2. A six-pointed star, representing the six federated States of Australia, immediately underneath the Union Jack, and pointing direct to the center of the St. George Cross, of a size to occupy the major portion of one quarter of the flag.
3. The "Southern Cross" in the fly as indicative of the sentiment of the Australian nation."
Phil Nelson, 12 May 2003


Thousands of submissions were received, but something very interesting occurred: five of the flags received (no two from areas close to one another) were virtually identical. Not only had the same design been received five times independently from different parts of the country, but it looked good too. The flags differed only in small details (the number of points on the various stars, the size of the Union Jack, etc). The committee looking at the flags eventually decided on a flag that was not exactly the same as any one of the five, but similar to all of them. The prize money was shared between the five contestants.
Rick Brockway

Winning Designs

Official Use (Blue Ensign)
[1901 Blue Ensign] image by Clay Moss, 19 Dec 2005
Merchant Use (Red Ensign)
[1901 Red Ensign] image by Clay Moss, 19 Dec 2005


The Australian National Flag Association website displays the contents of a letter from the Review of Reviews to one of the winners of the contest:

E. J. Nuttall Esq.,
Williams Rd.,
Prahran.

Dear Sir,
It gives us pleasure to enclose herewith cheque for 15 being proportion of prize money due to you as one of the winners of the Government Federal Flag Competition with which was amalgamated the competition of the "Review of Reviews for Australasia". We shall be glad to receive an acknowledgement from you in due course.
Yours very truly,
Encl.

Review of Reviews Pty. Ltd.

T. Shaw Fitchett Managing Director

contributed by Joe McMillan, 21 August 2002


Australia's first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, announced the winning design in Melbourne on 3 September 1901. The design had a mixed reception and caused some controversy at the time, usually on aesthetic grounds rather than its Anglophile nature.

In the original design the Federation Star contained only 6 points and the Southern Cross was represented by stars ranging from 5 to 9 points to indicate their relative apparent brightness in the night sky.

The adoption of the winning flag design was never debated in the Australian Parliament - it was sent to the Imperial Authorities in England to be approved. It wasn't until late 1902 that King Edward VII formally notified the Australian Government of the approval, and this approval was finally Gazetted on 20 February 1903.
Dov Gutterman, 14 December 1998


A newspaper at the time (the Evening Herald itself, I believe) said that their competition flag was superior to the official Australian flag, which it claimed looked too much like the Victorian state flag.
Miles Li, 17 May 2003

The prime minister Edmund Barton preferred the use of the "Australian Ensign" (or NSW Ensign or Federation Flag) and actually sent this flag with the winning entry as one of two options for the King to choose between. (This is mentioned several times in Crux Australis [cxa] no 61). [see next page]
Jonathan Dixon, 27 July 2002


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