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United Kingdom: Royal Navy Boat Flags 1702-1864

Last modified: 2014-07-16 by rob raeside
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Introduction

Flags of this pattern were introduced on 6 May 1702, were amended in 1864 and were changed to the current pattern by regulations of 1898. We actually need illustrations of the boat flags of a Vice-Admiral and Rear-Admiral as they appeared from 1864 to 1898 that is with one or two small red rather than blue balls in the upper hoist but that can follow in due course.

In this instance a boat flag is the command flag of an admiral when flown from his personal barge, and was originally distinguished from his command flag proper by carrying a ball or balls of difference so that his specific rank could be recognized whilst he was aboard a vessel without the requisite number of masts.

From 1864 until the 1870s all Admirals flew an undefaced flag of St George whilst aboard their flagship a full admiral from the main masthead, a vice-admiral from the fore and a rear-admiral from the mizzen, however, from the 1870s (due to the increased efficiency of marine engines and the ever greater weight of armour plate) capital ships were no longer being fitted with an auxiliary sailing rig.

This made the existing system of showing the rank of a Flag Officer by the use of various mastheads impossible, since a vessel without such a sailing rig had only one mast available for the flying of flags. It became the practice therefore, for an admiral to fly his relevant boat flag aboard whichever seagoing vessel he was embarked upon so that his rank could be distinguished and (if any occasion required it) the appropriate honours given.

Flag Officers of the White Squadron flew boat flags of this pattern from 1702 until 1864, and (following this abolition of squadronal colours) they were flown in a slightly altered form by all flag officers (under the conditions outlined above) from 1864 until regulations of 1898 changed the pattern to that which is still current.
Christopher Southworth, 17 April 2013

From WG Perrin's "British flags, their early development and meaning" on page 100:

The need for some distinction in the flags of the admirals of the same squadronal colour, when displayed in a boat, or indeed any small craft in which only one position was available, must, one would suppose, have been felt often before, but this was the first attempt to solve the difficulty. Its main interest lies in the fact that it supplied the solution of the similar difficulty which arose, nearly three hundred years later, when the three-masted sailing-ship had given place to the two-masted iron  ship, which often had only a single masthead available for the Admiral's flag.

The changes promulgated by the orders of the 5th February and the 20th March, 1702, already quoted, did not end there, for the officers of the fleet were not satisfied with an arrangement that made over the Union flag to the admirals of the second squadron of the fleet and introduced a red and white ensign. Accordingly, on the 6th of May, Pembroke issued the following further order:-

Whereas I did some time since c'irect in what manner ths Flaggs and Ensignes should be made for such ships as should be appointed to be of the Squadron of the Adm' of the White, and whereas upon consulting with the Flagg Officers of the Fleet, it is thought more advisable that the said Flaggs and Ensignes should be rather made white with a large St George's Cross, according to the sample herewith sent you: and I do therefore hereby desire and direct you, to cause all such of the said Flaggs and Ensignes as have already been made by your orders to be altered, and that such as are still to be made be conformable to what is before directed, as also the Flaggs necessary for the Boats of the Ships of the aforesaid Squadron.

The drawing included with the order shows a very broad red cross, in width equal to one-third of the depth of the whole flag.

This alteration necessitated a change in the boat flags of the Vice and Rear-Admirals of the White. The balls became blue and were gathered into the upper canton instead of being placed diagonally across the flag; the white balls in the red and blue flags also underwent the same alteration in position.
It is the last paragraph which causes problems with regards to the boat flag of a Rear Admiral. Perrin tells us that the balls were gathered into the upper canton, yet no mention is made of their geometrical arrangement. Neither Chris Southworth or myself have seen an illustration of this flag, and so our conclusions must remain speculative, but because the balls on the previous flag had been placed in a diagonal fashion, it seemed reasonable to us that this may have been the manner in which they were placed on the new flag's canton. As for the Vice Admiral's boat flag, I do not think their is any doubt whatsoever and the Admiral flag is gospel..
Martin Grieve, 18 April 2013

I think it is more likely that the diagonal was top left to bottom right. This is the arrangement in illustration 4, plate VIII, "Rear Admiral of Blue, 1702".
David Prothero, 18 April 2013

Admiral's boat flag pre-1898

[Admiral's boat flag ] image by Martin Grieve, 17 April 2013


Vice-Admiral's boat flag 1702-1864

[Vice-Admiral's boat flag ] image by Martin Grieve, 17 April 2013

Boat flags carrying small blue balls of difference for the use of Rear-Admirals and Vice-Admirals of the White Squadron from 1702-1864.
Christopher Southworth, 17 April 2013


Rear-Admiral's boat flag 1702-1864

[Rear-Admiral's boat flag ] image by Martin Grieve, 17 April 2013

Boat flags carrying small blue balls of difference for the use of Rear-Admirals and Vice-Admirals of the White Squadron from 1702-1864.
Christopher Southworth, 17 April 2013


Vice-Admiral 1864-1898

[Vice-Admiral's boat flag ] image by Martin Grieve, 18 April 2013

In 1864 the balls on both the Vice Admiral and Rear Admiral's boat flags were changed from blue to red.
Martin Grieve, 18 April 2013


Rear-Admiral 1864-1898

[Rear-Admiral's boat flag ] image by Martin Grieve, 18 April 2013

In 1864 the balls on both the Vice Admiral and Rear Admiral's boat flags were changed from blue to red. In 1898, the present-day rank flags came into being, with the arms of the crosses being narrowed and the balls enlarged.
Martin Grieve, 18 April 2013