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SS (Steam Ship) Great Britain

Last modified: 2007-10-28 by rob raeside
Keywords: steamship great britain | ss great britain |
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[SS Great Britain] image by Rob Raeside, 19 June 2002 

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The flag was seen on a poster showing the SS. Great Britain. It has the red cross of St. George on a white background, the top hoist has the British union flag and the lower fly has the Stars and Stripes. Is this an original flag or is it an artist's impression?
Morgan, 13 March 2002

It's not an artist's impression. The SS Great Britain, being restored in the dry dock in Bristol in which it was built, flies this flag. Another way of describing it would be a White Ensign with the Stars and Stripes in the lower fly. The flag symbolises the link which the ship provided between Britain and the U.S. I had assumed that it was a modern, invented flag, but I will try to check with the S.S. Great Britain Trust. The ship also flies a red flag with 'GB' in gold. On the quay alongside the ship are flown the flags of the countries which the ship visited while she was working - the U.K., the U.S.A., Australia and the Falkland Islands.
André Coutanche, 14 March 2002

In a leaflet about the ship available here [in Bristol] the flag can be seen indeed to have a ratio of 1:2.  So far as the origin of the flag is concerned, there is an often-reproduced picture of her launch in 1843 which shows her flying all sorts of flags, but not this one. However, a painting of her arriving in New York for the first time in 1845 *does* show her flying the UK/US flag - but I don't know whether this is a contemporary painting or whether it's a modern artist's impression which shows the flag because the ship flies it now.
André Coutanche, 22 June  2002

It is my understanding that in flag protocol, the Royal Standard is supreme. It must only be flown from buildings where the Queen is present and never lower than any other flag. Looking out of my office window I can't help but notice that the SS Great Britain flies the Royal Standard everyday without the Queen being present. It is also flown below the US Stars and Stripes - surely this is a serious deviation in protocol or is it just a reflection of the UK-US 'special relationship'?
Jonathan Jones, 19 January 2006

Since 2002, restoration of the ship has continued and the flags flown on her have changed and they now include the Royal Standard (I don't think the combined UK/US flag is now flown, but I will check). The reason why the Royal Standard is flown is because the SS Great Britain Trust are re-creating the launch of the ship when she was floated out of the dry dock flying the flags of the United States, (Imperial) Russia, the Royal Standard, France and (Royal) Italy. At the bow she flew the Union Jack and at the stern the White Ensign. A well-known (in Bristol) contemporary painting shows the scene. I think the white pennant on the stern mast is an onomast bearing her name.

Along with the four flags flying from flagpoles on the dockside by the ship which represent the four countries she is associated with - the U.K., the U.S., Australia and the Falkland Islands - it all makes a very fine vexillological sight, and I have been meaning to take a photo and send it to the List. Unfortunately, I haven't yet managed the necessary combination of me, my camera, sun and suitable wind, so you will have to make do with the painting for now. I can't bring to mind where the S&S is flown *above* the Royal Standard, as mentioned in Jonathan's original message.

We have noted before the absence of any flag law in the U.K. In 1843, it seems clear that no-one found it offensive that the ship flew the flags she did, and nothing has changed - legally - since then. Prince Albert launched her, and presumably (a) didn't of himself qualify for the Royal Standard, but (b) didn't object to its use. I'm pretty sure we have also noted in the past the use of the White Ensign as part of general street decorations along with the Union Jack on patriotic occasions. The (mis-)use of the Scottish Royal Banner is also widespread. So if it was acceptable in 1843, why not now? Especially as a historic reconstruction of a historic ship?
André Coutanche, 19 January 2006

An item in the "Answers" column of the August 2006 "Mariners' Mirror" (p. 342) sheds some interesting light on the combined US/UK ensign that was displayed on the SS Great Britain. It refers to a painting by Francis Hustwick (1797-1865) called "SS Great Britain off Liverpool on September 13th 1845, upon returning from her maiden voyage to New York." The item says the following: "The relevant feature here is the `blended flag' at the foremast corresponding exactly with the report in the New York Herald of 11 August 1845 (which the present-day official replica does not!). Basically, this is a white ensign with four horizontal red stripes in the lower fly, and a central blue horizontal bar bearing three stars defacing the Union flag in the upper canton." The item goes on to say that the flag was probably created by the ship's master, LT James Hosken RN, and evidentially gained "tacit official approval." This would indicate that the version of this flag above doesn't match the historical sources (and neither does the one currently flown on the SS Great Britain in Bristol). It would be good to verify this by examining the Hustwick painting and the New York Herald article.
Peter Ansoff, 3 January 2007