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United Kingdom: Sledge Flags

Last modified: 2021-01-09 by rob raeside
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Sledge flags were the idea of Captain Horatio Austin. He was in charge an expedition, mounted by the Royal Navy in 1850, to look for signs of Sir John Franklin's expedition of 1845. There had been no news of Franklin, who set out to find a North West Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, since the summer of 1847. The search was in the general area of Prince of Wales Island and Lancaster Sound, and included some journeys over the ice using sledges hauled by seamen. "To retain esprit de corps, and a naval atmosphere, each sledge was given a name, motto and flag."

"It was a grand sight to see the whole fifteen sledges, loaded and manned, marching in two long lines over the ice morning after morning, with the frowning cliffs of Griffith Island as a background. There was Captain Ommanney's Maltese Cross on a red field, the blue cross of McClintock, the St George's Cross of Bradford, Osborn's white cross on blue, the arm with a pierced heart of Mecham, the sawn tree of Hamilton, and many more."
[Life of Sir Leopold McClintock by C.R. Markham]

The flags were two feet by three feet (60cms x 90cms).

Details of these flags are derived mainly from an article "Sledge Flags" by H. Gresham Carr in the Mariner's Mirror January 1941, and "Royal Navy" (volumes 6 and 7) by William Laird Clowes.
David Prothero, 22 December 2003

"Much information concerning the construction and equipment of sledges is to be found in the Journals of certain polar explorers. Indeed, they contain the smallest details, but, in almost every case, little or no mention is made of sledge flags. This will come as no surprise to the student of flags, for he is well aware that this  particular branch of the science of heraldry has been sadly neglected by all but a few." H.Gresham Carr, who wrote the article 'Sledge Flags', and was editor of Warne's 'Flags of the World' from 1953 to 1961.
David Prothero, 23 December 2003

Flags of 1850 Expedition (search for Franklin)

Captain Erasmus Ommanney, sledge Reliance

[Captain Erasmus Ommanney, sledge Reliance] image by Martin Grieve

Francis Leopold McClintock, sledge Perseverance

[Francis Leopold McClintock, sledge Perseverance] image by Martin Grieve

George Fredrick Mecham, sledge Succour

[George Fredrick Mecham, sledge Succour] [Colours not known] image by Martin Grieve

[Mecham arms]

The flag design of Mecham's flag as shown here differs slightly from what it most probably was. It comes from the Mecham crest and features a hand-held dagger tranfixing a human heart, emitting blood, rather than the arrow. The scan shows the Mecham Arms with crest; from which Lt. Mecham designed his flag. Note the drops of blood from heart. I expect the colour to be similar. The arms awarded to his father, Capt.George Mecham 3rd Dragoons, in 1812 (George Mecham of Garrycastle, co.Westmeath, Ireland). Lt Mecham became a  Commander after these expeditions, but died in Honolulu, in command of HMS Vixen, in 1858, aged only 30 years.
Mick Mecham, 3 April 2004

Lieutenant Sherard Osborn, sledge True Blue

[Lieutenant Sherard Osborn, sledge True Blue] image by Martin Grieve

Richard Vesey Hamilton, sledge Adventure

[Richard Vesey Hamilton, sledge Adventure] [Colours not known] image by Martin Grieve

This is based on a description, "and the sawn tree of Hamilton", using the drawing in Parker's Heraldry with the coronet and motto removed.
David Prothero, 22 December 2003

See also: scan of reference pages from 1857 book of expedition, written by Resolute's Master.
Provided by Mick Mecham, 3 April 2004

Flag of 1852 Expedition (search for Franklin)

[Flag of 1852 Expedition] image by Martin Grieve

Only one flag from the 1852-53 five-sledge expedition which was commanded by Captain Henry Kellet. Francis McClintock again, with a sledge named 'Star of the North'.
David Prothero, 23 December 2003

Flag of 1857-1859 Expedition (search for Franklin)

[Flag of 1857-1859 Expedition] image by Martin Grieve

The Admiralty lost interest in continuing to search for any signs of Sir John Franklin's expedition after silver cutlery from the expedition was found by Eskimos, and the 1857 expedition was financed by his widow. McClintock, now a captain, was in charge of the steam yacht 'Fox', which flew the Blue Ensign of the Royal Harwich Yacht Club. Yellow lion rampant in the fly; see Jose Alegria's web-site -

McClintock's sledge was named 'The Lady Franklin', and the flag included the Franklin motto: Nisu.

David Prothero, 23 December 2003

Flag of 1875 Expedition (to North Pole)

Flags of Albert Hastings Markham.

[Flag of 1875 Expedition] image by Martin Grieve

Expedition to the North Pole, commanded by Captain George Nares. One sledge reached 83 degrees 20 minutes, the nearest to the North Pole then achieved.

Francis McClintock was not directly involved this time, but was Admiral-Superintendent at Portsmouth where the expedition fitted out. On the suggestion of Sir Clements Markham, Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, the sledge flags were designed as standards. The only one of four known from this expedition is that of Sir Clements' cousin, Albert Hastings Markham. He is remembered for designing the New Zealand flag, and for ramming and sinking the flagship of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet. 42 inches by 12 inches (107cm x 30cm)

After this most sledge flags tended to be of a similar style; the personal flag of a sledge commander, rather than the flag of the sledge, or its crew. Early examples had rounded ends, but later the ones were pointed.
David Prothero, 24 December 2003

[Flag of 1875 Expedition] image located by Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 3 May 2019

A sledge flag used during Nares' Arctic expedition in 1875. It was embroidered by Lady McClintock for Albert Hastings Markham, and was flown by him on HM sledge 'Marco Polo' which achieved the record furthest north 83˚ 20´26˝ in May 1876. The sledge flag is in the form of a silk, hand-sewn union jack with roses, thistles and shamrocks representing Scotland, Ireland and England, embroidered in the centre. The word 'GOD' is embroidered above these symbols of the United Kingdom, with 'Queen' and 'COUNTRY' on either side —all in white gothic letters.

The reverse is not shown but is reported to have crossed spears and ribbon with Dum Spiro Spero around it.
Source: National Maritime Museum
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 3 May 2019

Flag of Lieutenant Alfred Arthur Chase Parr

[Alfred Parr's flag] image located by Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 3 May 2019

Sledge flag flown by Alfred Arthur Chase Parr from HM sledge Victoria. A divided standard, as common for the sledge flags of that era.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 3 May 2019

Robert Falcon Scott's First Antarctic Expedition, 1901 - 1904

Royal Geographic Society pennant

[Pennant of the Royal Geographical Society] image by Martin Grieve

Pennant of the Royal Geographical Society which was presented to the expedition ship Discovery in Dundee. The badge in the image is black, with some detailing, omitted as the correct colour is not known.
David Prothero, 24 December 2003

Robert Scott's flag

[Robert Scott's flag] image by Martin Grieve

Click here for a photo of this flag (sent by Mark Rogacki, 12 June 2005), from National Maritime Museum.

Ernest Henry Shackleton's flag

[Ernest Henry Shackleton's flag] image by Martin Grieve

From Scott's 1901 expedition, and presumably Shackleton's own expeditions. "Red stripe charged with three buckles lozengy, tongues upwards, palewise. On red canton a yellow cross humettee" Flag of Ernest Henry Shackleton, who was Scott's Third Lieutenant. Shackleton led his own Antarctic Expeditions in 1908 and 1914.

Wilson's sledging flag

[Gonville and Caius College] image by António Martins-Tuvàlkin, 31 August 2009

Wilson's sledging flag is shown at [Antarctic explorer] "Wilson's flag hangs in Gloucester Cathedral (…). I thought it was at his Cambridge college, Gonville & Caius, but going there last October and seeing the flag in the dining hall, it was clear that this was the college flag which Wilson took south with him (…) and not his sledging flag. It's mounted on the wall beside the high table, protected by a covering."
See the flag in all its beauty here (tiny shield on a blue field): for which we have to thank mffitzgerald (photo uploaded 27 Nov 2007). Caption: "From the dining hall at Caius and Gonville".
Jan Mertens, 4 February 2009

Shackleton's Expedition (1907-1909)

Ernest Shackleton’s flag?

[Shackleton’s proposal?] image by António Martins, 11 Feb 2000

On December 19th I saw the Antiques Roadshow on BBC1, which took place in Worcester (Mid-England). They showed a manuscript, of which a description was found on the BBC website:

Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic Expeditionary party of 1907-1909 also visited the house, and the book contains the signatures of all the crew and some illustrations by the artist, G. E. Marston, one of the official artists of the expedition. There is also what may possibly be an unpublished poem by Shackleton, entitled Mount Erebus, from which Clive reads a passage: «Keeper of the southern gateway / Rugged and grim and grand / Warden of the wastes uncharted / as the years sweet on you stand.» (Note: Clive later found that the poem Erebus does appear in a published expedition book, but it is signed as “Nemo”, hence it was not previously publicly known that Shackleton was the author of this piece).
A colored picture of a waving flag on a small hill was drawn on the pages of the Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition (1907-1909). The flag had — if I noticed correctly — five horizontal bars, blue and white. Is this an expedition flag for this event only? How should I interpret this flag?
Jan Melssen
, 24 Dec 1999

It might have been just an expedition flag.
António Martins, 11 Feb 2000

From Antiques Trade Gazette:

[sledge flag] located by Rob Raeside, 23 December 2020

A sledge and flag from the first expedition to the Antarctic led by Ernest Shackleton have been saved for the nation [UK].
The sledge from Shackleton's expedition that belonged to Eric Marshall. Along with the flag, the two pieces have been bought for £204,700 and will now go to two UK institutions.
The National Maritime Museum and the Scott Polar Research Institute have acquired the two items after they were barred from export earlier this year.
They had sold for hammer prices of £115,000 and £60,000 in Bonhams' Travel and Exploration sale on February 6, 2019, and the buyer applied to export them overseas.
The sledge and flag from the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09 had been consigned to auction by Monkton Combe School, the alma mater of Eric Marshall (1879-1963) who was surgeon, cartographer and photographer on the expedition ship, Nimrod. Although the sledging party fell short of their goal, by coming within 100 miles of the Pole they showed that it was achievable.
Rob Raeside, 23 December 2020

Scott's 1910 Expedition

Captain Scott's sledging flag is made of silk and measures 30.5 cm x 88 cm. It is a standard with the Cross of St George nearest the hoist, with the remainder of the flag divided horizontally with two stripes (cream above blue), the legend 'Stretched wings towards the South' worked in blue on the cream stripe, above a pair of
predominantly blue wings supporting a small green ball overlapping the join between the two stripes and the edge of the pennant worked with twisted cream and blue cord. From
David Prothero, 29 December 2003

[James Wordie's flag] photo by James Dignan, 18 January 2007

On display at the Otago Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand, is a major exhibition on Antarctic exploration and research (January 2007). Dunedin's port, Port Chalmers, was the last stop for Scott before his fateful final trip to the "Big Ice". Among the items on display is a sledge pennant designed for Birdie Bowers on this final expedition. For reasons explained further down, it was never used, but it is an interesting piece of flag history nonetheless. Here is the description from the accompanying panel displayed next to the pennant.

"In 1939, Lady Maxwell, sister of "Birdie" Bowers, donated to Waitaki Boys' High School (Oamaru, NZ)'s Hall of Memories the pennant she had embroidered for her brother's sledge. Individual sledge pennants had been made for Scott's first Antarctic expedition, and the custom continued on the 1910-12 expedition. Lieutenant Henry Robertson "Birdie" Bowers was originally in charge of stores on the 'Terra Nova'. His abilities, however, impressed Scott so much that by the time the vessel had reached Melbourne he was included in the shore party, and Bowers delightedly wrote home saying he would now need a sledging flag, including specifications and a sketch. It did not reach the Antarctic, however, until the 'Terra Nova' returned there in January 1912. By then the polar party of Scott, Bowers, Wilson, Oates, and Evans had already left on their ill-fated journey to the South Pole.

"The pennant carries the red cross of St George, on a white ground, common to all the sledge pennants, and also, on a blue ground, the Bowers family crest - a leg pierced by an arrow, encircled by a belt, with the motto 'Esse Quam Videri' ("To be rather than to seem")."
James Dignan, 18 January 2007

Shackleton's 1914 Antarctic Expedition

Ship's flags

Can you tell me what flags would have have flown from the mast while the ship was trapped in the ice?
Lori Nelson, 3 October 2007

There are numerous photos taken at the time online (a Google image search of endurance+ice+shackleton turns up quite a few). Something is definitely flown from the mast in some of the pictures (see and and it would make sense if it was the Union Jack.
Images of the ship just before it went down don't seem to show any flag there, though, so presumably it was lowered. (See
James Dignan, 4 October 2007

The book "The Endurance" by Caroline Alexander, has a fine selection of photos taken by Frank Hurley during Shackleton's expedition, including many of the Endurance trapped in the ice. Most of them do not show any flag at all. However, there are three that pertain:

  1. Page 90. The ship the ship is crushed and partially sunk in the ice, and a what appears to be a Red ensign is flying from the gaff peak. It's a monochrome photo and the flag is not fully extended, but that's what it appears to be (and it's what one would expect on a British merchant ship).
  2. Page 105, showing the temporary base at Ocean Camp after the ship was abandoned, shows a union flag flying on an improvised flagpole, above what the caption refers to as the "ship's burgee." The design, if any, on the burgee is not visible, but it appears to be larger than the union flag.
  3. Page 70, a shows the crew eating dinner aboard the ship before she was abandoned. A New Zealand ensign is hanging from the overhead in the background.

Peter Ansoff, 4 October 2007

The ship's proper ensign would have been the British Red Ensign, which would under normal circumstances have flown from the ensign staff at the stern. It is most unlikely that the Union jack would have been flown from the mast head as this was reserved for the Royal Navy to indicate that there was an Admiral of the Fleet on board. No such restriction would have applied to the position of the expedition flag.
Andries Burgers, 5 October 2007

James Wordie's flag

[James Wordie's flag] image by Martin Grieve

Flag of James Wordie, geologist on Shackleton's 1914-16 expedition.

This flag was made from photographs of a video of the television programme The Antiques Roadshow. The flag was valued at between twenty-five and thirty thousand pounds sterling. More information on sledge flags can be found at
David Prothero, 27 December 2003

Congrats for the very good likeness of the James Wordie Sledging flag. I have just had it restored and you will be pleased to hear it is not going to be sold (the Antiques Roadshow had a ludicrously high value).
William Wordie Stancer, 17 March 2004

Recent Expeditions

Is there any information about the use of sledge flags after 'The Heroic Era' and contemporary use on SnoCats, skidoos and other motorized vehicles (which, by the by, still include towing slightly modernized Nansen Sledges very similar to the 1900 model). Lots of safety oriented internationall orange location pennants and small national flags have been and are used on vehicles of all sorts but as to the more personal flags?

For example - Fuchs and Hillary flew some sort of personal or expedition flags from their machines in 1956 when the went across Antarctica (I know of the 1911 flag Fuchs also re-flew at the pole). New Zealand field teams may still design and fly 'sledge' flags when they travel on the ice (and as 'memento's'). I cannot get confirmation or find references to anything except for 1850-1924.
Mark Rogacki, 17 June 2005

To answer Mark Rogacki's query about whether explorers still use Sledge Flags. I know for a fact that several recent expeditions internationally have had Sledge Flags. Those in the Polar Regions tend to have them but only if they are (a) British and (b) of a traditional frame of mind. This issue is complex because of the need to carry the banners of one's sponsors. Individual explorers do have personal banners. I used the OZ Red Ensign as such and I carried the SA flag because I am a member of the Royal Geographical Soc. of South Australia. I felt I should carry a symbol of one of the mobs I belong to. The Expedition to Lambert Centre (The Geographical Heart of Aust.) some years ago circa 2010 carried the SA flag. What the QLD part of the Expedition (it was a joint RGSQ-RGSSA expedition) carried I don't know. But that is a start to answering this query and I shall be keeping my eyes open. I am still trying to come up with a suitable design myself. It is complicated by the fact of Nationality. Do I put what flag in the heading or chief of the Sledge Pennant? As an Aussie the ANF is offensive to me. The St. George flag suggests Englishness but my antecedents are Scottish/Irish and Gypsy in that order. So something like James Wedge's(?) flag. Or do I, for the sake of economy go for a rectangular banner? What Aussie symbols should I use and the matter has been further complicated by the fact that I have recently discovered my mother's family's connections to James Cook. My father's tribe were also involved in exploration.
E.Steve Duke BA FRGS, 26 January 2014