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History of the Australian national flag (Part 5)

Last modified: 2022-02-12 by ian macdonald
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Lost Australian flag history

During the Jubilee of Federation in 1951, the Prime Minister's Department spent considerable effort trying to find historic documents and information concerning the Australian Blue Ensign which was even then regarded by them as the Australian National Flag. This would seem straightforward as they held the relevant files. They also enlisted the help of various entities within Australia to find any information they did not have on file, and the help of the Imperial authorities in lengthy searches for missing documents in the United Kingdom. Much to their frustration they found that many documents, artifacts and other information simply did not exist. In some cases it probably never did. This is what was found to be missing in 1951, and is even now not publicly available.
Jeff Thomson, 9 February 2022

The 1901 Federal Flag Competition Entries

There appears to be no images of the designs submitted by the five competition winners, Annie Dorrington (Ahasuerus 3935), William Stevens (Zoe 4034), Leslie Hawkins (Elpis 4192), Egbert Nuttall (Six-pointed Star 4581) and Ivor Evans (Simplicity 414). By 1951 none of the surviving three winners nor families of the deceased two, had retained any images of their winning competition entries. 
Jeff Thomson, 9 February 2022

The Royal Exhibition Building Flag

Although much has been written about the 18 ft x 36 ft blue flag flown over the Royal Exhibition Building from 3 September 1901, we don't know who designed it, how it come about (for example, was it commissioned or was it loaned or donated), who made it up, and what happened to it.
Jeff Thomson, 9 February 2022

The 1902 Southern Cross Design Change

No information has been found to indicate who changed three of the Southern Cross stars to seven star-points in 1902, why they did it, by what authority they did it, and why they made the unusual choice of seven star-points. But there is absolutely no evidence to support the allegation made in the government-issued 'Australian Flags' booklet of 1998 (page 16) that the British Admiralty did so. In fact in the next edition published in 2006, the description of the Southern Cross retained the same wording except for deleting 'by the British Admiralty'.
Jeff Thomson, 9 February 2022

The Official 1903 Flags (British)

It is not clear why the British artworks of the flags were so crude, undimensioned, and of a visibly different design to the formalised Australian design. The key to understanding this more than thirty-year confusion relies upon finding the 'Design A' sketch sent through the Governor-General's Office to London in 1902. However the Imperial authorities in 1951 were unable to locate it. And of course we may well ask, who in Australia produced these inaccurate drawings that it seems were effectively caricatures of the Australian flags with no dimensions supplied, and why they were content to do this.
Jeff Thomson, 9 February 2022

The E Wilson Dobbs 1908 Flag Design Drawing

Mr E Wilson Dobbs is associated with the design of the seven-point Commonwealth Star on the Coat of Arms and the Australian flags in 1908. However he also restored or continued the 1901 type of Southern Cross to the flags and copies of his flag drawing were printed for issue by the Department of External Affairs to public enquirers. Around 1911 these drawings were replaced by a new one by Mr Dobbs depicting the Australian flags as they are today (thought to be the drawing included in the 1934 Gazette notification). To date no copies of Mr Wilson Dobbs' 1908-1911 drawing have been located although accurate small-scale colour plates of it have been found.
Jeff Thomson, 9 February 2022

The Blue Ensign as Australian National Flag

In the 1980s an assertion emerged that in 1954, Prime Minister Robert Menzies may have arbitrarily selected the Australian Blue Ensign to be the Australian National Flag instead of the Australian Red Ensign due to his strongly-held anti-communism views, and presumably his opposition to a mainly-red national flag. Ever since, supporters of replacing the current Australian National Flag with a new national flag have held to this assertion. It could even be strengthened by noting the fact that members of the communist-infiltrated maritime unions of the time served under this flag. As far as I know, no-one has seriously disputed this claim. It is based on a comment in Mr Menzies' memoirs published in 1967, Afternoon Light: Some Memoirs of Men and Events that; 'For us, the maps of the world were patterned with great areas of red, at a time when red was a respectable colour'. This is tenuous evidence. What is known is that the lengthy process of making the blue flag into the Australian National Flag had actually begun in early 1937 with an enquiry to the Imperial authorities, well before Mr Menzies had become Prime Minister for the first time. However, the action to achieve this was deferred due to the war.

Although Mr Menzies as the responsible Minister clearly played a part in the flag process in 1939-1941 and in 1949-1954, there is no documentary nor anecdotal evidence that he placed any undue pressure on officials working in the Prime Minister's Department, to make the Ensign into the Australian National Flag. Several mentions of 'submitting it to the Prime Minister' and 'Awaiting his decision' appear to be references to normal processes in departmental officials dealing with their relevant minister. In fact when the first press release inviting more general flying of the blue flag was issued under Mr Menzies' name on 15 March 1941, this was halfway through his several-month visit to wartime London!
Jeff Thomson, 9 February 2022

The Red Ensign as Australian National Flag?

No documents have been located that discuss the Australian Red Ensign as a potential Australian National Flag, despite its widespread community use as a quasi-national flag well into the 1960s. About all that officials of the Prime Minister's Department said about the role of the Australian Red Ensign was that it was clearly a maritime flag and that its use on land was inappropriate except to represent the merchant service on special occasions.

Yet the Commonwealth government had suggested public flying of the Australian Red Ensign on land in their periodically issued flag-flying information to the State Premiers from January 1924. Although they had begun to play this down from 1941, it was only after the Flags Act 1953 took effect that public flying of the blue flag began to increase significantly in place of the red flag and the Union Flag. The lack of any 'kind words' relating to ending of the red flag's widespread public land-use and what amounted to banishing to sea the 'virile' flag that many Australians had been devoted to for at least three decades, appears to have created a degree of community resentment that has not only continued ever since, but in recent times seems to be strengthening.
Jeff Thomson, 9 February 2022