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History of British Naval Ensigns Part 3 (Great Britain)

Part III - 1800 to present (page 3 of 3 pages)

Last modified: 2020-03-21 by rob raeside
Keywords: united kingdom | red squadron | white squadron | blue squadron |
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Introduction: Red, Blue and White Naval Ensigns today

The Royal Navy had, since the late 1620s/early 1630s, been organized into three squadrons, which flew either red, white or blue ensigns with a Saint George's cross canton. In 1707, a Union canton replaced the Saint George's canton on the ensigns, and the Red Ensign remained not only the ensign of the senior and most numerous squadron in the Royal Navy, but also the ensign which all merchant ships were ordered to fly. The British still use three basic maritime ensigns today. However, the practice of adding shields to the flies for overseas territories and Commonwealth member nations to the red or blue versions increases the possible versions. The ensigns are/were used not only for territories, but also government departments and some yacht clubs. Currently there are over 133 defaced ensigns in use, plus an additional 68 being used for yacht clubs. Add to this another 99 obsolete ensigns from the British Isles, 52 additional obsolete yacht clubs, and 303 obsolete ensigns from the Commonwealth and the Empire, and you have a staggering number of defaced ensigns now or once being used.
Traditionally, at sea the British national flag was any of the naval ensigns, of which there are three main types, the red, white and blue. There are also versions of the blue and red flags with badges in the fly representing the member states and overseas territories of the Commonwealth. If the different badges are counted separately there are over one hundred British maritime national flags, but the actual "Union Jack" has never been considered one of these maritime flags. Strangely enough, it was another of the maritime ensigns that was first recognized by Parliament as a national flag in 1854, and that was the Red Ensign.
Text from: Historical Flags of Our Ancestors.
Pete Loeser, 22 February 2020

In 1801, the Act of Union made Ireland a co-equal member of the United Kingdom. This made it necessary to add a symbol for Ireland to the flag, the St Patrick's Cross, but without obliterating any of the existing symbols. The result was the Union Flag of 1801, and this necessitated the updating of the all variants of the United Kingdom flags, including the Red, White and Blue ensigns.
Pete Loeser, 28 February 2020

You may find these also of interest:
1. A chart showing the evolution from maritime flag to national flag - A Time line for the Union Flag/Jack
2. A short essay discussing the question - The Union Jack: A Royal Ensign or National Flag?
Pete Loeser, 28 February 2020

The Red Ensign 1800-present

[UK civil ensign] image by Martin Grieve

The Red Ensign is now solely the ensign of ships of the British Merchant Navy and of all civilian vessels that have not been granted a special ensign. The British Merchant Navy connotes British merchant ships and their crews, transporting cargo and people during time of peace and war. Interestingly, the Red Ensign was the first flag to be recognized officially as the national flag of England. It was referred to as "a national flag" in an Act of Parliament in 1854. The Red Ensign is now officially the national flag of the UK when afloat.

Then in 1889, an Act of Parliament was passed making it compulsory for British ships to fly the Red Ensign on certain occasions. This was fiercely opposed by the owners of coastal shipping, on the grounds that there was no need for a British ship to fly a flag in British waters. The Red Ensign is the only flag that has even been the subject of legislation.
Text from: Historical Flags of Our Ancestors
Pete Loeser, 22 February 2020

The White Ensign 1800-present

[UK naval ensign] image by Martin Grieve

The White Ensign became the sole ensign of the Royal Navy in 1864. In 1702 an overall St George's cross was added to the white ensign to distinguish it from the French flag, which was mainly white. Nelson used the White Ensign at Trafalgar; it replaced the traditional Red Ensign which became the merchant ensign. Nelson's decision that all the squadrons at Trafalgar should use the White Ensign was probably a factor in its selection as the sole ensign of the Royal Navy, but more importantly, the Red Ensign had been the ensign of merchant ships for over one hundred and fifty years, and the White Ensign was senior to the Blue Ensign.
Text from: Historical Flags of Our Ancestors
Pete Loeser, 22 February 2020

The Blue Ensign 1800-present

[UK naval reserve ensign] image by Clay Moss

The Blue Ensign became the Royal Naval Reserve Ensign. The Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) is the volunteer reserve force of the Royal Navy (RN) in the United Kingdom. The Blue Ensign is also flown by merchant vessels commanded by officers in the RNR. For this reason, the Titanic wore the Blue Ensign, rather than the Red on her fateful voyage.
This is a widely misunderstood ensign. It is not some form of military ensign as its name suggests, but an ensign granted to merchant ships and yachts by special warrant. The members of some yacht clubs had been granted the right to fly a Blue Ensign instead of a Red Ensign even before 1864. After 1864 the right to fly a Blue Ensign was extended to merchant ships that were commanded by an RNR officer and had a specified number of RNR personnel in the crew. The number of merchant ships that qualified has declined considerably, and it is probable that there are now no merchant ships flying a Blue Ensign. However there are thirty yacht clubs, Australian as well as British, that have the right to apply for a Blue Ensign warrant.
Text from: Historical Flags of Our Ancestors
Pete Loeser, 22 February 2020