Australian Vexillology

The tradition of Australian flags can be divided into the three periods, the colonial period, the federation period and the modern period. The colonial period denotes early representations of defaced British Ensigns incorporating a mixture of British and Australian imagery. The federation period extends from 1901 to 1971 when the Blue and Red defaced British ensigns were adopted as flags to represent Australian ethnicity by the Australian Federal government. The modern period begins with the flying of the Aboriginal Flag as Australians incorporated Australian imagery into flags outside of the British Ensign tradition.

In terms of independent heraldic traditions being developed in Australia the Eureka Stockade flag was the most significant of the colonial period. The Eureka flag was unique for its time in that it did not carry any European imagery. Through Peter Lalor's speech at Bakery Hill, the Southern Cross was indelibly entwined with Australian liberty. The significant event of the federation period was the Flag Act of 1954 officially adopting the Blue Ensign as the Australian National Flag over the British Union Flag. The modern era has produced flags of great beauty and meaning such as the Aboriginal Flag, the Boxing Kangaroo flag, the Torres Strait Islander Flag and the development of the unique Australian Pale design.

The British Ensigns

The British Ensign was a staple of Australian flag design for a century and a half. The dominance of the design in Australia stretched from the 1820's to the 1970's. The British Ensign is a flag with the British Union Flag in the canton[1] or upper hoist on a strong field of background colour with the background colour being either red, blue or white. The British Blue Ensign is an ensign with the British Union Flag in the canton on a field of blue. The British Red Ensign is an ensign with the British Union Flag in the canton on a field of red. The British White Ensign is the ensign of the Royal Navy and the British Union Flag in the canton with the fly defaced by a Cross of St George. A defaced British Ensign is an ensign with a symbol or emblem defacing the fly.

British Ensigns started appearing in the British Isles during the 1620's as Red and Blue Ensigns. Initially the Ensigns carried the Cross of St George in the canton. The Ensigns carried the British Union Flag after the English and Scottish union. The Red Ensign was established as the flag for civil use on the sea by English and Scottish merchant ships in 1707. The British formalized the usage of Ensigns in the Government, Military and Civil services in 1864 when the White Ensign was reserved for Naval use, the Blue Ensign for Government use and the Red Ensign to the Merchant Navy.

Early Australian Ensigns

One of the earliest[2] Ensigns in Australia during the 1820's was the National Colonial Ensign which incorporated the British White Ensign with the stars of the Southern Cross in the arms of the Cross of St George. This flag contained a star in each of the four arms of the Cross of St George. This is one of the earliest known flags which contained the Southern Cross. This flag did not find widespread favour with Australians as the cross of St George was seen to alienate the Irish and Scottish Australians who at that stage were a significant proportion of the Australian population.[3]

An early Ensign which did not become popular outside of the Murray region was the Murray River Flag and its variants which flew from the Paddle Steamers of the Murray River. The Murray River flag was first hoisted on the river barge "Eureka" at Goolwa by the Winsby Brothers in 1853. The Murray River had two cultures, the bottom enders from Goolwa and the top enders at Echuca. The Murray River flag was a unifying symbol among the Paddle-steamers from both top and bottom reaches of the Murray. The flag is not well recorded but is believed to incorporate a blue cross on a defaced blue and white hooped British Ensign. The Murray River flags added a central star on the blue cross in addition to the stars in each arm. Historians and locals have speculated that the blue bars represent the rivers, the Murray, the Darling, the Murrumbidgee and the Goulburn River.

One of the more popular early colonial flags was the "Australian Colours" also known as the "NSW Ensign", "Colonial Ensign", "Australian Ensign" and later the "Australian Federation Flag". The flag was designed in 1831 by Captain John Nicholson who was a veteran of the Napoleonic wars. The flag consisted of a British White Ensign defaced with a blue cross. The cross contained a southern cross inside it. Originally designed as the Ensign for NSW. As NSW was a large part of the Australian continent at the time the flag unofficially was considered as the Australian flag.

The Colonial Ensign gained in popularity in the 1880's when it served as the rallying flag for Federalists seeking to unify the colonies into states under a central federal government. The flag was also used at sea by Australian ships in the 1880's. The flag was popular enough in 1901 to be entered in the competition for the Australian Flag. The Colonial Ensign continued to be flown well into the 1920's.

The Australasian Anti-Transportation League flag was first flown in 1851 and bears a remarkable similarity to the modern Australian Blue Ensign. The main difference being the Anti-Transportation League flags carried a golden Southern Cross rather than a white Southern Cross defacing the fly. The Anti-Transportation League was a Tasmanian group which sought to end the transportation of convicts from England to Australia. Melbourne had been founded as the first free city and was proud of its absence of convict labour or 'stain' as it was known. Western Australia as a developing state with a small population still desired the import of cheap convict labour. This was a point of contention between the western state and the eastern states. Transportation of convicts stopped and the League was disbanded in 1853. The flag is most significant for its similarity to the current Australian National Flag.

The Eureka Stockade Flag

The Eureka Stockade Rebellion[4] occurred on the Victorian gold fields at Ballarat in 1854. Victorian Governor Charles Hotham was facing a budget crunch and decided to alleviate the problems by applying a mining tax. The heavy handed collection and enforcement of this tax by state and local authorities pushed the miners to collectively make a stand for their rights. The tax collection was often arbitrary and unreasonable resulting in the detainment of numerous diggers and often innocent bystanders. The corruption of local officials in Ballarat was endemic. Subsequently the miners gathered and organized as the Ballaarat Reform League to reclaim their rights and make a formal stand against tyranny.

Once it became known that Hotham intended to send troopers to Ballarat to quell any further discontent, the miners built a stockade on the hill at the Eureka diggings and raised the Southern Cross Flag. The Southern Cross Flag was a blue flag with a silver cross. At each end of the cross was a white star. The center carried a larger white star. The flag was known to the miners as the Southern Cross Flag, by others as the 'diggers flag' and has been later referred to as the Starry Banner by some Australian historians. Raffaello Carboni[5] was an eye witness to the raising of the Southern Cross flag;

"The 'SOUTHERN CROSS' was hoisted up the flag staff - a very splendid pole, eighty feet in length, and straight as an arrow. This maiden appearance of our standard, in the midst of armed men, sturdy, self over-working gold-diggers of all languages and colours was a fascinating object to behold. There is no flag in old Europe half so beautiful as the 'Southern Cross' of the Ballarat miners, first hoisted on the old spot, Bakery Hill. The flag is silk, blue ground, with a large silver cross, similar to the one in our southern firmament; no device or arms, exceedingly chaste and natural."

The Eureka flag was the first popular Australian flag which did not contain any British, European or North American imagery. Australian liberty was forever tied to the Southern Cross when Peter Lalor[6] made a speech entwining the pursuit of liberty with the image of the Southern Cross. Raffaello Carboni recorded the moment as the armed diggers gathered around Lalor and the flag;

" ... [Lalor] who now knelt down, the head uncovered, and with the right hand pointing to the standard exclaimed in a firm measured tone :-


An universal well rounded AMEN, was the determined reply; some five hundred right hands stretched towards our flag."

The diggers at Bakery Hill all swore on the Southern Cross. This is made more important through the fact that the miners were an international group that included Australians, Irish, English, Scottish, Americans, Germans, Italians, Armenians plus many other nationalities. The flag is now on display at the Ballarat Art Gallery. Like the American Star Spangled Banner it is less than complete as many took small squares from it as souvenirs and an early curator gave samples of the flag to anyone who asked. The flag of Eureka or the Southern Cross flag was by far the most important flag in Australia's colonial vexillogical period.

Flags of Federation

With Australia federating in 1901 came a competition for the flag which was to represent Australia's new self determination and self governance. The judging of the entries were based on loyalty to the British Empire, Australian federation, history, heraldry as well as ease and cost of manufacture. The first judging requirement essentially ensured that a design incorporating a defaced British Ensign be entered. Of the thirty two thousand entries, there were five designs which were surprisingly similar. All five incorporated a defaced blue ensign, a federal star under the canton and a southern cross in the fly. The Blue Ensign design was a balanced and attractive design. It was subsequently adopted as the flag to represent the Australian Federal Government.

For civil ocean going use a Red Ensign of the same design as the Blue Ensign was adopted in the Flag Act. The Australian National Flag was not formalised in the Flag Act as it was assumed that the national flag would be the British Union Flag that would be used for private use on land. These choices segregated the uses of the British Union Flag to White Ensign, defaced Blue Ensign and defaced Red Ensign along the same lines and in keeping with the British system of ensign usage which was formalised in Britain in 1864.

The use of the British Union Flag was not always popular amongst Australians. In 1907 the British Empire League tried to get Empire Day adopted as a public holiday with patriotic overtones to the British Empire and the flying of the British Union Flag. In contrariness, St Marys in Sydney flew the Irish Flag and Blue Ensign. This dichotomy between British and Australian ethnicity was an issue that is to a large extent still not resolved and is as much a point of contention with the Australian National Flag in 2003 as it was in 1907.

The Blue Ensign was initially intended only to be flown on government buildings. Legislation was slowly added incorporating the Blue Ensign to be flown for more and greater uses. However the choice of Australians in WWI as to which flag they flew was predominantly the Red Ensign though the British Union Flag and Blue Ensign was also used liberally. It also appears that the Red Ensign was more often defaced with words of patriotism and liberty. Even until the 1970's many remember the Red Ensign as the flag commonly used by Australians for private use on land. Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam recalled similar diversity during World War II;

"Even when our soldiers carried flags in World Wars I and II and our airmen in World War II, there were at least as many Union Jacks as Red or Blue Australian Ensigns. The RAN always used the ensigns of the RN until the latter complained during Australia's, but not Britain's, hostilities in Vietnam. In April 1967 Prime Minister Holt inserted the blue Southern Cross and removed the St. George's Cross in the RAN White Ensign. Early last year another member of my old RAAF squadron sent me photographs of two funerals we attended in January 1945. At Gove and Adelaide River Cemetery the coffins were draped in Union Jacks; at the latter the Red Ensign flew from a flagpole."

It is a fact that the official Australian National Flag in World War I, World War II, Malaya and Korea was the British Union Flag. The conflicts of Vietnam, the Gulf War and the present conflict in Iraq have been fought with the Blue Ensign as the Australian National Flag.

Formal Adoption of the Blue and White Ensigns

Australian Prime Ministers in the 1930's and 1940's unsuccessfully tried to expand the use of the Blue Ensign as the Australian national flag through unofficial encouragement for the Blue Ensign to be flown privately on land. In 1952 Prime Minister Robert Menzies officially made the Blue Ensign the Australian National Flag deposing the British Union Flag. The Blue Ensign was now encouraged to be flown on land for private use. One issue Menzies was concerned with was that the Australian people's use of the Red Ensign made Australia appear communist. It is not uncommon for many Australians to still call the Red Ensign a 'communist flag'. Since 1954 with the passing of amendments to the Flag Act, the Blue Ensign has been the Australian National Flag. The promotion of the Blue Ensign as the National Flag requires that it be flown in a superior position on Australian soil to all other flags, including the British Union Flag.

In 1901 the Royal Australian Navy's ensign was the Royal Navy's white ensign. This is a defaced white ensign with a Cross of St Georges on it. In 1967 Australia committed naval assets to the Vietnam War. Britain was not involved in Vietnam and the Royal Navy objected to Australia using their naval flag on Australian ships in the region. Britain was concerned that it would cause diplomatic difficulties on the issue of British participation in the Vietnam conflict. Australia modified the Australian Naval Ensign to an attractive white defaced British Ensign with a blue southern cross and seven pointed blue star under the canton.

The Australian Air Force Ensigns are sky blue defaced British Ensigns that carry the Australian Air Force roundel. Originally the ensign contained no additional defacement to the fly other than the blue, white and red roundel which matched the roundel of the British Royal Air Force. In 1935 a golden seven pointed federal star was added under the canton and a golden southern cross added above the roundel at 45 degree angle. The Air Force ensign is unusual for its non-upright southern cross. The Air Force Ensign was again changed in 1948 with the golden stars being replaced with white. The final change to the Air Force Ensign was the modification of the roundel to the blue and white roundel with the red kangaroo in the centre.

The Start of the Modern Era, The Aboriginal Flag

The modern era began with the Aboriginal Flag in 1971. The Aboriginal Flag was designed by Harold Joseph Thomas of Humpty Do near Darwin to satisfy the desire of the indigenous Australian community for a colourful and memorable indigenous symbol. The flag was first flown prominently at the tent embassy in front of Old Parliament house in Canberra in 1972 in support of Aboriginal Land Rights.

The Aboriginal Flag is a black and red flag with the black field on the top half, a red field on the bottom half and a central, circular golden sun. There have been many interpretations of the colours and their place on the flag, however Harold Thomas places no ulterior symbolism in his choice of colours. One interpretation is the black represents the night, the red is the earth and the gold of the sun. Another is the black is the skin of the Aboriginal people and the red is the colour of the blood shed by the Aboriginal people over the last 200 years. The willingness for people to see symbolism in the design is testament to its power as an evocative image.

Many modern Australians who are unhappy with the British Ensign on the Australian National Flag have expressed a willingness to replace the British imagery with indigenous imagery by replacing the British Union Flag in the canton with the Aboriginal flag. Harold Thomas has strong opinions on the Aboriginal flag remaining as a separate image;

"Its not a secondary thing. It stands on its own, not to be placed as an adjunct to any other thing. It shouldn't be treated that way"

Like other modern flags the image for the Aboriginal Flag is the intellectual property of its designer. Incorporating the Aboriginal Flag into the Australian National Flag would require the permission of Harold Thomas. There was a copyright dispute over the flag in 1996 after the flag was recognized by the Federal Government as an Australian Flag under Section 5 of the Flag Act. The copyright dispute was resolved in "Thomas vs Brown and Tennant" where Thomas was declared the copyright owner of the design by the Federal Court of Australia.

Another famous episode involving the Aboriginal Flag was when Australian athlete Cathy Freeman chose the Aboriginal Flag over the Australian National Flag to display her Australian ethnicity after winning Gold at the Commonwealth Games in 1994. Harold Thomas commented on Cathy's use of the flag;

"It is my work, but when people take it on like Cathy[Freeman] did, it becomes their flag."

Despite detractors unhappy with Cathy choosing the Aboriginal Flag over the Blue Ensign, Cathy's decision was supported by the Prime Minister Paul Keating and Opposition Leader John Hewson. A Newspoll also found that 73% of Australians supported Cathy's choice. Under the International Olympic Committee rules the flags that can be flown by a nation are limited and flying a flag on the medals podium other than the National Flag can earn disqualification. Since 1994 Cathy has consistently done her victory laps after winning performances with the Aboriginal Flag but has included the Blue Ensign alongside the Aboriginal Flag.

Another incident revolving around the Aboriginal Flag was when the SOCOG committee for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games attempted to ban the flying of flags other than the Australian National Flag in the stadium. This action was believed to be aimed at the Aboriginal Flag and caused resentment among many Australians including Aboriginal groups. Ironically this ban limited the ability of Australians to fly the Boxing Kangaroo flag at the Olympics as well. Once again it showed the willingness of Australian Government Institutions since Federation to force the choice of flags on Australians rather than Australians choosing for themselves the imagery with which to display their Australian ethnicity.

Boxing Matilda

The Boxing Kangaroo imagery has a long history in Australia. In the late 1800's troupes would travel the country towns in outback Australia with boxing kangaroos. Local lads would pay to fight a kangaroo that had boxing gloves over its claws. The origins of the current image was first formalized by the Australian Air Force when No.21 Squadron in Malaya in 1941 was concerned that their aircraft were too easily confused with British aircraft. To display their Australian ethnicity their aircraft all carried the boxing kangaroo on the fuselage.

The image on the 21 Squadron aircraft was designed by Australian Air Force officer Gus Bluett and the image was painted on the aircraft by Aircraftsman David Martlett. The Boxing Kangaroo was a common image on Australian aircraft in World War II appearing on 450 Squadron aircraft in North Africa and many other aircraft on the European, South Pacific and Australian Home Fronts. The Navy also used the image with the boxing kangaroo appearing on HMAS Wollongong which was the last ship to leave Singapore before its fall.

The "Boxing Matilda" Flag rose to prominence with the winning of the America's Cup yacht race in 1983 by the Alan Bond entry, "Australia II". This victory ended the longest sports winning streak in sports history. It was the innovative wing keel designed by Ben Lexcen which gave the Australian team the technological upper hand over the American entry, "Stars and Stripes" skippered by Dennis Connor. The Australian crew raised the Boxing Kangaroo as their sporting battle flag and with the America's Cup victory the Boxing Kangaroo has come to symbolize the Australian belief in cultural ascendancy through sporting achievement.

The Boxing Kangaroo flag with a red gloved, golden kangaroo on a green background was copyrighted by Alan Bond and licensed for mass production. Alan Bond's corporate empire did not survive the difficulties the Australian economy experienced in the late 1980's and the rights to the Boxing Kangaroo flag were put up for sale at $80,000 AUD. The Australian Olympic Committee recognized a bargain and promptly bought the rights to the flag.

The Boxing Kangaroo flag has continued to increase in popularity and is also commonly known as the "Australian Battle Flag". This use of the boxing imagery to signify Australian fighting spirit has continued to be used in the armed forces since World War II and often serves as a surrogate for the Blue Ensign. The Boxing Kangaroo has appeared on all manner of armed forces equipment and more interestingly, in recent overseas military deployments, has been flown alongside the Blue Ensign in formal photographs and at Australian offices and headquarters to depict Australian ethnicity.

Torres Strait Islander Flag

Another indigenous Australian flag is the Torres Strait Islander Flag. The design for the flag was by Bernard Namok of Thursday Island. The flag depicts a white horse shoe shape of the Dhari which is a traditional headdress of the Torres Strait Islander people. A white star is in the centre of the dhari and represents the five Torres Strait Islands. The background of the flag is made up of blue and green stripes. The green stripes represent the land and the blue the sea. The Torres Strait Islander flag has legal recognition as a flag of Australia through Section 5 of the Flag Act.

The Australian Pale Design

A unique design in Australian vexillology is the "Australian Pale". The Australian Pale is a bi-colour vexillogical design where the darker colour in the hoist carries the southern cross and the lighter colour which is the dominant field on the fly carries the defacement. The Australian Pale design was first shown with the flying of the Northern Territory flag in 1982.

The Northern Territory Flag was designed by Robert Ingpen in 1978 for the Northern Territories attainment of self-government. The Northern Territory flag contains black in the left field which carries a white southern cross. The right field is in a dark ochre of the Northern landscape and the emblem of the Sturts Desert Rose. The Australian Capital Territory attained self-government in the 1970's, however it wasn't until 1993 that the ACT adopted an Australian Pale flag. In the Australian Capital Territory Flag the darker colour in the left field is blue with a white southern cross and a yellow right field with the coat of arms for the city.

The strength of the Australian Pale design for the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory are in stark contrast to the similar defaced Blue Ensign designs the states carry. The State flags[7] were originally colonial flags and follow the defaced Blue Ensign tradition. Inspired by Ingpens design, Australian Flag designer Brendan Jones has designed Australian Pale flags for NSW, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. The Australian Pale NSW design flew briefly along William Street in Sydney.

A flag similar to the Australian Pale design was used by the separatist North Queensland Party which desired the creation of a Northern Queensland State. The flag contained a white hoist with a blue southern cross. The right field contained a blue background with the defacement of a star and marlin.

The Future of Australian Flag Heraldry

The modern flags that Australia has produced since the Aboriginal Flag have all been devoid of the British Union Flag. One of the main points of contention with the current Australian Flag is the location of another nations flag in the privileged position of the canton. The Australian National Flag is not a unifying image domestically and internationally is a confusing flag as several nations fly British Ensigns as their national flag. Gough Whitlam addressed these issues during a speech in 1994;

"On the question of national identity, I come to an even more emotive topic, the Flag. Australians need a flag which is recognisable in all other countries and is acceptable to everyone in this country."

The willingness of Australians to adopt the Aboriginal Flag and Boxing Kangaroo Flag are indications to the limited appeal of the Blue Ensign. There has been consistent interest in a national flag that is devoid of the British Union Flag. The Ausflag organization conducted several competitions in the 1990's for Australian flag designers to enter their designs for a new Australian flag.

Currently there is little political will to change the Australian National Flag or remove the British Union Flag from the Australian National Flag. During the Republican debates of the 1990's, great care was taken by Republicans to separate the issue of an Australian Republic from the issue of the Australian Flag. With the recent addition of a requirement for a referendum[8] to be held before the Australian National Flag can be changed in the Flag Act, it is unlikely that the issue of the Australian National Flag's relevancy will be revisited unless there is a clear majority of opinion for change.


1. The fields of the flag are named the Hoist, the Canton and the Fly. The Canton is the privileged position.

2. The Bowman Flag was one of the first known Australian flags. It was flown by John and Honor Bowman on the their farm "Archerfield" at Richmond, NSW in 1806. The flag was created to celebrate the British victory at Trafalgar in 1805. The flag contained an Emu and Kangaroo carrying a Norman shield which contained an English Rose, a Scottish thistle and an Irish shamrock. Underneath the shield were scrolls containing the text "Unity" and "England expects every man will do his duty". This flag is notable for bearing a remarkable similarity to the Australian Coat of Arms. The flag is currently maintained on display at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, NSW.

3. In 1891 English migrants made up approximately 50% of the Australian population, the Irish approximately 23%, the Scottish approximately 13% and the Germans approximately 4%. The Aboriginal population in 1901 was 67,000 though this is probably low as many states did not make full efforts to count all Aboriginals and the Australian Constitution exempted Aboriginals from national census until 1967. In 1901 the Australian population was 3.2 million.

4. There have been three rebellions in Australia's history. The first was the Vinegar Hill rebellion at Castle Hill north west of Sydney in 1804. The second was the Eureka Stockade Rebellion in 1854. The third was the dismissal of NSW Premier Jack Lang where NSW and the Federal Government came within an angels breath of Civil War in 1932.

5. Raffaello Carboni was a ginger haired Italian who took part in the Young Italy Rebellions in the 1840's against tyrannical Austrian rule. He was wounded three times in these campaigns. Carboni went into political exile in France, Germany and England before emigrating to Australia and prospecting on the Victorian gold fields. Carboni was a member of the Ballaarat Reform League and since he had a solid command of English represented the non-English speaking miners. He was outside the stockade during the attack but was arrested by Troopers while attending to the wounded miners in the immediate aftermath. Carboni was acquitted by a jury of his peers despite Governor Hotham stacking the odds against Carboni with false witnesses and a Justice who attempted to force a guilty outcome. Carboni wrote in 1854 a book "The Eureka Stockade" which covered the events, issues and grievances surrounding the Eureka Stockade. It is an important work in Australian history. Basta Cosi!

6. Peter Lalor was Irish born and the son of an anti-tithe Member of Parliament in Ireland. His brother was involved in an Irish uprising in 1848. Lalor emigrated to Australia in 1852 and took to gold mining in the Ballarat area. With the increasing tensions on the gold fields, Lalor became involved in the Ballaarat Reform League and became the leader of the rebellion at the Stockade. Lalor was wounded in the attack which resulted in his arm being amputated. He later became a Member of Parliament in Victoria.

7. The current Australian State Flags for NSW, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia are all based on the Blue Ensign tradition. The independent territory flags outside of the Northern Territory and ACT include Christmas Island, Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island.

8. Harold Scruby's Letter to the Prime Minister John Howard on the subject of the Australian National Flag. The reply by David Jull, Minister for Administrative Services.


A. The Flags of the World Website is one of the pre-eminent resources on the web for Vexillology. Pages of interest relating to this article on the site include The Commonwealth of Australia and The United Kingdom.

B. Ausflag is an organization formed to "secure the popular support of the Australian people for the adoption of an Australian flag, anthem, and colours.". The website contains pages on Australian flags including Australian Flags since 1788 and New Flag Designs and Concepts.

C. Originally published on in April 2003 by Cameron Riley as Australian Vexillology.

cam 2004-08-02 04:09:24.0
Rowdy : New Green and Gold Flag for a republic: To view a new green and gold flag that might be suitable for an Australian Republic, visit:
Rowdy : Moved website: The page in the above comment has been moved to: