Australia Day: history of the Australian National Flag

One of the unofficial Australian flags was the National Colonial Flag in 1823.
One of the unofficial Australian flags was the National Colonial Flag in 1823.

Pauline Walker has a long time passion for Australian history. This year, she has provided the following information about the history of the Australian National Flag in the lead up to Australia Day.

Related: 

The first flags

The first flag to come to NSW was the Queen Anne Jack, first brought aboard the Endeavour by Captain James Cook in 1770. The flag was raised at Point Hicks on the south coast, Botany Bay (Stingray Bay), and Possession Island in north Queensland. Thus, the east coast of NSW was claimed for England.

The same flag was also brought by Captain Arthur Phillip with the First Fleet and raised at Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788.

This flag was first designed by King James VI of Scotland and I of England, but was not very popular and was mainly used by seafarers (1606).

The Anti-Transport League Flag of 1851 was another unofficial flag.

The Anti-Transport League Flag of 1851 was another unofficial flag.

It took another 100 years for the flag to become official during the reign of Queen Anne, the last Tudor queen.

Peace was made with Scotland (the act of union took place) and in 1707 the Queen Anne Jack became the flag of England and Scotland. The red cross of St George of England and white cross and blue background for Scotland. This was our official flag for 31 years.

In 1800 King George III made peace with Ireland, so a new flag was designed in 1801 to include Ireland. This was the Union Jack as it is today, with the St Patrick cross of Ireland added (narrow red cross superimposed on Scotland). The Union Jack was passed by act of union on January 1, 1801. This flag now represents Northern Ireland only, as Ireland became the Republic of Eire (the Irish free state) in 1922 after four years of unrest, when they left the United Kingdom.

The Union Jack became the flag for all Australians in 1829 when the Dutch handed over ownership of Western Australia (New Holland) to British rule. Western Australia was under British rule until 1890.

The Murray River Flag was an unofficial flag in 1853.

The Murray River Flag was an unofficial flag in 1853.

Unofficial flags

The National Colonial Flag was designed by Captain John Bingle and Captain John Nicholson in 1823. They were credited with the first recorded attempt to design a national flag.

The Anti-Transport League Flag of 1851 was made of silk, and measured about 274 centimetres by 366 centimetres. It was designed as a symbol against convict transport to Australia and New Zealand.

The Murray River Flag was originally two flags, one for each side of the river. NSW and Victoria were fighting about the design. They eventually decided on one design in 1853.

The Eureka Flag was made by Anastasia Hayes and other diggers wives. It was claimed by some as the first 'Australian' flag of a distinctive design differing to those previously used. It was first raised on November 24, 1854, and then flown at Bakery Hill on December 3, 1854, during the attack on the Eureka Stockade when the diggers rebelled against gold licence fees being doubled from £1.10.5. This original flag can now be seen in the Ballarat Art Gallery. This is how the Australian Army became known as diggers.

The Australian Federation Flag was designed when federation was looming from 1880-1890. It was a popular symbol in the 1880s and 1890s of the movement for federation.

The Eureka Flag of 1854 was claimed by some as the first 'Australian' flag of a distinctive design differing to those previously used.

The Eureka Flag of 1854 was claimed by some as the first 'Australian' flag of a distinctive design differing to those previously used.

State flags

  • The New South Wales flag was authorised in 1869 and proclaimed in 1876
  • The Victorian flag was adopted in 1870
  • The Western Australian flag was adopted in 1870
  • The Tasmanian flag was adopted in 1876
  • The Queensland flag was adopted in 1876
  • The South Australian flag was adopted in 1904
  • The Australian Capital Territory flag was adopted in 1993
  • The Northern Territory flag was adopted in 1978

Finding a national flag

In 1900, with Federation looming, the search for a national flag began.

A Melbourne journal the Review of Reviews launched a competition in November 1900, offering a prize of £50 for the best design of the Australian national flag. The journal suggested that the entries incorporate the Union Jack and the Southern Cross.

Upon Federation in 1901, the Commonwealth Government also announced a competition for the design of a national flag, and the Review of Reviews agreed to combine their entries with those of the government.

There were 32,823 entries from all over the world, the prizemoney being £75 from the Review of Reviews, £75 from the government and £50 from Havelock Tobacco Company - a total of £200.

The Australian Federation Flag was a popular symbol in the 1880s and 1890s of the movement for federation.

The Australian Federation Flag was a popular symbol in the 1880s and 1890s of the movement for federation.

On April 29, 1901, entrants were asked to submit colour sketches for two flags, one for merchant services and one for official national use. The notice stated that the successful design would be submitted to the imperial authority for approval.

On September 3, 1901 the the winners were announced and the design displayed at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne. The judges spent six days reviewing the entries, some were as small as a postage stamp, some were the size of a banner. The flag design was approved by King Edward VII in 1903.

Learn to fold a flag.

Learn to fold a flag.

The five winning entries being almost identical shared the prizemoney. These were Anne Darrington, a well known artist from Perth; Ivor Evans, a 14 year old school boy whose father owned a flag-making business in Melbourne; Leslie Hawkins, a teenager from Leichhardt, NSW; Egbert Nuttal from Prahran, Victoria; and William Stevens, first officer in the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand.

The Australian National Flag

The Australian blue design has the Union Jack - England, Scotland, Northern Ireland - top left, underneath this the large Federation star which at first had six points for all states. In 1903 this was updated to seven points to include all territories now and in the future. To the right is the five stars of the Southern Cross which formal is Crux Australis and the states are named in order of brightness for the first five letters of the Greek alphabet clockwise from bottom – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon. All have seven points except for the smallest, Epsilon, which has five points. The flag was gazetted and updated in February, 1908.

The first time the Australian National Flag was flown overseas was at the London Olympic Games in that same year, 1908, when Australia won the rugby union, which was then an Olympic sport.

The Australian Red and Blue Ensign had been used unofficially since the early 1900s, but it did not become Australia’s National Flag until Queen Elisabeth II visited Australia in 1954. Some Bills from parliament were selected for her personal signature, one being the flag of realm for Australia by this act of 1954.

The Red Ensign for use at sea by merchant, navy and small ships but not the Australian Navy, which had its own flag, the same as the National Flag only white (1967).

The Blue Ensign is to be flown by every citizen of Australia and to be awarded highest precedence.

Our national flag did not become official until 1954.

“One people, one destiny, one flag” was the slogan for Federation.

Sir Henry Parks, five times premier of New South Wales, died in 1896 before his hard work toward Federation and a national flag was achieved.