Click to escape. Subject to Crown Copyright
Category: Flags

Click to go up one level

Understanding the origins of the Australian Flag

Regardless of the arguments for and against keeping the flag I believe that it goes without saying that one needs to understand what the flag stands for before you can decide your position. This page  sets out the history of the Union Jack which seems to be the focal point of dispute as far as the Australian National Flag is concerned and then it shows how a British Blue Ensign was defaced to provide our flag.

The History and meaning of the  UNION JACK

The Union Jack is a trans-national flag full of historical significance. 

It represents the union of different countries and the growth of a family of nations whose influence extends far beyond the British Isles. This far-reaching influence is still seen today in the incorporation of the Union Jack in other national flags such as that of Australia. The British flag is called the "Union Jack", an expression that needs to be explained.

The Union Jack is a fine expression of unity as well as diversity. The British flag incorporates the national symbols of three distinct countries, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In fact its name "Union Jack" emphasises the very nature of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a union of nations. The flag is also known by another name, this too, emphasising the idea of union: the "Union flag", perhaps a less common term but a little more precise. The countries comprising the British Isles are not inward-looking or isolated states with an insular mentality; together they constitute a powerful union that has spanned centuries. Recent devolution that gave Scotland its own Parliament and Wales its own Assembly has also emphasised the importance of individual national identities within the union without affecting the essential unity of Great Britain. On the contrary, it has strengthened it. Recognition of, and respect for national identities are an essential ingredients for effective union. The Union Jack symbolises all this: respect for individuality within a closely knit community.

The "Union Jack" or "Union Flag" is a composite design made up of three different national symbols:


 The cross represented in each flag is named after the patron saint of each country: St. George, Patron Saint of England, St. Andrew, Patron Saint of Scotland and St. Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland.

  • England - vertical red cross on a white field - dates from the time of Crusades and the decoration of the tunics covering the chain mail of the crusaders.

  • Scotland - Also known as the Saltire. Diagonal white cross on a dark blue field (this colour was adopted for the general background of the Union Flag) - origin obscure, and probably nothing to do with the apostle Andrew.

    •  The reason for the white surround for the red Cross of St George is that it an heraldic taboo to place red directly on blue.

  • Ireland - diagonal red cross on a white background - nothing to do with St Patrick as he was not a martyr and has thus never been associated with a cross - added to the Union Flag in 1801 in such a way that neither the red or white diagonals are seen to be superior (on the hoist side the white is superior, on the fly side the red is superior.

    • This is an important feature and is why the red diagonal stripes appear not to line up. Making them line up is the most common mistake made while drawing the flag.

The image below provides the idea of the union of the three flags forming one unified, trans-national Flag.

No mention has been made of the Welsh flag. 

The Welsh dragon was not incorporated into the Union Flag because Wales had already been united to England when the first version of the Union Flag was designed in 1606. It is, however, in common use today.


The first step taken in the creation of the flag of Great Britain was on 12th April 1606. When King James V of Scotland became king of England (King James I) it was decided that the union of the two realms under one king should be represented symbolically by a new flag. Originally It consisted in the red cross of England superimposed on the white cross of Scotland on the blue background of the Scottish flag as in this illustration:

Thus we have the first flag of the Union called, in fact, the "Union Flag".

  • The flag raised by Governor Philip on the first Australian Day, 26 January 1788, was this version of the Union Jack.

  • Note that the blue was lighter then than now and that the flag was closer to square. Over the years flags have got longer and the story is that the Admiralty made the dye darker so the flags would last longer before having to be replaced because of fading.

What was meant to be a symbol of unity actually became a symbol of international controversy. The English resented the fact that the white background of their cross had disappeared and that the new flag had the blue Scottish background. On the other hand the Scottish resented the fact that the English red cross was superimposed on the Scottish white cross!! The old adage says you cannot please everyone but this first version of the Union Flag seemed to please no-one!

However, the flag was usually restricted to use at sea until the two kingdoms of Scotland and England were united in 1707. It was most probably from this use at sea that it got the name "Jack" ("Union Jack"). It was usually flown at the bow end of the ship, from the jack staff.

An attempt was made to modify the flag under Oliver Cromwell. A harp was placed in the centre, representing Ireland. However, the original design was restored along with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

The flag continued to be used in its original form until Jan. 1, 1801. At that time, with the union of Ireland and Great Britain, it became necessary to represent Ireland in the Union Flag and so the cross of St. Patrick was include thus creating the flag as we now have it. When the southern part of Ireland gained its independence in 1921 and became the Irish Free State no alteration was made to the Union Jack.

The name "Union Jack" became official when it was approved in the British Parliament in 1908. It was stated that "the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag".

As I had been told that the Union Jack was not an official flag and had never been approved by Parliament I made enquiries. This is the answer I got . . .

Dear Mr Harris

There is no such legislation in the United Kingdom.  The reference was to the then Home Secretary's announcement in the House of Commons, to the effect that the flag should be so regarded.

There is no flag legislation in the United Kingdom, other than the several Merchant Shipping Acts.  These latter only cover flags used by commercial and other privately-owned vessels afloat.

The Union Flag has always been a royal flag, representing the union of the three countries of the kingdom.  It was seldom seen on land until the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Then people started to use it on land more freely.  This was given further popularity by the Golden Jubilee of 1887 and the Diamond Jubilee ten years later.  Soon after that came the Anglo-Boer War and the flag was used as an expression of patriotism again.

By then the custom had arisen of hoisting it on land over private buildings.  The debate (a very short one) of 1908 was to question this practice.  The Home Secretary (one presumes with the knowledge and consent of the then King Edward VII) stated that the flag could be so used.  This was repeated by King George V on the occasion of his Silver Jubilee in 1935.

The flag remains a royal flag, used by the citizens with permission of the sovereign.  Technically that permission could be withdrawn, although it is hard to imagine the circumstances when this would be done.  On the bicentenary of the flag in 2001, the Flag Institute lobbied Parliament to have the flag at last adopted officially as the flag of the United Kingdom on land.  Our efforts were completely ignored.

I hope that this information assists you, although I recognise that a specific Act of Parliament would have helped more.  Alas no such Act exists.

Yours sincerely

Michael Faul
The Flag Institute
York, England.


Take all of that and come up with the British Blue Ensign that looks like this

add 5 stars to represent the Southern Cross and a 7 pointed star to represent the States and Territories of the Federation (1 per State and 1 for the Territories as a group)

and "Hey Presto" you have the Australian Blue Ensign which later became the Australian National Flag


Statistics : Over 35 million page visitors since  11 Nov 2002  



 Search   Help     Guestbook   Get Updates   Last Post    The Ode      FAQ     Digger Forum

Click for news

Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces