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United Kingdom: jacks

Last modified: 2003-04-26 by rob raeside
Keywords: jack | state jack | civil jack | pilot flag | cross: saint george | dunkirk jack |
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Naval jack

[Royal Navy jack'] by Graham Bartram

The Union Flag is the official jack of the Royal Navy - strictly speaking, this is the only time it should be called the 'Union Jack'.
Roy Stilling, 8 February 1996

The Union Jack is reserved at sea for the Royal Navy.
André Coutanche, 28 September 2000

A jack, a flag flown on a staff at the bow of a ship, is a relatively insignificant flag. Ensigns which indicate nationality are, I believe, regulated by international laws, but a jack would be subject only to the laws of the country in which the ship was registered. Thus, in very general terms as I understand it, Britain can prohibit ships registered in Britain from fly the Union Jack, but would not be able to enforce the prohibition against a ship not registered in Britain.
David Prothero, 29 September 2000

See below for the civil jack.

Jacks are probably not used much because most public service vessels do not want to involve themselves in all the rigmarole of lowering the jack when getting under way, and raising it again when not underway. In any case many departments have only small launches, in which a jack is unnecessary. Judging by photographs, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service now seem to use them, though this was not always so. A survey in 1922 found that of 66 RFA Oilers and Petrol Carriers only two carried jacks. It was pointed out at the time that, after the abolition of Squadron Colours, public service jacks served no useful purpose. They were introduce for public service vessels by the Royal Proclamation of 12 July 1694. At that time merchant ships flew the Red Ensign and no jack, while warships flew the Red, White or Blue Ensign and the Union Jack. Allocating a Red Jack to public service vessels, identified them as such, without allowing them to infringe the right of King's ships to be the only ships permitted to fly a Union Jack. In 1864 when Red Ensigns and Blue Ensigns ceased to be flown by ships of the Royal Navy, Blue Ensigns were allocated to ships in the service of any public office, the colour of the Jack was changed to Blue. But since warships flew the White Ensign, and merchant ships flew the Red Ensign, the Blue Ensign alone identified a departmental ship, making the jack redundant.

David Prothero, 15 January 2003

State jacks

[Jack of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary] by Graham Bartram

I enclose an example of a state jack, in this case the jack of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, to show the square Union.

Graham Bartram, 11 December 1999

In my limited experience of such documents, an Admiralty Warrant granting the right to fly a defaced blue ensign also specifically mentioned an accompanying defaced blue jack, and this is repeated in those more recently issued by the Ministry of Defence. A typical example is Jersey where the Admiralty Warrant of 2 March 1907 states that (in addition to the ensign) '...the said vessel (in this case the steam tug 'Duke of Normandy') shall be permitted to wear a small blue flag with a Union described in the canton at the upper corner next to the staff, as a jack, with the badge of Jersey in the fly thereof'. This right is repeated in the MoD Warrants granted on 15 June 1967 and in August 1997. Such jacks are, properly speaking and by convention square, and as such carry a square Union in the canton. On the other hand, as far as I can find out the right to use them is rarely, if ever, exercised (at least nowadays).

Christopher Southworth, 14 January 2003

It is possible that the reference to a jack in the Admiralty Warrant for the Blue Ensign is peculiar to Jersey, and was included only because a jack was specifically requested in addition to the ensign. The warrant for Jersey was unusual in that it could not be issued under the provisions of the Order in Council 9 July 1864 which abolished Squadron Colours, since the States of Jersey were not a Public Department, nor under the Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865, since Jersey was not a colony. It was therefore issued as a special case under Sec.73(i) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894; "any other ship or boat for the time being allowed to wear any other national colour (other than the Red Ensign) in pursuance of a warrant from His Majesty or from the Admiralty."

David Prothero, 15 January 2003

Yes the three warrants I referred to previously were all for Jersey, and upon checking I find that I have only one other (I thought I had two more). This is a copy of the MoD Warrant granting the right to fly a defaced blue ensign to Guernsey. It is undated (but was sent with an accompanying letter of 3 July 2000) and also confers the right to fly a defaced blue jack.

Of course the Admiralty and subsequent MoD Warrants under discussion were issued by virtue of the various Merchant Shipping Acts (the current wording is, it would appear, almost identical to that of the original), as, I presume, were those of the fleet auxiliary (since it forms part of the Merchant Marine)? What we need to know, and what I await information from the MoD on (if it ever arrives), is whether the granting of a defaced blue jack is general for Warrants issued to Government authorities, or, if the two cases in my possession are unique? According to the Admiralty librarian, sight of any Admiralty Warrants would require a visit to the Public Record Office.

The appearance of such a jack in the Flaggenbuch - considering the lengths gone to in ensuring the accuracy of that publication - seems to confirm that the practice had (at least in 1939 if not now) some sort of official sanction?

Christopher Southworth, 17 January 2003

The civil jack

There is a different jack for civil vessels. This is an elongated Union Flag with a wide white border around it.

Graham Bartram, 1 June 1999

Pilot Jack

The pilot jack was a hybrid flag; a jack altered so that it could be used as a pilot signal, and then in its altered form used as a jack as well as a pilot signal.

At the beginning of the 19th century the UJ flown at the foremasthead was used by the Royal Navy and merchant ships as a Pilot Signal. In 1817 when Frederick Marryat published the "Code of Signals for the Merchant Service", he listed the UJ as the pilot signal and included the UJ in the suit of signal flags that in various combinations made up the code.

The Admiralty did not approve of this as it gave merchant ships a legitimate reason for carrying a UJ, which as a jack was approved only for the King's ships. In 1822 a warrant was issued repeating the ban on the use of the UJ by the Merchant Service but temporarily warranting its use as a Pilot Signal until 1st January 1824. This was not welcomed by the Ship Owner's Society who pointed out that it would, "counteract the benefits found to arise from the use of Marryat's Code of Signals, which had now been adopted by the United States and France, and was likely to become universal." The Admiralty replied that it would be quite easy to substitute a different flag for the UJ and added that the possibility that the Code might be adopted by foreign countries was even more reason for not including the UJ.

The Ship Owners approached Marryat who proposed replacing the UJ with a Red Ensign, trimmed at the fly and lower edge, to make it the size of a signal flag. This avoided the expense of introducing a new flag into the Code and had the advantage that most British ships would have an old Red Ensign too worn at the fly to use as an ensign, but suitable for conversion into a signal flag.

The Admiralty were not falling for that one. They would not object if a full sized ensign was used, but pointed out that since the size of the red margin of the cut-down Red Ensign was not specified, it could be so small that when hoisted the flag would be indistinguishable from a UJ. The Ship Owners suggested a UJ with a red border six inches (15cms) wide all round, and hoped that this flag could be specified as the signal for a pilot in the Pilotage Bill that was about to be introduced.

When new regulations were introduced in July 1823 they were, "to abolish the use of His Majesty's Union Jack in merchant ships for any purpose whatsoever, and that the signal Jack to be hereafter worn by merchant ships, should have an entire white border, such border being one-fifth of the breadth of the Jack itself, exclusive of such border, and that such Jack so altered should also be in future used on board merchant vessels as a signal for a pilot, instead of the Union Jack as at present used for that purpose."

In the 1826 edition of Marryat's Code the white-bordered UJ, referred to as a "signal jack", replaced the UJ as a general signal flag, and in 1857 when "The Commercial Code of Signals for the use of all Nations" was introduced the only authorised use for the white-bordered Union Jack in the Merchant Service was as a Pilot Signal.

It then became common practice for merchant ships to fly the white-bordered UJ, at the masthead as a pilot signal, but also on the jack staff as a jack. Some attempts were made to stop this, but legally it was a grey area, and apart from declaring that the white-bordered UJ was not a pilot signal when hoisted on a jack staff, the situation was allowed to continue.

[Memorandum on Merchant Ensigns and Jacks, 1674 to 1879.
Copies in PRO docs ADM 116/3566 and BT 103/308.
Article "The British Merchant Jack" by Cdr.Hilary P.Mead, R.N. in Mariner's Mirror Volume 21, pages 395-410, October 1935.]

David Prothero, 9 March 2001

The Pilot Jack (the white-bordered UJ) ceased to be a pilot signal in 1970. It is only used as the civil jack (also named merchant jack, but recreational boats may also use it). It is not very often used.
David Prothero, 31 July 2001, Jose C. Alegria, 2 August 2001

Marryat's original signal for a pilot was the same as the signal used by ships of the Royal Navy; a Union Jack at the fore-masthead. However only the King's ships were allowed to fly the Union Jack and the Admiralty insisted that for merchant ships the signal must be changed. Adding a white border to the Union Jack was agreed at a meeting between the Admiralty and the Society of Ship Owners in June 1823, promulgated in the London Gazette on the 8th July 1823.

David Prothero, 16 November 2001

The white-over-red Pilot flag was first created by a British statute in 1808 (during the reign of George III). The 1808 Act provided that the pilot flag: (1) was to be carried in boats carrying the pilot, and then (2) in the ship in which the pilot was "carried off" to perform his services. In later years, these provisions were incorporated into the Merchant Shipping Act, and later into the successive Pilotage Acts. Since 1808, this white-over-red flag has thus been the Pilot Distinguishing Flag for Britain, and due to accession, for many Commonwealth nations as well. Many European nations copied the British practice, too, because it was widely understood. The Pilot Distinguishing Flag has been part of British law since 1808. No exceptions. (The flags used by ships to summon pilots have changed, however.) And in a fair number of nations, the simple white-over-red is the "Pilot Flag" also.

The International Code of Signals (to which Britain subscribes) provides that code flag "H" means "I am carrying a pilot" --but this provision speaks to ships under pilotage, not really to pilot boats offering their services and certainly not to pilothouses where the pilots await their jobs. The International Code Flag "H" --which is divided vertically white/red -- first appeared in Marryat's Code of 1817, and was later incorporated into the successive International Signal Codes. The use of this red-and-white "H" flag to convey a pilot-related message clearly stems from the practice started in 1808. Also, under the COLREGS, the lights displayed by a pilot boat at night are white over red; "White over red; pilot ahead!"

Britain's 1808 law did not apply to the USA, of course, and the white-over-red flag never caught on in the USA. In many US ports, the code flag "P" (Blue Peter) was used to mark pilot boats in the 19th century. This provision is still part of the law in Louisiana to this day (and was part of some states' laws for many years). The pilot boats of Houston, Texas, still carry the "P" flag in rigid form. The use of the "P" flag is at variance with the meaning assigned in the International Code, yet it is very firmly entrenched in local custom. "P is for pilot." Many Latin American nations followed the US custom, and used "P" (or at least a blue-and-white flag of some sort). Some US and Latin American pilot boats are painted blue. A few nations created unique pilot boat flags that follow neither the UK nor US traditions. This said, a few US pilots are now using the Inernational "H" flag as a pilot boat flag (instead of "P"), under a broader interpretation of, "I am carrying a pilot".

James T. Liston, 16 March 2003

Dunkirk jack

[St George's Cross] by Vincent Morley

There is a special jack - the red St George's Cross on white - that is reserved for vessels which took part in the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in World War II.

Graham Bartram, 1 June 1999

Does this mean the actual vessels? Or is it parallel to the French practice of a Free French honour jack, as mentioned by Ivan Sache on the Free French Forces page, "Nowadays, ships that have a name previously belonging to a ship that joined the FNFL (Forces Navales Françaises Libres) use the FNFL ensign as honour jack." If the practice is the first-mentioned, more restricted use, are there any vessels left today?
Ole Andersen, 24 September 2000

I thought that this was a squarish but perfectly ordinary St George's flag that could be flown as a jack by anyone. It was selected as a means of identifying those vessels that were used in the evacuation when they are taking part in ceremonies. One ship that took part in the anniversary commemorations last June is now registered in Malta and flew the Maltese Ensign and St George's Jack.
David Prothero, 24 September 2000

In Norie and Hobbs (1848) a flag of this design is referred to as the St. George's Jack.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 12 November 2001