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United Kingdom: Use and Status of the Flag

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Last modified: 2002-08-09 by rob raeside
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[Flag of the United Kingdom] 1:2 |
by Graham Bartram
Flag adopted 1 January 1801.

See also:

Use and status of the flag

Whilst the Union Flag has never been officially adopted by law as the national flag of the UK, it has become so by usage (which can count for a lot in the British constitutional/legal system) and the government has stated it is the correct flag for use by British citizens.

Afloat though, the Union Flag has been reserved by the government for specific, military purposes. It is the jack of the Royal Navy and the flag of rank for an admiral of the fleet. These are the reasons why it is illegal for a civilian ship to fly it.
Roy Stilling, 8 February 1996

The "Union Jack" is actually a Royal Flag, used as a national flag by permission of HM the Queen and on the advice of HM's Ministers (i.e., the government told us to use it in a parliamentary answer). It is perfectly acceptable to call it the "Union Jack" - in fact that is the term used by the Government Minister who stated that it should be used as the national flag. Of course a parliamentary answer isn't the same as a law or statutory instrument, so legally the UK does not have a singular national flag, but practically it does. Of course to make up for this we have more official national flags (of a non singular nature) than the rest of the world put together. At the last count we had exceeded 500!
Graham Bartram, 7 February 2001

The Union Jack has never been made an official civil flag by any legal process, but it has been authoritatively stated, on more than one occasion, that on land it may be used as though it were a civil flag. It is also used by the army so I would think that it should be (ooo/xxx)

Some extracts from Public Record Office documents.

  • "It was the view of the King in Council 5th November 1800 that the Flag of Union could be flown on land only from His Majesty's forts and castles, and from His Majesty's ships at sea. It is the national official flag."
    Sir A.Scott Gatty, Garter King of Arms in 1907. [HO 45/10287/109071]
  • 31st October 1887. Governor of the Isle of Man wrote to the Home Office about, "the growing tendency among various places of amusement to fly flags, and on one occasion I saw a Royal Standard and sometimes Union Flags. Uncertain whether I have the right or ought to interfere."
  • "Wednesday 22 October 1902. Mr.Martin to ask First Lord of the Treasury whether he will consider the advisability of issuing a warrant defining what is the correct flag to be flown on land by civilians and what flag should be flown on public buildings and schools in Great Britain and the colonies.
    "Mr Balfour (answered). The questions which have been raised as to the proper use of flags have received careful consideration by the Government, but they are unable to adopt the course of action suggested. Nor does it appear desirable to undertake the legislation that would be necessary in order to regulate the general use by civilians, or any class of civilians, of any particular flag on land. It is a matter which is best left, as hitherto, to the guidance of custom and good taste."
    Parliamentary Debate 4th series Vol 113, Col 467. [HO 144/602/B22911]
  • "Union Jack is the national flag and there is no objection to its general use by private persons on land." and
    "It appears to Mr.H.Gladstone (Home Secretary) that the Union Jack can be used on land without impropriety by any private person."
    Home Office Memorandum of February 1907. [HO 45/10287/109071]
  • In 1908 reports that the police had been removing Union Jacks in various places under the impression that an offence was being committed [TS 28/417], led to a statement by the Earl of Crewe in the House of Lords on 14th July, that the Royal Standard could not be flown without the permission of His Majesty, but that the Union Flag could be flown on land.
    [HO 45/15534]
  • This disturbed some of the Lord Lieutenants of Counties, the personal representative of the sovereign in each county. They flew the Union Jack as a symbol of their office, and on 25th February 1910, the Duke of Bedford representing the Association of County Lieutenants sent a Humble Petition to Winston Churchill (the Home Secretary) for presentation to His Majesty.
    "That whereas the Union Flag has recently been declared by authority to be the National one, and therefore available to be hoisted by any British subject, His Majesty should be petitioned to grant a distinctive Flag for the exclusive use of His Majesty's Lieutenants of Counties."
    As a result of this, the Lord Lieutenants of Counties were, in 1911, granted a special flag; the Union Jack defaced with a horizontal sword.

    However there was still uncertainty, particularly in some colonies, as to what flag could be flown on land. It was known that the Blue and Red Ensigns were for use only at sea and widely believed that the Union Jack could be flown on land only by the governor or his representative.

    In 1917 the Governor of the Windward Islands wrote to the Colonial Office that, "Residents of St.Vincent are reluctant to fly the Union Jack because it might have the appearance of discourtesy to the Administrator who is required by Colonial Regulations to fly the Union Jack on Government House."
    [CO 323/1830/20]

    The question was again raised in parliament, and on 27th June 1933 the Home Secretary, Sir John Gilmour, announced in the House of Commons that, "The Union Flag is the National Flag and may properly be flown on land by any of His Majesty's subjects."
    Question 34 column 1324 of Hansard [CO 323/1272/21]

    Much of the confusion in the colonies was caused by the fact that the governor flew a Union Jack with the badge of the colony on it when afloat, but a plain Union Jack when on land. The obvious solution was for the governor to fly the Union Jack with the colony badge whether he was on land or afloat, thus making it clear that the plain Union Jack was not the flag of the governor and could thus be flown by any British subject. In 1941 answers to a circular asking governors for their opinion on this matter revealed differing practices. The Governor of Ceylon wrote that the Union Jack was often flown in Hong Kong and Ceylon but not in Straits Settlements, adding that at the Silver Jubilee of George V (1935) a large British shipping firm had applied for permission to fly the Union Jack believing the flag to be the privilege of the governor.
    [CO 323/1830/22]

  • The event that finally led to the decision to permit use of the governor's defaced Union Jack on land, and generally encourage the use of the Union Jack in the colonies, was the 1940 arrangement whereby the United States transferred 40 destroyers to Britain in exchange for bases in the West Indies. It was observed in a minute on the subject that unless something was done to encourage the use of the Union Jack, "bases in the West Indies leased to the United States would be a sea of Stars and Stripes with no Union Jacks in sight."
    [CO 323/1830/20]

    David Prothero, 23 August 2001

When was the Union Jack (Union Flag) first (widely) used as a national flag by private citizens?

Nathan Lamm, 23 July 2002

My guess (for widespread use) would be WW1, 1914-1918. It seems to have been a slow and lengthy process. It had begun by 1887, Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, but was not really completed until the 1930s in Britain, and the 1940s in the colonies.

David Prothero, 24 July 2002

I used the phrase 'by 1887' to mean 'certainly in 1887, and probably before'. The use of Union Jacks at a major event such as the Golden Jubilee will be recorded, but it may be presumed that there will have been some previous limited use which has gone unrecorded.

In 1887 the Governor of the Isle of Man wrote to the Home Office objecting to having the badge of the Isle of Man on his Union Flag as he represented the Crown not the Isle of Man. He noted, "a growing tendency among various places of amusement to fly flags, and on one occasion I saw a royal standard and sometimes Union Flags. Uncertain whether I have the right or ought to interfere."

David Prothero, 25 July 2002

It was noted that in Photographic Memories of Scotland (1995) many Scottish scenes from the period between 1890 and 1905 show flags in them. I noticed in several photos that red ensigns were flown from buildings ashore. I discovered that there seemed to be a break at the year 1900. In no photo prior to 1900 did I see a red ensign flown ashore, only Union Jacks. However in the 1900 and later photos, all flags flown ashore that I could identify were red ensigns, and NO Union Jacks. The pair of photos that brought this immediately to my attention were two of the same scene in different years. The scene is the Argyll Hotel in Dunoon. In a photo dated 1897 the Argyll Hotel and two nearby buildings are all flying Union Jacks. On the same page, in a photo dated 1904, the same three buildings are all flying red ensigns. Why are red ensigns being flown ashore? And why are they flown apparently to the exclusion of the Union Jack from 1900 to 1905 in these photos?

Devereaux Cannon

In 1902 - just about when it appears the Union Jack was eliminated from the scenes in the book described above - it seems that moves were taken to in fact grant it at least semi-official recognition as Britain's National Flag. This transition seems to have started with Edward VII's coronation, and the preparations therefore. In the spring of 1902, St Michael's Church, Folkestone, purchased a new Royal Standard, (for the not inconsequential price of ten pounds), with the full expectation that as loyal subjects they would be allowed to fly it in conjunction with the coronation's festivities. Unfortunately, for the parishioners of St Michael's, the King issued the now well-known general prohibition against the use of His Royal Standard when he was not personally present. Upset at their apparent waste of good money, the Rector of St Michael's wrote to the Palace seeking an exception for his church. Not surprisingly, he was denied special dispensation, but the King's secretary, (Lord Francis Knolly), in an apparent attempt to ease the parish's disappointment, pointed out that " can always fly the Union Jack".

This correspondence was revealed in the London Times of 7 June 1902, (p. 12.), and apparently came as quite a surprise to many "in the know" for it seemed to have sparked quite a controversy, with a series of editorials and letters to the editor on the subject, running in the paper through to the end of the year. It is also worth noting, in this regard, that the respected journal "Notes and Queries" also had a spat of exchanges on the subject at about the same time. The debate centred around the question: what is the British National Flag?; with positions coalescing around the Red Ensign (since it is the private subject's national flag at sea); and the Union Flag, (based upon the King's Private Secretary's statement given to the Rector of St Michael's, quoted above). Those in favour of the Red Ensign's usage ashore, claimed that Lord Knolly's statement could only be considered a mere "obiter dictum", (i.e., an incidental remark providing no basis for decision); but supporters of the Union Flag suggested (and I think fairly) that "we may be sure that (his opinion) was not given lightly". He did, after all, speak for the King. Since this debate was in fact national - and included participants right across the UK - it seems reasonable to suggest that the owners (or at least decision-makers) for the Scottish hotels in the photographs (as well as, indeed, Scots in general) must have been aware of the debate. Since the debate was never really satisfactorily resolved, perhaps the owners or decision makers for these hotels (and the people flying flags in the other photos) once becoming aware of the debate, decided that the arguments proferred in favour of the red ensign, vice the union flag, made more sense to them, and as a result simply decided to switch flags.I would never bet my mortgage on this, however; but I am afraid that in the absence of a piece of evidence, in the mode of a "smoking gun" (such as an in-house memorandum specifically explicating the change), I fear that reasoned speculation, (such as I hope I have just presented) is all we have to go upon.

Glen Hodgins

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