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United Kingdom: Ensigns of Customs Vessels

Last modified: 2003-04-26 by rob raeside
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The present Customs' Blue Ensign was the result of a request, made to the Admiralty in 1948, for a new badge that was more distinctive than the Royal Crown then in use. A portcullis surmounted by a crown which had been the seal of the office since at least Tudor times (16th century) was suggested. This had been used on the pennant of the Commissioner of Customs since 1905, and also been adopted as a badge by the Waterguard Preventive Service. Red was not thought to be a good colour on a blue background and the badge in gold was approved by the Admiralty on 16th August 1948. The new flags were announced in Customs Weekly Order 32/1949. One ensign was issued to each launch and pontoon, one burgee to each station, but not to be flown until 6th August 1949. The old ensign was to continue in use on buildings as the main stock would not be available until April 1950.
[Public Record Office ADM 1/21246 and CUST 49/3120]

David Prothero, 8 June 2001

See also:

[Ensigns of Customs Vessels] by Phil Nelson

In Wilson (Flags At Sea, pp. 40-41), the ensign of Customs vessels is shown (in the Petra Sancta system) and described as an ensign with a "castellated gateway". The ensign in use from 1707-1784 was a red ensign.

1784 ensign

[Ensigns of Customs Vessels] by Phil Nelson

From 1784-1815 the ensign was a blue one. This version was used until the change of the Union Flag in 1801.

1801 ensign

[Ensigns of Customs Vessels] by Phil Nelson

From 1784-1815 the ensign was a blue one. This version was used until the change of the Union Flag in 1801.

Phil Nelson, 27 July 2000

In the article upon which Wilson based the paragraph about Customs and Excise flags, referred to in end-note 78, Purves wrote:- "Old drawings show this gateway or portcullis in the upper half of the fly, but Customs officials believe that it was more likely to have been placed centrally, as later."
David Prothero, 29 July 2000

Norie and Hobbs (1848) show a blue ensign with in the middle fly (maybe slightly moved out) a crown. Below that a six-pointed yellow star, slightly fat, with a double edge, with a white circle touching the inner-points of the inner edge with in it what probably should be yellow letters "CH" (sans-serif).  They also show a red ensign, same crown with below it yellow letters "C H" (note the space), together slightly wider than the crown, though not quite as high), and an excise flag, 
also a red ensign and the letters are "EX".
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 12 November 2001

At the time of Norie and Hobb's chart the Excise Department dealt with taxes on goods produced in Britain, while the Customs Department dealt with taxes on those imported from overseas. Excise then became part of the Inland Revenue Department, but in 1909 amalgamated with Customs to form the Collectors of Customs and Excise.
David Prothero, 16 November 2001

1872 ensign

[1872 Customs Ensign] Source: Gordon (1930)

Customs Ensign 1872 to 1950. The shape of crown would have been different before c1902.
David Prothero, 8 June 2001

Twentieth Century usage

[Customs] by Graham Bartram

The current version of the Customs flag has a large badge, and the modern St. Edward's crown. Before 1999, the badge was smaller, and before 1952 the flag was charged with the imperial crown
Source:World Flag Database, by Graham Bartram, 7 June 2001

The early 20th Century ensign was a blue ensign with a crown in full colours in the middle of the fly. The current ensign is a blue ensign with portcullis and chains in gold, surmounted by a crown in full colours, in the middle of the fly. The Commissioner uses a white triangular flag with red "V" border, and portcullis surmounted by a crown, both also in red, near the hoist.
Miles Li, 22 September 2000

The crown and portcullis badge replaced the crown badge at the request of Customs and Excise, who wanted a more distinctive badge than the crown that was also used by other public departments. The new badge was approved by the Admiralty 16th August 1948, but at the request of Customs and Excise not brought into use until 6th August 1949.

The crown badge had been introduced by an Order in Council of 1st February 1817, at first on the Red Ensign, but after 1872 on the Blue Ensign.

The first Customs flag was authorised by Royal Proclamation of 12th July 1694. The Customs ensign was plain red with a canton of St George in the upper hoist and, a white or yellow castellated gateway with portcullis, in the fly. The Customs jack had a Union canton. The St George's cross canton was replaced by the 1606 Union in 1707, which was replaced by the present Union in 1801. In 1731 the Regulations for HM Service at Sea stated that the seal of the Board of Customs could be on the jack _or_ the ensign. In 1784 the colour of the flag was changed to Blue, however it is not clear whether all Customs ensigns were blue between 1784 and 1801, or whether the Blue Ensign was used only on special occasions. An Act for the Prevention of Smuggling [24 Geo III chap.47, sec.23], directed that Revenue cruisers, when ordering suspect vessels to heave-to, were to hoist an ensign and pendant with the seal of the Board on a blue field. In order to conceal their identity, Revenue cruisers often flew no flag, or perhaps a plain Red Ensign, and hoisted the Blue Ensign and Pendant when necessary. However I think that on Customs Houses and on preventive Customs vessels, the defaced Red Ensign or Red Jack might have continued in use. After 1801 it became more complicated. The Royal Proclamation that introduced the present Union Jack and Ensigns, instructed all vessels employed for the Public Service to wear a plain Red Ensign and a Red Jack having the seal of the office employing them in the fly. The proclamation did not cancel the act of 1784. Thus when giving chase Revenue cruisers had to fly a Red Ensign and a Blue Ensign.

18 March 1807. Order of Custom House, Edinburgh. Geo 24 being still in force it is necessary to hoist pendant and ensign with such marks as were then used by vessels in service of Customs in a blue field. 1801 proclamation requires a red field. Must hoist Blue Ensign before firing, as well as wearing Red Ensign.

This was repeated 18 February 1812. Scottish Customs Board; Instruction to Commanders of Cruisers. To hoist during chase, pendant and ensign in a blue field, as well as the pendant and ensign red field as provided under 1 January 1801. [Public Record Office CUST 143/11]

Between 1815 and 1817 when the Royal Navy operated the Revenue fleet, Customs vessels flew a Red Ensign with a yellow crown above an eight-pointed yellow star having a red circle with the letters CH in yellow in the fly, while the Excise vessels flew a Blue Ensign with a similar badge except that the star was white and blue and the letters EX.

Information from Public Record Office document ADM 1/21246 and "Flags for Revenue Cutters and Cruisers" by A.A.Purves, an article in the Model Shipwright of March 1979.
David Prothero, 25 September 2000, augmented 15 March 2003

Actual flag dimensions did not always correspond to the theoretical proportions. In the article on Revenue Cutter Flags, referred to above, Alex Purves gave the dimensions of some 19th century Customs flags that he had examined in the Customs and Excise Library. "The sizes vary, and the following measurements are probably the original dimensions before the material shrank or frayed out." (I have changed 'feet and inches' to just inches - 10 inches are roughly 25 centimetres.)

84 x 180 with a union canton of 42 x 90
90 x 126 union 39 x 81
36 x 57 union 18 x 27
26 x 36 union 12 x 15.5

Giving proportions of approximately,

7 : 15
3 : 4 union 1 : 2
12 : 19 union 6 : 9
5 : 7 union 4 : 5

Presumably the squarish flags were jacks and not ensigns.
David Prothero, 25 September 2000

Commissioner of Customs' Pennant

[Commissioner of Customs' Pennant] Source: Gordon (1930)
David Prothero, 8 June 2001

Commissioner of Customs' Pennant approved 1905.
David Prothero, 8 June 2001