On this day: Australia’s national flag gazetted

By Naomi Russo 16 February 2016
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How did we end up with the flag we have today? Why didn’t we choose the animals playing cricket?

CAPTAIN COOK PLANTED a flag on Australian soil in 1788, but it wasn’t until roughly 115 years later that Australia finally had a flag of its own, after King Edward VII gazetted his approval of a design on 20 FEBRUARY 1903. What you may not realise is that this key piece of Australiana was based on a design submitted by a 14-year-old boy, among others. 

The gazetting may have marked the formal green light, but the real tussle had played out years earlier, when, in celebration of federation in 1900, two publications announced competitions for a design.

In 1901 Prime Minister Edmund Barton merged these with a wider, international callout.

Richer prize money was offered at this point, a princely sum of 120 pounds (which is roughly $16,000 AUD today) and the earlier rules that all designs must include the Union Jack and Southern Cross were put to the side. Despite this, the majority of designs incorporated both these symbols in some form or another.

Old Australian flags

One of three Australian flag designs submitted in 1901 by a teenage boy from Sydney, A. Downer. Unfortunately, he missed the competition deadline and was not considered. (Credit: NAA)

Designing a symbol to represent Australians

The design entries ranged from the inventive to the mundane. It doesn’t get much more Australian, for example, than a team of native animals playing cricket, but unfortunately for one budding designer, this fantastical scene didn’t win over the judges.

Judges assessed the entries using guidelines which included history, heraldry, distinctiveness, utility and cost of manufacture. 

In the end they favoured a blue background emblazoned with the Southern Cross, Union Jack and Commonwealth Star, a slightly different version of the flag we all know today (the version used until 1908 had a slightly smaller star below the Union Jack, and the number of points on each of the stars has changed a few times due to changes in states and territories and the cost of manufacture).

All the entries were displayed in Melbourne and after a six-day deliberation the judges approved their choice. With 32,823 entries, some were bound to be similar, and in fact five nearly identical entries were awarded the prize equally. The winners were: Ivor Evans, a 14-year-old schoolboy from Melbourne; Leslie John Hawkins, a teenager apprenticed to a Sydney optician; Egbert John Nuttal, a Melbourne architect; Annie Dorrington, an artist from Perth; and William Stevens, a ship’s officer from Auckland, New Zealand.

Their design elements included the Union Jack aknowledging Australia’s connection to Britain and a Commonwealth Star with points representing Australia’s states and territories.

Australia’s other flags

This decision meant usurping a string of flags that had been in use, beginning with the Union Jack raised by Captain Cook in 1788.

Old Australian flags

The Union Jack being raised in ‘The Founding of Australia’ by Captain Arthur Phillip RN Sydney Cove 26 January 1788, a 1939 oil painting by Algernon Talmage (left) and the Eureka Stockade flag being rasied in 1854 in ‘Swearing allegiance to the “Southern Cross”‘, by Charles Alphonse Doudiet. (Credit: Wiki Commons) 

In addition, each colony originally had its own flag, and as the idea of federation grew in favour, a special Federation Flag became popular. In fact, Prime Minister Barton submitted the Federation Flag alongside the winning design to the Admiralty for possible royal approval.

Old Australian flags

The Federation Flag was the unofficial flag of Australia for more than 70 years. (Credit: AWM REL17384.002)

The Australian flag debates of today

Barton wasn’t the only one not entirely enamoured with the new design. Debate over whether the flag should be changed is as old as the flag itself. When the flag was first revealed The Bulletin magazine wrote: “That bastard flag is a true symbol of the bastard state of Australian opinion”.

Whilst controversy often centres on the removal of the Union Jack, some want the whole design revised. In 2010 a Morgan Poll raised the question and saw 29 per cent of approval for a change, as opposed to 66 per cent against the idea (5 per cent were uncommitted).

Recently the debate has resurfaced, with Labour minister Tim Low arguing in 2015 that: “In many ways, our flag reflects the country we once were, not the nation we have become today”.

While the flag gazetted in 1903 represents our national flag, we actually have a number of official flags as defined under the Flags Act 1953.

These include the Australian Aboriginal Flag designed by Aboriginal artist Harold Thomas in 1971; the Torres Strait Islander Flag adopted in 1992 during the Torres Strait Islands Cultural Festival; several flags of the Australian Defence Force; and the Australian Red Ensign – identical to the national flag, except with a red background. This is the official flag to be flown at sea by Australian registered merchant ships.