HMS New Zealand Silk Ensign and Jack

Read about the Silk Ensign and Jack that was presented to HMS New Zealand in May 1913 by the Women of New Zealand. Prior to the war of 1914 they were displayed only on state occasions (about three times).


Silk Ensign

The Silk Ensign and Jack were presented to HMS New Zealand in May 1913 by the Women of New Zealand. Prior to the war of 1914 they were displayed only on state occasions (about three times).

After the declaration of the First World War, the Ensign was displayed on all occasions of the ship going into action with the enemy, as stated in the following:

  1. 28 August 1914: It was laced to the foremast during the engagement with enemy ships off Heligoland.
  2. 24 January 1915; it was laced to the foremast during the chase and engagement of enemy Battle Cruisers off the Dogger Bank when the German battlecruiser Blucher was sunk. The Ensign was much blown out: it was repaired and the tattered parts cut off and given to Captain Halsey.
  3. 31 May 1916, during the action with the High Seas Fleet off Jutland it was hoisted on sighting the enemy at about 2.45 pm (G.M.T.) and was kept flying during the night when the enemy was expected to appear at any moment. It appears to have been burned in places and holed in others, probably caused by the explosion of enemy shell which struck the after Turret armour. Owing to turning movements of the ships, it became wrapped round the stays of the mast during the night and the high speed, together with the wind, whipped the silk into ribbons and knots, as may be observed, and it became so entangled that on attempting to haul it down the main part carried away and was only recovered after some difficulty from the head of the Ensign Peak where it had caught.

It was repaired in June 1916, and replaced in the canvas of the head, only sufficient to allow if it being displayed again, the fly being left in the condition it was when hauled down with exception of the most worn parts. Certain pieces were cut off during the repair and these were given to Captain Green.

  1. 28 November 1918: the Ensign was displayed at the starboard yardarm on the occasion of the surrender of the German ships to Admiral Sir David Beatty.

The Jack

The Jack was flown on the foremast on 31 May 1916 off Jutland, and it is credited with having been torn by a portion of shrapnel shell, a good deal of which was bursting over and dropping on the ship during the action.  On 28 November 1918 the Jack was displayed at the Port yardarm, and this was the last occasion of the Silk Ensign and Jack being hoisted together.

The Bunting Ensign

The Bunting Ensign is a copy of the New Zealand Ensign in use before the Red, White and Blue Ensigns in New Zealand.  It was presented to the ship by the Maoris of New Zealand in January 1919. The Shaw Savill Company adopted this Flag as their House Flag.

The above Flags were kept in a box made from New Zealand wood. The key of the box was in the keeping of Mr. Albert Lewis. Signal Boatswain of the Ship, from June 1913 to January 1919, excepting between April and September 1918, when it was left in the lock. The Ensign and Jack were removed from the box on Monday 6 January 1919 and taken by Captain L.A.B.Donaldson, of HMS New Zealand, to London, and there was handed over for safe custody to the High Commissioner for New Zealand, Sir Thomas Mackenzie. The Bunting Ensign remains in the box.[1]

Fate of the Ensign and Jack

Material on HMS New Zealand ­aggress that agrees with the letter from the ship stating that the silk ensign and jack were flown in battle, but make no mention of the bunting’ ensign. The two books are slightly different in that the History of HMS New Zealand states that the silk flags will be returned to New Zealand at the end of the war, whereas Onward HMS New Zealand states that they have been returned.

In support of their being returned are two letters from a file in National Archives concerning the trophies and equipment from the ship. Both written in 1922, the earlier one is a request for items, including ‘Flags for Dominion War Museum’. The later one is from the High Commissioner in London and states specifically that the White Ensign and Union Jack have already been sent to Timaru. Extracts from both of these letters are enclosed.

The only reason they would have been dispatched to Timaru is that Mr Alexander Boyle was a prominent member of the Navy League (President in 1919) and farmed near Timaru. His son, Alexander David Boyle served in the ship from 1911 until 1920. Alternatively, that may have been the headquarters of the Women’s Patriotic League. It is also notable that Timaru was a leader in providing silver and other items for the ship, including a prize fund for gunnery efficiency for the first HMS New Zealand, later transferred to the ship we all know. The Boyle family were very naval oriented to say the least. It contains a selection of admirals and the senior member was the Earl of Glasgow (one time Governor of New Zealand), who had earlier served in the Navy.

There is no mention of the bunting ensign in the lists of items shipped to New Zealand.

On the subject of inward flags there is mention of seven flags being presented by the ship to schools in Wellington in 1919. A white ensign flown at the surrender of the German fleet was presented to Christchurch Cathedral in 1919 (this was vandalised in June 1985). Reference to these is made in The Cruise of HMS New Zealand vol 1, HMS New Zealand 1919 p125 and p133 respectively.

There is no detail on the flags presented to the schools. Certainly in 1913 there were special presentation white ensigns given by the ship. We have one given to Major Tunuirangi and there is a letter on file from Nuirangi Ngapua who also received one.

As an aside there is mention of white ensigns being painted on the foretop so that should the battle ensigns be shot away, the ship would go down with colours flying. The newspaper article of 8 June 1916 (paper unknown) also states that there was a ‘Maori emblem’ on the fore part of the fighting top. This is not mentioned in any material held by the Museum although a little remembered fact is that at least one of the turrets of the ship had an inscription in Maori around its base.[2]

[1] This material is from a letter written by Albert Lewis Chief Signal Boatswain of HMS New Zealand November 1912-January 1919.

[2] History of HMS New Zealand, Navy League 1919, pp. 31-32, Onward HMS New Zealand, 1919, pp, 5,8., News paper cutting of July 1916