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Missing the White Ensign

The Museum in Lockdown – April 2020

It’s the little things that I miss. Those small rituals we have, the markers that pinpoint your workday, stopping to notice the harbour on arrival, that coffee you share with a colleague, walking the galleries and chatting to that regular visitor.

Today I am very much aware of how much I enjoyed seeing the White Ensign flag raised. A constant, a practice initiating our day, signifying to our community we are here, the Navy and of course our Museum.

Over time many visitors; civilians, veterans and current service personnel have responded to this flag, some even asking, could they raise it for us? Memories have been evoked and time spent sharing experiences. Of course, there are those that haven’t any associations and simply ask why is it white? Nevertheless, the White Ensign has initiated many conversations under the flagpole and in our Museum.

These conversations, kick started an inquiry; where did this flag come from? What is its history? I was surprised to learn that it dates to the 17th century, when until 1864 the Royal Navy was divided into three squadrons: Red, White and Blue. Each of these wore an ensign of the appropriate colour. It wasn’t long though before change was in the air with each of the three colours being adopted for their exclusive use by the Royal Navy, Merchant Naval Service and the government. White for the Royal Navy, Red – Merchant Navy and Blue for the government, a tradition which continues to this day.

Where do we come into this, New Zealand that is? Our connection as a nation to the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom saw our ships and establishments fly the British White Ensign until 1968. The movement to change here may have been sparked by the introduction of the Australian White Ensign in 1967. Keen to give it our own flavour, a Mr Jones of the RNZN Hydrographic Branch was invited to put forward a design for a distinctive New Zealand White Ensign. This flag flies today and incorporates the Union Jack in the first quarter, on a white background and the Southern Cross represented by the four, five pointed red stars.

I look forward to things returning to normal, welcoming our community back to the Museum and the daily ritual of proudly flying the White Ensign.

Marica McEwan – Visitor Services Manager

Michael Wynd, White Ensign History (1) 2009.

Key Dates:

10 June 1968 New Zealand White Ensign Regulations 1968 is approved by the Governor General

14 June 1968 New Zealand White Ensign Regulations 1968 are reprinted with amendments to flag design added

20 June 1968 New Zealand White Ensign hoisted for first time at the Navy Office HMNZS Wakefield, Wellington – Approved by Order in Council of same date

24 June 1968 Replacement of the British Ensign use is published in the New Zealand Gazette.

HMNZS Waikato raising the White Ensign
HMNZS Waikato raising the White Ensign