- Letter Writer
- Early warships, Ship histories and stories, History - pre-Federation, Letter to the Editor
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2021 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The following email was received from Jim Lorrimar of Perth, Western Australia.
With regard to the June edition of the NHR which I recently received, I was admiring the Australia Post stamp which made up the front cover featuring HMVS Cerberus arriving at Port Phillip Bay on 9 April 1871 when I noticed the flag flying from the stern which looks exactly like the current national flag of Australia! How could this be?
To quote Lew Lind in Historical Naval Events of Australia on 03 September 1901 – ‘The Australian flag was flown for the first time on the Melbourne Exhibition Building. It was approved by the King and authorised by the Australian Government on 20 February 1903. The design was amended on the request of the Admiralty in 1912.’
Lew also notes that on 09 February 1870, a Southern Cross flag claimed to be the official ensign of the Colony of Victoria was hoisted in HMVS Nelson. Perhaps you could confirm if this was the same design as our current flag.
After consultation with the expert vexillographer John Vaughan, the following response was sent to Jim which hopefully clarifies the situation.
Commander William Norman of the Victorian Naval Service was posted to England to oversight construction of HMVS Cerberus. Unfortunately, he was not in good health and obliged to step down from this demanding position, and he subsequently died in December 1869. The post was then offered to another senior officer in the Victorian Service, who declined; accordingly the replacement, somewhat surprisingly, fell to a bright 29-year-old Lieutenant William Panter RN, then serving in HMVS Nelson.
Panter arrived in England on 13 June 1870 to an administrative nightmare with a less than cooperative Admiralty which was then concerned with the outbreak of the Franco/Prussian War. It was not until 16 September 1870 that he was able to obtain command, with the Royal Navy insisting he resign his permanent commission and become a Lieutenant RNR, and the ship was to fly the Red Ensign. The Victorian government countered by promoting him to Captain in their service.
It was extremely difficult to raise a crew as there were rumours relating to the ship’s poor seakeeping qualities, not helped by the recent loss of a not dissimilar ‘turret ship’ HMS Captain, which had foundered in the Bay of Biscay with only 20 saved from her complement of 500. Eventually with a small crew of 25 from the merchant service she sailed under the Red Ensign from Chatham on 29 October 1870. In heavy weather she rolled excessively and was obliged to seek shelter, making for Plymouth where most of her crew promptly deserted.
With changes made to her rigging and a new crew of 65 men embarked she resumed her voyage on 7 November 1870. Her sails were useless and with a voracious appetite for coal she called at Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Galle, Batavia, Fremantle and Albany. They arrived off the Suez Canal on 19 December and after twice touching ground cleared the canal on 23 December 1870. John Bastock in his Australian Ships of War says she first hoisted the Victorian Blue Ensign during the transit so that reduced canal fees available to warships could be claimed, and this was reaffirmed by Ross Gillett in the recent second edition of Australia’s Colonial Navies. In the Navy News of 26 August 1960 there is also a further reference to the ship entering Port Phillip on 9 April 1871 under the Victorian Blue Ensign.
In summary there seems little doubt that HMVS Cerberus flew the Victorian Blue Ensign, and was wearing this flag in honour of her home state, at the time of her arrival at Port Phillip Bay. It is notable that the Victorian flag has great similarities to the present Australian National Flag other than for the omission of the Commonwealth Star.
John Vaughan has kindly provided the following additional details with an image of the original Victorian Blue Ensign – please see the inside back cover of this magazine for coloured images.
In 1865 the Imperial Parliament passed the Colonial Naval Defence Act. This act empowered Australian colonies to provide, maintain and use vessels of war. As a result of this, each colony needed to have its own distinctive flag.
In February 1870 all vessels belonging to, or permanently in the service of, the Government of Victoria were authorised to wear the Blue Ensign with the distinctive badge of the Colony in the fly of the flag. The badge had five white stars representing the constellation of the Southern Cross. On 9 February 1870, the flag was flown for the first time on board HMVS Nelson.
Further information on HMVS Cerberus can be found at: https://navyhistory.au/naval-heritage-sites/hmvs-cerberus/.