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Australian Customs Service - Colonial era, up to 1901

Last modified: 2017-11-20 by ian macdonald
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History of Australian Customs flags

The following is the text of an article [h2c05] published in the current, Winter 2005, edition of Manifest, which is the newsletter of the Australian Customs Service, under the original headline Flying the Customs flag:
[The images included are based on the photos of replica flags in the original article.]
Colin Dobson, 9 December 2005

Although 'authoritative', those photographs are not really accurate. A 2015 Customs publication shows that two of the replica flags that the images below are based on, have since been modified so that they are 'less inaccurate'. Unfortunately I have not yet seen enough clear photographs of actual (not painted) Australian Customs flags 1904-1988 to be able to make final calls regarding the
definitive designs, and even Australian Customs themselves do not know for sure. No pre-1988 'HMC' flags were retained.
Jeff Thomson, 1 October 2017

Customs has its own flag that flies on Customs vessels and, on certain occasions, on buildings. It is the most recent in a series that goes back to before Federation - two from colonial NSW and three since Federation.

The use of flags by "revenue cutters" and other Customs and Excise vessels is mentioned in an English proclamation of 1694. An act of 1784 instructed Customs vessels to fly the flag (and a pennant) when giving chase. The design of the flag changed over time and these changes are described in "Flags at sea" by Timothy Wilson (London HMSO, 1986, pp 40/1) [wil86].

The Australian colonies followed the practice of using Customs/Custom House flags. The five flags so far identified are:

  1. Customs House Flag of 1832 - the source is a facsimile of an engraving by W. Wilson for the NSW Calendar and General Post Office Directory. It is titled "Australia - Code of Signals for the Colony of New South Wales" dated January 1, 1832 and signed by a Mr. Nicholson, Harbour Master. No description is given, but using a combination of the 1817 English Customs flag and the engraving, a replica has been made.

    [Colonial Customs House Flag of 1832] image by Clay Moss, 28 Feb 2006

  2. The precise details [of this 1832 flag] are a matter of guess-work and interpretation. The replica was based on Nicholson's Flag-Sheet of 1832.
    David Prothero, 16 December 2005

  3. Customs Colonial Flag of 1882 - taken from "Supplement to the NSW Government Gazette, No. 193, Friday, 12 May 1882". A replica has been made using a description given as a regulation under the "Customs Regulation Act of 1879": "The proper ensign for Customs shall be the red English ensign with the addition of a white cross, being in the form and proportion the same as the white ensign, but with the colours of the flag reversed, and with the letters CH in the outer lower quarter of the flag; and the pendant shall be the red pendant."

    [NSW Colonial Customs flag 1882] image by Clay Moss, 11 Dec 2005

  4. Australian Customs Flag of 1901 - Section 14 of the original Customs Act of 1901 states that "The vessels and boats employed in the service of Customs shall be distinguished from other vessels and boats by such flag as shall be prescribed". In the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 53 of 10 October 1901, page 172, under the heading "Customs Regulations", Section 14 "The Customs Flag" states, "The Customs flag shall be the Blue Ensign, with the addition in the fly of the letters "HMC" in bold character, and the word 'Australia'". A replica has been made [See note on stars]:

    [Reconstruction of Australian Customs Flag 1901, according to Manifest] image by Clay Moss, 17 Dec 2005

  5. Australian Customs Flag circa 1904 to 1988 - the removal of the word "Australia" from the flag is first noted in an "order in council" dated 16 June 1904, with the appropriate change to Section 14.

    [Reconstruction of Australian Customs Flag 1904, according to Manifest] image by Clay Moss, 17 Dec 2005
     [See note on stars]:

  6. Australian Customs Flag - current. This flag has the word "Customs" in bold on the fly, replacing "HMC". The legislative backing for this change was an amendment SR297, published 17/12/1987 to commence on 1/01/1988.

Source: Manifest, the newsletter of the Australian Customs Service, published Winter 2005, by Corporate Communication, Australian Customs Service, Canberra. International Standard Serial Number (ISSN) 1329-7961, available as a 2.9MB PDF file
Authors: Customs History Unit staff, Kerry Hannan and Peter Chinn.
Colin Dobson, 9 December 2005

Note on stars

Both of these 1901 and 1904 flags show the 7 pointed Commonwealth Star, which dates from 1908. The "replica" of #3 apparently was made by someone who didn't know this. Since the text says the "Blue Ensign", and not the "Australian Blue Ensign", I wonder if the stars were on the flag at all. Anyway, there should be a #4a with the 6 pointed star for 1904-1908.
Dean McGee, 10 December 2005

I agree with Dean. What would be the point of having the word "Australia" in addition to the stars? Thus it is more likely that:

1901 flag. No stars, just HMC AUSTRALIA on a Blue Ensign.

[Reconstruction of Australian Customs flag 1901 with no stars] image by Clay Moss, 18 Dec 2005

1904 flag. HMC on Australian Blue Ensign having a six point Commonwealth star.

[Reconstruction of Australian Customs flag 1904 with 6 pointed star] image by Clay Moss, 19 Dec 2005

1908 flag. As in the replica 1904 flag.
David Prothero, 17 December 2006

Jeff Thomson pointed me in the direction of an article in The Advertiser (an Adelaide newspaper) on 27 October 1903, which reads:

Melbourne, October 26.

Dr. Wollaston (Comptroller of Customs) has made the necessary alterations to the approved Commonwealth flag in order to make a distinctive Australian Customs flag. At present the Customs boats fly a blue ensign with the word "Australia." In future the national flag, with some special defacement will be flown by the Federal Customs launches. The Customs authorities have another flag problem to solve, that is the distinction from a tariff point of view of a flag from a banner, for banners are liable to a higher duty than flags.
(Read at the National Library of Australia's Trove,

As Jeff says, it seems to confirm that the 1901-1904 HMC AUSTRALIA Customs flag was in fact a British Blue Ensign, as speculated upon above.
Jonathan Dixon, 22 October 2012

I just came across two customs flags currently being sold on eBay (Item number: 290302470533). One approx 18ins x 30ins and the other 44ins x 24ins, made from a coarse lightweight cotton/hessian material with the Union flag and stars having been applied by machine in a white zigzag stitch. There is also a Union flag stitched on the back. This flag has its metal fixings still attached and also has the remnants of an old label in the seam of the edge which may once have had writing on, but it is very worn.
Keir, 22 March 2009

The photos on eBay show a flag similar to that shown for 1904-1988 in the Customs newsletter article, but with the "HMC" in between the Commonwealth star and the bottom of the southern cross.

The positioning of the text in the centre of the lower half of the flag is more consistent with the replica flag with the text "HMC AUSTRALIA". It is also consistent with other early Australian flags with devices described as “in the fly”.

However, the Customs article did not describe their “1904-1988” flag as a replica/reconstruction (unlike the earlier ones), and 1988 is not all that long ago – I wonder whether a change was actually made between 1908 and 1988, possibly based on similar understanding of "in the fly" to what we would have. Has anyone seen any Australian customs flags from the early 80s?
Jonathan Dixon, 22 March 2009

Indeed I have Jonathan. The flags painted onto Customs aircraft when these entered service from 1978 had 'HMC' in the flag lower centre. Although clear images of Customs flags are not very easy to find, it appears that from 1904 usually the 'HMC' was in the flag lower centre. But I have been told of a private-collection Customs flag with a spread-out Southern Cross similar to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service flags, and the HMC positioned in the true fly centre within it.

Of the above flag images, Manifest's #3 and #4 are questionable. By 2015 the Customs History Unit had both 'replica' flags altered so that #3 now has a six-point Commonwealth Star, and the small HMC on flag #4 has been moved to the lower centre of a new flag. Although smaller than usual, it is now more or less in the right place. Its previous lower fly corner position may have been inspired by that of the RAAF Ensign roundel. I have been informed that Australian Customs did not retain any genuine HMC flags when these were replaced by the CUSTOMS flags on 1 January 1988. Their '1904-1988' flag was actually a 'replica' although in its Manifest photograph, it looked older than the other replica flags.

The prescribed Customs flag from October 1901 to mid-1904 was indeed the British Blue Ensign as Dean and Clay suggest. But almost certainly Commonwealth Blue Ensign versions existed as well, and this is what flag #3 represents. If so, the layout of the Southern Cross and appearance and position of the 'HMC Australia' are open to speculation and may have looked quite different to how they appear on flag #3. For example, in some cases improvised stars may have been added as best as could be managed to existing British Blue Ensign Customs flags.  
Jeff Thomson, 3 July 2017

1889 South Australian Customs House flag

[1889 South Australian Customs House flag] image by Clay Moss, 27 Feb 2006

On page 36 of the Summer 2006 Manifest magazine, there's a short piece on a new customs flag that the Australian Customs Service's history department has discovered, that being a "distinctive" South Australian Customs flag. Their source is an official South Australian Customs hand book dated 1889.

The definition in the handbook of the flag reads as such: "The proper Customs House flag or ensign is blue, with the Union Jack in the upper canton and the letters C.H. and a crown in red above in the fly; and the proper pendant is blue with a crown in red."

The image above has virtually the same defacement as the New South Wales Customs flag of 1832 mentioned above. The alternative depiction below is drawn up from a photo of a modern reproduction flag which can also be found on page 36 in Manifest. I would tend to believe that the defacement probably looked more like the first image. Can anyone provide further information?
Clay Moss, 27 February 2006

Perhaps this information may help. The South Australian replica Customs flag as shown in the Manifest newsletter (and the image below) is simply an impression based upon a brief written description, as indeed are most of the History Unit's other replica flags. No diagrams nor specifications for Australian colonial or Commonwealth Customs flags have been found and in photographs the appearances vary between flags, even those painted onto Customs aircraft.
Jeff Thomson, 3 July 2017

Alternative depiction of the South Australian Customs flag

[Alternative depiction of the South Australian Customs flag] image by Clay Moss, 27 Feb 2006

Custom House flags

Before Federation in 1901, the six Australian colonies each maintained their own Customs service and Customs legislation. Most of their Customs laws had sections dealing with smuggling and these prescribe 'the proper pendant and ensign' for use by a Royal Navy warship or armed colonial government ship when pursuing suspected smugglers. Some of the laws also specify a 'Custom House Flag' although none prescribe the appearances of these flags. They were most likely red or blue ensigns with a crown over CH. At first this flag was prescribed to be displayed by Customs boats in ports, and may have been flown at the various Custom(s) Houses found throughout Australia, including along the colonial borders. The years that the Custom House Flag was named in Customs laws were; New South Wales 1849 to 1879; South Australia 1863 to 1901; Tasmania 1897 to 1901; Victoria 1852 to 1857; Western Australia 1860 to 1901. Queensland Customs laws before 1873 have not yet been found and no Custom House Flag was found in their Customs Act 1873. In South Australia and Western Australia it later became an alternative to 'the proper ensign' and later still, in both colonies and Tasmania it became 'the proper ensign' itself.
Jeff Thomson, 3 July 2017

Proper ensigns

The white-crossed Red Ensign #2 in the Manifest article above was prescribed in the New South Wales Gazette several years after reference to the Custom House Flag was repealed from the Customs Act. This was the proper ensign to be flown when chasing suspected smugglers. Victoria had a proper ensign from 1865, when they introduced the Blue Ensign type below. In the Victorian Government Gazette No 185 of 12 December 1865 (page 2888) is the following notification by the authority of James G Francis, Commissioner of Trade and Customs;

It is hereby intimated, for general information, that from this date, in accordance with the Admiralty Regulations, published in the Government Gazette of 27th January, 1865, the Blue Ensign with the Union described therein, together with a Crown and the initial letters H.M.C., will be borne by boats, &c, in the Customs Department, in lieu of that previously in force.

The Admiralty Regulations printed in the January Gazette had not noted that technically the Red Ensign of 1817 still applied as the basis of the Customs flag. It is not yet known if the Department of Trade and Customs reverted to a Red Ensign at some later stage because of this. Nor has any Customs flag notification of what was 'previously in force' been found in pre-1851 New South Wales Gazettes, nor the Port Phillip and Victorian Gazettes. Presumably it was a Custom House Flag similar to flag #1 in the Manifest article above.
Jeff Thomson, 3 July 2017