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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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The New Zealand Ensign

From 1840 until after the passing of the Imperial “Colonial Naval Defence Act, 1865”, New Zealand possessed no flag of its own, but used either the Union Jack for all occasions ashore or, if the occasion was a maritime one, the appropriate British naval or maritime ensign. In 1865, because there was considerable uncertainty about the question, the Admiralty laid down the following rules:

At that time the New Zealand Government possessed ships in neither category, but on 10 January 1867, when four small steamers were in commission, Sir George Grey issued a proclamation appointing “the letter NZ in red, … surrounded by a margin of white” to be used as the colony's badge on the blue ensign (A5). This arrangement was temporary, and in 1869 Sir George Bowen deemed it “expedient to adopt a permanent device”. Consequently, on 23 October 1869 it was proclaimed that:

In 1900 the Government decided to adopt this flag for use on shore. The New Zealand Ensign Act of 1900 was passed by Parliament, but was disallowed on a technicality. A new Act was therefore passed and became law on 12 June 1902. In it the New Zealand Ensign was described as “the blue ensign of the Royal Naval Reserve, having on the fly thereof the Southern Cross as represented by four five-pointed red stars with white borders”. On 27 June 1902 the Minister of Marine gazetted a description of the new flag (A8), together with instructions about the sizes and positions of the stars. In this connection it may be mentioned that, while the 1900 and 1901 Acts were apparently intended merely to extend the use of the New Zealand flag (gazetted in 1869 exclusively for maritime use) for general occasions ashore, the Gazette notice of 1902, in effect, proclaimed a redesigned flag (C). Alteration was made in the size and position of the stars which, instead of being made uniform in size and crowded into the space on the Blue Ensign permitted by the Admiralty instructions, were now expanded and extended beyond the original area. The Shipping and Seamen's Act of 1908 repealed the New Zealand Ensign Act, but the sections concerning the national flag were re-enacted and this law governs the use of the flag today.

The New Zealand Ensign Act recognised the flag as “the flag of the colony for general use on shore within the colony and on all vessels belonging to the Government of New Zealand”. It is therefore the national flag and should be used at all times in preference to all other flags, including the Union Jack, which is now generally accepted to be the national flag of the United Kingdom. While the use of the flag is apparently unrestricted, it is provided that anyone who defaces it will be subject to certain legal penalties.

The White Ensign

Under the 1869 proclamation, New Zealand naval vessels were entitled to wear the British Blue Ensign with the badge of the colony in the fly. Since the formation of the Royal New Zealand Navy, and in order to show its close connection with the Royal Navy, the British White Ensign (A7) is worn. In peacetime this is usually worn on the New Zealand Station from 8 a.m. local time until sunset, but in wartime it is worn continuously. It is also worn continuously on any ship flying the Royal Standard and on any vessel escorting a ship flying the Royal Standard or the standard of a foreign Head of State.

The Red Ensign

By the Merchant Shipping (Colours) Act of 1889, colonial merchant ships were permitted to fly the Red Ensign as used by British merchant ships, with the badge of the colony in the fly (A3). On 7 February 1899, by Admiralty Warrant, this was extended to New Zealand registered merchant ships. This remained in force until 1903, when the Shipping and Seamen's Act provided that the “Red Ensign usually worn by merchant ships, with the addition in the fly thereof of the Southern Cross as represented by four five-pointed white stars …. is hereby declared to be the proper colours for all merchant ships registered in New Zealand.” (A9)

The Blue Ensign

Certain New Zealand yacht clubs hold Admiralty Warrants permitting them to fly the British Blue Ensign. The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, Auckland, and the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Squadron, Wellington, are the only two New Zealand clubs that hold such warrants, and every yacht flying this ensign must carry the warrant on board. The Royal Akarana Yacht Club, Auckland, holds a warrant entitling it to fly the Blue Ensign defaced by the club's badge. These are the only instances where the Blue Ensign may be flown in New Zealand.

The Naval Board Flag

This is worn continuously at a mast above Navy Office, Wellington, and is only struck by order of the Naval Board. It is also flown on ships when Board members travel. It is flown at half mast at the death of the Sovereign, of the Governor-General of New Zealand, or of a member of the Naval Board when it is rehoisted at sunset. The Naval Board flag is also lowered during the funeral of any of the above. The devices are in gold.

The Naval Secretary's Flag

The personal flag of the Naval Secretary is the same as that of the Naval Board, but with the addition of a bordure on which are countercharged the colours of the field.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force Ensign

This is hoisted daily at Royal New Zealand Air Force establishments and is also flown on New Zealand Air Force planes carrying heads of foreign States, Governors-General of Commonwealth countries the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers, the Chiefs of Staff, ambassadors, and other distinguished persons (A11).

The New Zealand Civil Air Ensign

This was instituted on 16 November 1938 by an exercise of the Royal prerogative. Lord Galway submitted the original design to King George VI and, upon his Majesty's pleasure being made known, the flag became “recognised as the proper national colours to be flown by British aircraft registered in New Zealand” (A12).

The New Zealand Customs Department Flag

This is flown over the HM Customs Department's Building in Wellington and consists of the letters “H.M.C.” in bold white capitals beneath the Union Jack on the New Zealand Ensign (A13).

The New Zealand Police Department Flag

This was first instituted in 1961 and is flown at every headquarters station in New Zealand, or where a commissioned officer is in charge (A14).

Flags of Government Agencies

Only two Government-owned agencies use distinctive flags. These are: (A15) the National Airways Corporation (the letters are pink); and (A16) the National Provident Fund.