The Flag Badge (1869/70) and Alternative Designs

The Flag Badge (1869/70)

Hong Kong had at this time no flag, other than the Union Flag.

On 22nd July 1868 the Colonial Office requested the Crown Agents for the Colonies to "construct a suitable badge" for Hong Kong from "the central and characteristic part of the seal". A badge was constructed accordingly, was set in a Blue Ensign by Messrs. Thomson & Son of Wapping, Flagmakers, and was forwarded to the Governor.

This badge, which is reproduced in Plate III, in fact differs materially from the central harbour picture of the public seal. The drawing is crude and much of the detail has been lost; the seated Chinese has risen to his feet; the chests of merchandise have become simple boxes and a signal station has been erected at the top of the highest hill.

Plate III - The Flag Badge (1869/70)

It seems that the artistic feelings of the community received a rude shock when the new flag was first unfurled. The then Governor, Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell, C.B., brought the matter before his Executive Council, which had no hesitation in recording the opinion that the flag was "both in design and execution extremely defective". Accordingly Sir Richard on the 3rd July 1869, addressed a protest to Lord Granville, at the time Secretary of State for the Colonies. He wrote-"As the design seems to have been compiled by an oilman at Wapping for about £3, a specimen of the highest art could not well have been looked for. Apart, however, from the abstract merits of the flag, it is the wish of the Council and of every one who has expressed an opinion here on the subject, that your Lordship should direct some fresh and more suitable design to be substituted. It has been suggested that in lieu of the gentleman in an evening coat who is purchasing tea on the beach at Kowloon, an unusual place for such transactions, it would be more agreeable to the feelings of the community if the foreground were occupied by the well-known figure of Britannia with the British Lion lying beside her and near the British flag. It is suggested that in such case the shield might bear either the motto "Caelum non animum mutant" or the Royal Arms, as your Lordship might decide. I admit that in the design of the enclosed flag there is a certain unpleasant resemblance to a portion of the present arms of the Colony, but I respectfully submit that the opportunity is not unfavourable for considering whether the Arms themselves now borne on the seal of the Colony are not capable of improvement. That, however, which is appropriate on the smaller surface of the seal seems quite unsuitable to the larger field of the flag".

Again on the 27th December 1869, Sir Richard wrote to Lord Granville: -- "The flag at present assigned to the Colony is capable of great and easy improvement, and the fact that it is wholly unsuitable, as the device, though not strikingly out of good taste when put on a medal or a seal, becomes obviously so when occupying the larger field of a flag. Such at least is the opinion of myself and my Council as well as of every one else whom I have hitherto heard speaking on the subject. I have even referred the matter again ,to my Council, and they unanimously recommend a change of the device in the flag to something of the same idea and character as that which I ventured to submit to your Lordship in my despatch No. 734 of July last." He added, "I may say that, however pleased we might be to obtain a flag with a more tasteful device, our principal object is to get rid of that which at present appears to be decidedly obnoxious".

These strong views were transmitted by the Colonial Office on the 25th February 1870 to the Crown Agents, who set to work to produce alternative designs. On the 8th April 1870 they forwarded to the Colonial Office two designs (reproduced in Plates IV and V) prepared by Messrs. J. S. & A. B. Wyon of Regent Street, Chief Engravers of Her Majesty's Seals, for the centre of the Colony's flag. One of the two designs, that containing the figure of Britannia, was a modification of the sketch forwarded by the Governor, while the other was a simpler design on similar lines. In forwarding the designs the Crown Agents said:

"In leaving these designs at this Office, Messrs. Wyon stated that they considered the more simple design the better of the two; that the figure of Britannia, the British lion etc. might be appropriately introduced into a general Colonial Flag, but that they would not recommend the use of those figures in the flag of a single Colony, moreover that the number of the objects in the more elaborate design gave it a confused appearance when viewed from a distance. The Crown Agents would be glad to receive Earl Granville's instructions which of the two designs submitted by Messrs. Wyon should be adopted."

Plate IV - Tentative Design (1870)

Plate V - Tentative Design (1870)

With some indignation the Crown Agents repudiated the Governor's stricture on the artistic merits of the first flag badge and His Excellency's reference to the Oilman of Wapping. "The design was not compiled by an Oilman at Wapping", they said; "the only persons at that place who were in any way employed in the matter were the Flag-makers, Messrs. Thomson & Son, No. 283 Wapping, who were recommended some years ago to the Crown Agents by the Board of Trade and the Trinity House as a highly respectable firm. Though the Crown Agents have had reason to be satisfied with Messrs. Thomson & Son as Flag-makers, that Firm was not in any way consulted as regards the design for the Hong Kong Flag."

Earl Granville, perhaps fortunately, did not like either of the two designs submitted to him, and on 5th May 1870 wrote to the Governor of Hong Kong in the following terms:

"I have the honour to inform you that not being satisfied with the designs for a Colonial Flag for Hong Kong which have been submitted to me, I have decided that the best course will be to adopt for use in the Colony a pattern somewhat similar to that which has been selected by the Governor of New Zealand, viz.: a blue ensign with a white crown over the initial letters of the Colony. The Crown Agents have been informed of my decision, and in accordance with it will forward a supply of flags of that pattern for the service of the Government of Hong Kong."