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Naval Flags on English Churches (United Kingdom)

Last modified: 2011-12-24 by rob raeside
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Church of St Mary Magdalene in Gillingham

29 March 1915

Vicar wrote to the Admiralty that the White Ensign was flown from a staff on the tower of the church on the orders of the Admiralty, His Majesty's Dockyard supplying the flag. "Staff went by the board." Would Admiralty arrange to replace the staff so that the flag might fly the following Sunday?

Research at the Admiralty found that a brazier on top of the tower used to indicate the centre of the fairway of River Medway, and that permission for a White Ensign, to be supplied by the Commodore of RN Barracks Chatham, was granted when the light was discontinued. In May 1915 the Hydrographer reported that the staff was no longer used for navigation but was "essential to the conduct of surveying operations." The staff was replaced and a flag, type not specified, was supplied on loan from Chatham. Ownership of the flag staff was transferred to the church in 1920 and in 1946 a White Ensign from a Chatham manned ship was laid-up in the church, in lieu of permission to fly a White Ensign from the tower. [ADM 1/8416/82, ADM 1/16854 and ADM 1/20868]

David Prothero, 17 January 2002

Church of St Werburgh at Hoo near Rochester

Apparently flies the White Ensign. Said to have originated in connection with the use of the church tower and spire as a navigation mark by HM ships approaching Chatham Dockyard. No documentary evidence.

David Prothero, 17 January 2002

Churches of St Luke in Charlton, and St Mary in Woolwich

An article in "The Times" newspaper of 22 December 1937 reported that these churches had been allowed to fly the Red Ensign for acting as signal stations in the 18th century. When the Red Ensign ceased to be one of the Royal Navy ensigns in 1864 the Red Ensigns on the two churches were replaced by White Ensigns. On 1 January 1938 the White Ensigns were replaced by 1707 Red Ensigns made in the proportion 2 : 3.

David Prothero, 17 January 2002

Church of St Anne at Limehouse, London

The White Ensign was flying on this church a couple of years ago. It is apparently flown from Trafalgar Day (October 21st) until the next official Royal Birthday (?), after which St George's flag is flown until Trafalgar Day. The tower was used as a leading mark by ships sailing up the western side of the Isle of Dogs. A White Ensign flying from the tower is shown on the silver head of the Beadle's Stave, which has been dated by its assay mark to 1776. It seems slightly surprising that it was the White Ensign and not the Red Ensign, but perhaps the White Ensign could be seen more easily?

David Prothero, 17 January 2002

See also St Dunstan and All Saints Church in Stepney.

I thought you would both like to know I have today received a letter from the Parish Administrator of St Annes    Limehouse. This more of less confirms what is already on the web site....except for one thing      She states " we wear the White Ensign 24 hours a day, 365 days a year "

Brian Sleightholm, 4 April 2005

Church of St Martin in the Fields, London

This is the official Admiralty church, the Old Admiralty Building having been in its parish, and flies the White Ensign on appropriate national occasions.

26 May 1772. We the Churchwardens of the Parish of St Martins(sic) in the Fields beg to inform you that flag used and hoisted from Parish Church upon King's Birthday and on all other publick occasions being quite worn out and rendered unfit for further service, and it being the constant custom of Their Lords of the Admiralty to provide the Parish with such flag being the King's Parish. We therefore take the liberty to request the favour that Their Lordships will be pleased to order a new flag for the above purpose of such dimensions as shall be judged fit and necessary in granting of which they will much oblige the Parish and in particular Senders. Your most obedient and humble servants, etc.. [ADM 1/5117/16]

This was probably a White Ensign, as in 1922, when the church requested a replacement flag, W.G.Perrin, the Admiralty Librarian, referred to a later order of 1790 to supply the church with such a flag. Again it seems strange that it was a White Ensign, that did not become the Royal Navy's exclusive flag until 1864, and not a Red Ensign, the Navy's senior ensign at the time. Perhaps, in this case, the White, with its overall St George's cross was considered more suitable as a church flag ? [ADM 1/8619/6B]

Another request for a replacement White Ensign in 1949 included the information that it was flown when flags were flown on public buildings, and on such ecclesiastical festivals as decided by Rector; a custom that dated from 1726. Admiralty papers recorded the White Ensign that had been supplied in 1922, and another of seven and half feet by fifteen feet, that had been supplied in 1934, with a note that "the original gift of 1922" should not be a precedent. This was interpreted to mean that it should not be replaced. Although it was a rich church that could afford the cost, it was felt that the expense to the Admiralty was worth while. Cost covered by 1947 decision allowing up to Fifteen Pounds for gifts of flags. [ADM 1/21313]

David Prothero, 17 January 2002

Church of All Saints at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk

This was the birthplace of Horatio Nelson. The church flies an 18th century type White Ensign.

On 14th June 1944 the Vicar of Burnham Thorpe, Rev.Henry Hibberd, wrote to the Admiralty requesting permission to fly the White Ensign on his church in memory of Nelson. This was during World War Two, and he explained that there were many visitors to the church from Allied Forces stationed in Britain. The request was supported by two, probably retired, Admirals, but the Admiralty replied that although they had no authority to refuse the request they would not give it their approval, as it would set a precedent for many other churches that had connections with naval heroes. In October the vicar wrote again asking if the flag flown by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile could be authorised. This was probably in the hope that the Admiralty would be prepared to sanction an obsolete ensign. In January 1945 this also was refused. Hibberd tried again in February writing that he was not asking for permission, but for an indication that the Admiralty did not object. The reply, the final letter in the file, was a letter from the Admiralty dated 22nd February 1945;

"You are at liberty to present a petition on this matter in the correct quarter, but regret still not in a position to support application." [ADM 1/16854]

David Prothero, 17 January 2002

Church of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney

St Dunstan and All Saints Church in Stepney was built in 952 AD by the Bishop of London St Dunstan, when the old wooden church that previously occupied the site was knocked down. At the time, it was dedicated to All Saints only, but St Dunstan was added in 1029 after he had been canonised. The present church dates from 1400, but the chancel dates from 200 years earlier, and the font is about 1000 years old. It is one of the churches in the nursery ryhme "Oranges and Lemons" - anyhow it has a "red ensign" flying on its tower. The river Thames used to go up that way - Stepney Green - and it has close associations with the river and shipping. It may explain the distinction with the Limehouse one. There was red ensign flying from it when I saw it a couple of weeks ago and the information was on the board outside the church.
John Prosser
, 10 September 2002

Church of King Charles the Martyr, Falmouth, Cornwall

The Rector's pennant, Falmouth: "One of the flags that hang on either side of the gallery at the west end is peculiar to this Church. It is known as the Rector's Pennant. By Act of Parliament in the reign of King Charles II , the Rector of Falmouth was required to fly a red flag on the Black Rock, at the entrance to the harbour, as a warning to shipping. Until 1840 the Rector was paid sixpence for every decked ship that came into the port. These days port safety rests in the hands of the Harbourmaster, Trinity House and the Pilot service. The Arms shown on the pennant are those of the Killigrew family."
Jan Mertens, 8 November 2004

Church of St. Peter in Thanet, Broadstairs, Kent

For two hundred years this 11th century Church has claimed the right to fly the White Ensign, because in the Napoleonic Wars the Church Tower, one mile from the sea and in a commanding position, was a signalling station for the Royal Navy. There is plenty of documentary evidence for this-- John Mockett, author of Mocketts Journal, covering 1786 to 1836 writes " The top of St Peter's Church Tower was fitted up as a telegraph, to convey information to others erected at various places up to the Nore, where Ships of War were stationed. A lieutenant and three men were stationed, in turns, from light to dark. Their signals were very amusing to us" Also the Picturesque Companion stated " The Church forms a valuable landmark to sailors, and in the late war was used as a telegraph". We know that our signal station was erected by Nicholas Vass, Carpenter of Portsmouth Dockyard. Also in 1904, the learned antiquary Alfred Sangster wrote " The long standing tradition of the White Ensign being flown from the Tower of St Peter's Church is one that dates back over 100 years. The signal station conformed to Admiralty Requirements." There are also a number of engravings paintings, maps and prints showing the station.

We claim a long traditional right to fly the White Ensign, and do so on occasions such as Trafalgar Day, and also for an hour during our award-winning guided walk meeting costumed characters--St Peter's Village Tour....see

Brian Sleightholm, 8 March 2005

As I understand it there are 4 churches in England where this year, at some stage, people could see the White Ensign flying:

  • St. Martin in the Fields....because it is the official Admiralty Church
  • St Anne's Limehouse, and St Werbergh, Hoo near both cases because they have spires which were used as navigation aids by the Admiralty
  • St Peter in Thanet, Broadstairs Kent....but in our case because we had a Tower which was used as a Royal Navy Signalling Station manned by an officer and three men-----so from that point of view we are unique.
Brian Sleightholm, 26 March 2005

St. Bartholomew's Church, Yeovilton

I worked for a few years at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, home of the Fleet Air Arm. In the shadow of the airfield is St Bartholomew's church, owned by the Royal Navy since 1988. I have regularly seen the White Ensign flown from the flagpole on top of the tower, which is fully understandable as it is the Fleet Air Arm Memorial Church.
See and
Ed Smith, 1 September 2009