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Name Pennants


Last modified: 2012-05-12 by rob raeside
Keywords: name pennant | onomast |
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Walter Holly
schooner built 1888 Gardner's Creek, New Brunswick

[Water Holly]image by Martin Grieve

Other (outside) links:

Kevin Harrington, editor of Flagscan, the journal of the Canadian Flag Association/ L'Association canadienne de Vexillologie, has written an article in this summer's journal, No.73, on a type of flag which has been almost completely ignored by vexillologists, and which does not, as far as I can see, feature on FOTW's web-site.

With Kevin's permission, Martin Grieve has made images of several of the fifty illustrations, and I have copied the article, omitting only details of the other illustrations, and selected sources.

The "Name Pennant" or Onomast in Maritime Vexillology, by Kevin Harrington.

Marco Polo
immigrant ship built 1851 Saint John, New Brunswick

[Marco Polo] image by Martin Grieve

Queen of the Fleet
barque built 1876 Dorchester, New Brunswick

[Queen of the Fleet]image by Martin Grieve

Anyone accustomed to seeing on the wall of a kitchen, barber shop, or country store years ago, those large and colourful calendars showing paintings of sailing vessels straining 'gainst the forces of wind and wave, would be aware that often these vessels bore a special banner. This was in addition to a house flag or the national ensign. This special pennant - it may have been quite long and tapered, or even a swallow-tail - carried the name of the vessel. Our purpose here is to introduce a special term 'onomast', to identify this type of flag (from the old Greek participle 'onomast', 'called' or 'named') and to provide data of time, ship type, and place for the onomast. (I had considered the new term 'nominifer', from the Latin, meaning 'name-bearer', but the Greek word slipped more easily from the tongue and it wore a nautical smile. 'Onomast' may assimilate more easily into other languages too.)

Of what vexillological interest are Onomasts or Name Flags ?

John Gibson
Barque, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 1875

[John Gibson] image by Martin Grieve

Schooner, Orwell Bay, Prince Edward Island, 1848

[Peri] image by Martin Grieve

Dew Drop
Brig, built Hull, UK 1829
London-Quebec service

[Dew Drop] image by Martin Grieve

Ocean Steam Navigation Company

[Washington] image by Martin Grieve

At first glance, onomast may seem just as banal in design as many logotypical corporate banners. If so they would attract few to their study. However on descending a little deeper into these waters, we find that there is often more than just a ship's name in black letters applied to a white triangle or streamer. You may notice these patterns:

  1. Often blue or red fields appear, instead of white. (Yellow and green fields have been spotted.)
  2. The lettering may be in different fonts, scripts and colours; their fly ends may be swallow-tails.
  3. In many British, Russian and Danish onomasts the national flag is incorporated into the canton.
  4. Border in red, blue, or red-white-and-blue, may appear on white, only rarely on the hoist side however.
  5. They seem to be a flag declining in usage. They first emerged in the 18103-20s and reached their zenith in the late nineteenth century - and were still around in the 1920s. Modern pleasure vessels do not use them. Sailing craft and yachts wear house flags and private signals. Government vessels, military ships, and the great passenger liners may never have worn them.
  6. Still onomasts were worn on a great variety of vessels - sailing ships of all types, trawlers, tugs, ice yachts, fishing boats, ferries and steamers.
  7. The usage has been recorded in numerous paintings, photographs and models. Few flags may have survived, and if they did, would likely be rare items for nautical collectors. They no longer appear to be in use as an examination of numerous internet websites using the terms schooner, clipper, steamer, riverboat, ferry boat, etc. has produced none.
  8. Vexillological research has barely touched this topic. This writer has found so far references to them in only a couple of vexillological sources, Boleslaw Mastai and Marie-Louise D'Otrange-Mastai, The Stars and Stripes, New York, 1973, and Timothy Wilson, Flags at Sea, London 1986, (p.39). Even nautical literature on flags, e.g. Peter Johnson's book, steers clear of the topic. Rarely does the term 'name pennant' appear in the index of any maritime book; it may be found in a caption once in a while.
David Prothero, 1 September 2004

Finnish ship under Russian flag

[Hercules] image by Martin Grieve

Coastal steamer
1914 built at Ayr Scotland by Ailsa Shipbuilding Co. for Laird Line

[Maple] image by Martin Grieve

Louis Jolliet
Ferry (traversier)
Quebec City

[Louis Jolliet] image by Martin Grieve

Lady Lilford
Brigantine built 1842
Seven Mile Bay, Prince Edward Island

[Lady Lilford] image by Martin Grieve

Built 1875
Truro, Cornwall
Owned by a Newquay family

[Reaper] image by Martin Grieve

Mary Powell
built 1861, New York
'The Queen of the Hudson'

[Mary Powell] image by Martin Grieve

Mary Eliza
Ship perhaps owned by James Udall
Great Neck, 1845 (Source: Mastai p.73)

[Mary Eliza] image by Martin Grieve

Sarah Dixon
Shaver Transport Co.'s Red Collar Fleet Columbia River, USA

[Sarah Dixon] image by Martin Grieve

built Padstow, Cornwall

[Mary] image by Martin Grieve

West River, Prince Edward Island, 1868

[Atalanta] image by Martin Grieve

Danish brig
built Sonderbo, 1867

name pennant of Ane] image by Martin Grieve

Mount Stewart, Prince Edward Island, 1877

name pennant of Zinga] image by Martin Grieve

Such name pennants were almost a rule of the late 19th century ships in Adriatic, too. I have been wandering about these, that are portrayed on almost every painting of the time showing the ship - and there is great number of such painting preserved in the museums in the cities along the Croatia coast.

I was wondering whether there was some Austria (latter Austro- Hungarian) regulation regarding the issue, but as far I have found no reference to the existence of such rules regulations). But I must admit that I have not been digging very deep, so maybe there still is something to be found.

These pennants are an important part of the Croatian flag history, and they are mentioned in at least two main Croatian works [bor96] and [isa01]. Since there was no way that the Croatian owned ships could fly the Croatian tricolour as their ensign, in spite of the several attempts to facilitate that, the Croatian captains figured out the way how to fly the tricolour in spite of the "foreign" ensign (the Austrian red-white-red ensign was foreign flag in the eyes of the Croatian patriots, just as the "dual" ensign after 1869). They were making their name pennants in shapes of the Croatian tricolour with various motives in them, most prominently displaying the name of the ship. Similarly the shipping companies used in that place their house flags, which were also the national tricolours with company initials (two such companies are mentioned in [isa01]).

The collections of paintings of old ships in Rijeka maritime museum (catalogue issued in 2000), and also paintings in the Split maritime museum, show also other types of the name pennants, triangular with red and blue borders, but also those with Austrian red-white-red combinations and Hungarian red-white-green, just as some entirely different types (i.e. without the national elements).

I have been thinking of covering that in some further work (possibly for the Vexillobaires), but at the moment I seem to have way to little data to go much further.

One other type of flags may be mentioned here, as well. Beside the name pennants that were hoisted from the mainmasts, there was an other flag hoisted atop the foremast (in the ships of eastern Adriatic in the 19th century, i.e. those under Austrian and A-H flag). This flag was as a rule entirely blue or sometimes red or rarely white only in each case inscribed with large numerals (mostly modern Arabic numerals, but also in some cases the Roman numerals). The number I have noticed are two and three digit, and I suppose that they are the registration numbers of ships or something very similar. I have not found any regulations regarding this, but there should be some, otherwise these flags would not be present on almost every ships painting in the collections I mentioned. Of course, the number is different on each ship (I haven't seen two paintings of the same ship, but I assume that one would have to expect the same flag...)

I suspect, further on, that the field colour of these flags may possibly indicate the registration port, in which case, these flags would have further importance to vexillology. However, this is still just a theory that would have to be tested. These may be also some other plausible way these colours might have been designated (say by the ship's size), or it may have been no rules regarding it colours altogether...
Željko Heimer, 1 September 2004

I cannot think of any use for pennants bearing numerals except to indicate the ships registered number. And I should think it quite likely that the colour of the pennant might indicate the home port. British fishing boats were allocated two letters to indicate the home port, and numbers to identify the vessel. As long as these were painted on the hull, the ship was not required to hoist an ensign. "2-(1). A ship belonging to any subject of Her Majesty shall, on a signal being made to her by one of Her Majesty's ships, and on entering or leaving any British or foreign port, hoist the proper national colours. This section shall not apply to any fishing vessel duly registered, lettered and marked as required by the Acts relating to the sea fisheries." Merchant Shipping (Colours ) Act 1889.

The flags on the ship on Dominique Cureau's web-site are different, being flags of the International Code of Signals indicating the Code Signal letters allocated to the ship for the purpose of identifying herself when signaling. I imagine that the number on the ship's certificate of registry would have been quite different.
David Prothero, 3 September 2004

I guess that name-pennants, in general, were what the Victorians called 'fancy flags'; flown only on high-days, holidays and special occasions, such as maiden voyages, and for the benefit of photographers and painters. Short distance ferries and excursion boats perhaps wore them more regularly, as a form of advertising, and there is a surprisingly large number of tugs in the list of ships that Kevin collected; so perhaps they also, were regular users. A tug of about 1935, is the most modern vessel flying a name-pennant that I have found. Described as the first British electric tug, the photograph shows the "Acklam Cross" on what is possibly her acceptance trials; ensign at the stern, house flag at the aftermast, name-pennant at the foremast, Union Jack (no white border) in the bows, and a number of men in over-coats and bowler hats standing around on deck.

Name-pennants found by Kevin Harrington cover ships from Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Russia/Finland and USA. A painting by Antonio Jacobsen (1850-1921) shows the German barque "Ceres" flying the US flag at the fore, and her name in white on a blue pennant at the main
David Prothero, 20-21 October 2004

Certainly this would be 19C practice in the Adriatic (Italy, Austria/Hungary...) and obviously in Northern Europe. I missed if anyone mentioned France, but I would guess it was so. However, as far as I have noticed, we still have no examples from Spain (and Portugal). I was thinking - possibly there was no such practice since the place taken by he name pennant was there taken by the pennant designating th maritime region of registration. Is that so, or was this flown from an other mast? I am sure that it should not be difficult to find some Spanish 19C ship's paintings on the Net to confirm/deny that.
Željko Heimer, 22 October 2004

"Tall Ships: A Fleet for the 21st Century" by Thad Koza has plenty of pictures of contemporary tall ships, flying onomasts or pennants of the kind he described in his article.
David Ott, 5 December 2004

Name Flags

Lord Keith
Cornish trawler
Padstow harbour, 1930s

[Lord Keith] image by Martin Grieve

Cornish trawler
Padstow harbour, 1930s

[Tritonia] image by Martin Grieve

Side-wheel steamer on Lake Champlain
Built Shelburne, Vermont 1906

[Ticonderoga] image by Martin Grieve