The ss Great Britain is presented today dressed overall as an historic presentation of the launch of the ship in July 1843.
As such, evidence was gathered in order that the truest representation of the launch could be displayed for visitors.
The white ensign is very clearly seen flying from the ship's ensign staff on her launch day in a painting by the noted maritime artist Joseph Walter, and in a coloured but very naive illustration of her entering New York on her maiden visit. It is also specifically mentioned in the Illustrated London News of June 21 1845, where the author states that ‘On her several masts were hoisted the English White Ensign, and the American, French, Belgian and Russian colours.’
By contrast, another view of the launch shows two red ensigns flying. Correct use of the white ensign was a subject of much controversy during the later part of the 19th century. The flying of the white ensign would appear to have been an unusual occurrence by 1845, as the white ensign was by this stage largely used by Royal Navy vessels. An Order in Council of 1864 abolished the flying of the Red, White and Blue ensigns by Naval vessels, and finally reserved the white for the Royal Navy.
While it does not seem to have prescribed the exclusive flying of the red ensign by merchantmen, it implies that it was common practice by that period. There are quite a number of instances of merchant vessels receiving permission from the Admiralty to fly the white ensign when the ship is dressed, or when accompanying Royal yachts and ships of war – indeed the Trinity House Corporation received a blanket endorsement to do so at the turn of the 20th century. Similarly, it was apparently acceptable practice in the 18th and 19th centuries to use a white ensign, bordered by a red stripe, if the red ensign was damaged or missing.
Further, while the red ensign was certainly the normal legal ensign for merchant ships, the practice of flying a white ensign was not unknown, and given that many Naval vessels were also still flying both blue and red ensigns in 1843, the flying of the White ensign by a merchantman can hardly have been the controversial issue it later became. Two articles in the Mariners Mirror vol 9, 1923, and vol 22 1936 touch on this subject. The former notes that the Mail ships Schomberg and James Baines are seen flying the ensign in ‘Illustrated News’ illustrations of the mid 1850s and several merchant vessels are recorded by maritime artists as flying the white ensign including vessels from Black Ball Lines, so it was not an uncommon practice.
Whether the Great Britain received some form of exclusive permission to fly the white ensign is as yet unknown, and the matter is further complicated by the presence at the launch of Prince Albert, and the flying of his Royal Standard. Given that there was a military band stationed on board the ship on launch day, and that the Queens’ Consort was on board for at least some of the day, the white ensign was perhaps seen as appropriate.
More recent discussions have taken place on white ensign use by merchantmen in The Mariner's Mirror, Vol.92 No.3 August 2006. It seems likely that prior to 1864, use of the white ensign (and other unusual or blended flags) on merchantmen like the Great Britain simply grew from the personal taste or whimsy of the captain or ship owner rather than from any officially approved practice. As we use historical evidence to inform the re-display of the ship in her 1843 launch guise, we are obliged to display the flag that was flown on the day of her floating out.