First World War

Flag Debate: The Silver Fern

Prime Minister John Key recently reignited the debate about New Zealand’s national flag.  The same old arguments for and against any change are already being trundled out and so I thought I’d add my two pence.  I’m not yet entirely convinced that change is needed at all, but if change is inevitable then there does seem to be a strong argument for the raising of one of our most beloved icons – the silver fern.

Our current flag evolved from the Royal Navy’s blue ensign in the 1860’s, saw irregular use through the late nineteenth century and became official in 1902.  It is hard to not be attached to, or even get a little emotional about, the flag that once flew over Quinn’s Post at Gallipoli, was raised at Jack Lovelock’s medal ceremony at the 1936 Berlin Olympics or was flown at half-mast during tragedies both past and recent.  A long and proud history is part of what makes a strong flag – that sense of continuity between the past, the present and the future.

I should admit to being excessively nostalgic at times (surprise!) and can harbor discontent at any seemingly unnecessary cosmetic changes – especially when they relate to heritage.  Yet despite that, I’m open-minded to the suggestion of a flag change, that is, as long as any replacement still maintains a strong link to our past.  With that in consideration the silver fern does seem to be a potential candidate.  I looked through my personal collection of historical ephemera for the earliest example I could find of the silver fern being used as an emblem – and found this field stationary set that belonged to a New Zealand soldier in the First World War.

Silver Fern and Kiwi on cover of First World War stationary kit Lemuel Lyes Collection

Silver Fern and Kiwi on cover of First World War stationary kit
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Inside of New Zealand soldier's stationary kit, Xmas 1917 Lemuel Lyes Collection

Inside of New Zealand soldier’s stationary kit, Xmas 1917
Lemuel Lyes Collection

This stationary set emblazoned with the silver fern and kiwi was distributed to New Zealanders on the Western Front.  This example belonged to Hugh Anderson Thompson who embarked with the 29th Reinforcements on 13th August 1917.   At this time some military vehicles such as ambulances and staff cars were also marked with the silver fern.

ANZAC Mounted Division's Model T Australian War Memorial Museum

Major General Chaytor with Brigadier General Cox, who is about to step into a car, serial no. LC 1357. The formation sign on the door is a silver leaf over an upturned boomerang.
Australian War Memorial Museum – ID:  B00602

Here is a fantastic close up example on a New Zealand Division lorry.  If you squint or use a magnifying glass then you can also spot it on First World War ambulances here and here.

Many of the soldiers themselves also wore silver fern badges, a tradition that goes back to the late nineteenth century.  New Zealand troops in the Boer War proudly wore the emblem to distinguish themselves from other colonial forces.

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXI, Issue 4969, 18 November 1899 Courtesy of Papers Past

Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXI, Issue 4969, 18 November 1899
Courtesy of Papers Past

Check out some examples of early silver fern military badges here.  On the home-front the silver fern was also a popular design for ladies brooches and there is even a record of silver fern brooches being awarded in recognition of fundraising efforts after the Elingamite disaster.  One such example survives in Te Papa’s collection.

Pressure sprayer, about 1910, New Zealand. A. & T. Burt, Ltd. Purchased 2008. Reproduced courtesy of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa under a CC BY-NC-ND licence (GH011797)

Brooch, ‘NZ’, 1902, New Zealand.  Purchased 2012. Reproduced courtesy of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa under a CC BY-NC-ND license (GH021677)

When not on the battlefield or in the wake of shipwrecks It was of course on sports grounds that the silver fern forged its reputation as a national symbol, and not only on the jerseys of our famous rugby team.

Hood, Samuel J, 1872-1953. Surf lifesaving teams at a surf carnvial, Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-9531-14. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22753018

Hood, Samuel J, 1872-1953. Surf lifesaving teams at a surf carnvial, Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-9531-14. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22753018

New Zealand Ladies' Hockey team that played England - Photographer unidentified. Making New Zealand :Negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection. Ref: MNZ-1000-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22910272

New Zealand Ladies’ Hockey team that played England – Photographer unidentified. Making New Zealand :Negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection. Ref: MNZ-1000-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22910272

Associated Press. Jack Lovelock after his victory in the `mile of the century' - Photograph taken by the Associated Press. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-8163-31. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22453630

Associated Press. Jack Lovelock after his victory in the `mile of the century’ – Photograph taken by the Associated Press. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-8163-31. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22453630

Another triumph for "Speedo". N.Z. representatives in their Speedo racing suits at the British Empire Games ... Len Smith, Noel Crump, Billy Whareaitu. [1935].. [Programmes and ephemera relating to lifesaving, surf life-saving, including programmes of the New Zealand Surf Life Saving Association. 1935-1939]. Ref: Eph-A-LIFESAVING-1935-01-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22756860

Another triumph for “Speedo”. N.Z. representatives in their Speedo racing suits at the British Empire Games … Len Smith, Noel Crump, Billy Whareaitu. [1935].. [Programmes and ephemera relating to lifesaving, surf life-saving, including programmes of the New Zealand Surf Life Saving Association. 1935-1939]. Ref: Eph-A-LIFESAVING-1935-01-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22756860

Mr Les Murray, boxer. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/2-204959-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22861462

Mr Les Murray, boxer. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/2-204959-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22861462

So it seems that while the Union Jack and Southern Cross may have flown above our athletes and soldiers the silver fern was frequently on the field with them; and adorned their breasts, brows and boxers.  It is a strong national symbol with a proud history, but would it make a good flag?  There are a number of arguments against it; some don’t like it aesthetically, some are concerned that the link to the All Blacks is too strong and some have suggested that it might be confused for a white feather of cowardice.

Others have also questioned the wisdom of having black as a background.  Black flags are rarely raised, but there are a few historical precedents – Afghanistan had a black flag on a number of occasions and it has also been flown by anarchists, Confederate guerrillas, Jihadists, surrendering Nazi U-boats, and last but not least, pirates.  Perhaps the black flag opponents have a point.

There are of course a number of other flag suggestions including a Kiwi, the United Tribes Flag (which I have a soft spot for – and was a suggestion put forward by some when our current flag was decided upon over a century ago) and some others suggest only a slight modification of the current design – enough to avoid confusion with our pesky neighbours across the ditch.  If that is all the change that is needed then I actually quite like our red ensign, and another suggestion put forward is a simple switch from the blue background to black.  Then again, I do also quite like the Jolly Roger….

What do you think?  Are you for or against a flag change?  Do you think the silver fern is a suitable candidate, and if so, is a black background appropriate?

© Lemuel Lyes

30 replies »

  1. Great research on the history of the silver fern (as expected on the History Geek blog!).
    I don’t have a particularly strong attachment to the current flag, but I’m also not a fan of most of the alternatives.
    My favourite is Kyle Lockwood’s flag, with the combination of the silver fern and the southern cross while keeping the same colours as the current flag. I think the silver fern on black should be kept for our athletes.

    • Kyle Lockwood’s flag is an interesting option – it certainly incorporates some iconic NZ symbols with the same colours as the current flag, colours which also have significance in their own right. I understand that the blue represents the ocean that surrounds us, and the red, as well as being a colour favoured in some Maori art, is also said to represent the blood shed by NZders in times of war. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I like the idea of a koru rather than a fern. I’ve never thought the NZ flag was much chop really, mostly because it looks like components of something else and has little identity (I know you will argue against that statement). As far as commercial use, the fern seems to have started being used in the early 1890s and really popularised from the beginning of WWI through to the 1930s, then started dropping off again.

    • The koru is an interesting thought – and again iconic.

      I agree with your statement about the NZ flag lacking in a sense of identity – in that it is of course extremely similar to the flags of many other nations. It does have a long history, and has become part of our national story, but identity – I think you are right there. On that front it meets that need for some New Zealanders, but perhaps not the majority anymore. Also, to be fair, for a long time during its official use it was often substituted by the Union Jack anyway, or at least flew alongside it.

      That is interesting that the silver fern became less popular as a commercial symbol after the ’30s.

      • It seems more that it had a period where it was the fashion of the moment. It’s didn’t go out of use so much as have a period of heightened popularity and then normalized.

  3. Morning, I just have to add my thoughts here. I see the Silver Fern as a sports symbol and for those of us who aren’t sporty, they I could never support the Silver Fern as our flag. Its really a logo, and I gather in one war, was seen by some, mistakenly, as the coward’s white feather.

    I support using the flag of 1814… designed by Henry Williams, and used for trade purposes in Sydney. And the following year as the flag of the Declaration.

    Of course I’m biased !!!
    I hope you are well Lemuel. Im up at the Whaling Museum…. was it this time last year you were here? Lets catch up when I get back to Dunedin at the end of the month.
    Caroline

    • Hey Caroline! Great to hear from you. The strong link that the silver fern has to our athletes can certainly be seen as a reason against its use as flag, as much as it can be seen by some as a reason for it.

      You are indeed biased (as am I!), but what a fantastic connection you have to be the descendant of the man who designed that flag!!! I’m actually a huge supporter of that option, it being our first flag by a long shot and with strong links to the early relationship between Maori and Pakeha. It also continued to be used surprisingly widely through to the end of the nineteenth century – and when the current flag was chosen I understand that the United Tribe flag was also mentioned as a possibility – if not officially (I’m unsure on this), it was at least suggested unofficially.

      I’d love to see it be put forward as an option if there is indeed a flag change – but would suspect that many New Zealanders may not identify with it.

      Yes – it has been a year since I enjoyed the beautiful far north. Far too long! I look forward to catching up when you are back.

  4. I have never even been to New Zealand, but after reading this – I am also attached to the Silver Fern, when will you know if there is actually going to be a change in your flag?

    • You should come visit! The debate over potentially changing the flag has been raised before, but was recently brought up again by our current Prime Minister. I imagine any decision – if it does happen – would likely be made by referendum.

  5. I have spent a good part of the last 31 years living and working off shore both as part of the military and as a civilian, and more people have asked me “why do New Zealand sports teams have a single laurel wreath as their symbol” than have been confused between the New Zealand and Australian flag.

    Personally I’m undecided, the current flag has served NZ well for over 100 years and I’m from the school that believes if it ain’t broken don’t try and fix it, but if some one can come up with a partisan design that represents modern NZ but also pay tribute to the past then the change could be a move forward. As for the silver fern, leave it as a symbol for our sportsmen and women, on a flag it would be just to confusing for the rest of the world.

    • You make some very good points. That is an interesting observation regarding the confusion with the laurel wreath – it is a point that I hadn’t heard before but I can see how the fern could be confused for it.

      I’m also yet to be entirely convinced that change is needed, but if it does happen then to get my support any new flag design would need to reflect our past as much as it does the present and future.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I’ve got a post lined up this week on the 1834 ensign – a neat little snippet of history, that – triggered by the same flag debate! What is it about great minds thinking alike?

    The story of the silver fern is fascinating – I knew it was well entrenched by WWII but didn;t know about its origins as a symbol. Rob’s point about it being confused with a laurel wreath by those unfamiliar with the meaning it has to us Kiwis is worth a thought, if we’re contemplating change. As is your point about ‘black flags’.

    I guess any serious argument for change would also have to take into account that our current flag has grown up with us – and means a great deal to us itself, because of what’s gone on while it’s symbolised New Zealand, including military service.

    • I look forward to your post on the 1834 ensign! One of the other commentators on this post, a friend of mine, is a descendent of the man who designed it. I’m a fan of the flag myself, and would like to think it is at least a candidate in any flag change referendum, but wonder if it would be embraced by the majority of NZders – most of whom, I suspect, would have had limited exposure to it.

      Rob’s point about the laurel wreath, and the comments made about the fern being confused with a ‘white feather’ are valid concerns. It can be easy to think about flag choice without taking into account what it portrays to non-New Zealanders.

      The key thing for me is that any change takes into consideration our past as much as the present.

      • Now that is a very neat find! Not only for the use of the flag but also ‘Zealandia’. It bares a remarkable similarity in tone to a poem by WIlliam Skey called “Hail, Zealandia”, which was published in 1889. Makes me wonder if Skey was influenced by it.

        The United Tribes flag did seem to be used sporadically through the mid-late nineteenth century. I found at least one newspaper article that mentioned it as a possibility when the current flag was chosen.

  7. I have just been reminded by a ex RAF colleague that back in the 60’s, the RNZAF roundel was basicly the RAF roundel with a white fern placed on the red center. I found this explanation on NZ History online as to why it was changed to the KIwi, and it’s relevance to the flag debate;

    “In January 1957 the Air Board announced that it had developed a new national emblem – a white fern would be placed on the central red of the RNZAF roundel. Because of remarks that this looked like a white feather, a symbol of cowardice, the colour was changed to silver, but on aircraft fuselage this looked like peeling paint. While some called for the fern to be replaced by a kiwi, others remarked that a flightless bird could hardly be an appropriate emblem for an air force. But support for the kiwi won out – a red kiwi was formally adopted in place of the red spot in September 1970”

    Can you imagine the implications on the moral of our troops if they have to serve under a national flag based on the silver fern, not only will our troops have to continue to put up with sheep jokes from our Aussie cousin, but also jokes about the white feather on our national flag.

    • Do the All Blacks get teased about the fern looking like a feather? I think, like our rugby players, our troops compete well enough for that not to be a problem.

      People learn what other people’s symbols mean. We know the Japanese red spot is not a pimple.

  8. I’m open to a flag change. Not the silver fern (on its own), nor anything with a kiwi. Leave them for sporting events and the like. I saw a good design the other day but can’t now locate it, I think it included the Southern Cross and a Maori element. It would be a big call to ditch the Union Jack given tradition and history etc, but I think we’re getting to the stage as a country and population where we could.

    • A move from the Union Jack would certainly be a big one. It is interesting to look at the direction taken by some of the other former dominions. Canada kept the Union Jack as their official flag for a lot longer than we did (although for a long time here in New Zealand the Union Jack was raised alongside our current flag), their red ensign was never made official and instead the decision to adopt their current flag in 1965.

      It is interesting to wonder what direction Australia might take, considering that they aren’t averse to strong displays of nationalism.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Thoroughly enjoyed your research on the use of the Fern in NZ’s history. I am not sure whether I want a change of flag or not. I wonder what the financial implications of flag changing are. And then what about our fern leaf’s connection with butter? Would a fern on a black flag make me think of butter on burnt toast?

    • I’m glad that you enjoyed the post! You raise a very good point – there must be a reasonably large price tag attached to any change, both in the process of finding a replacement and then the production and distribition up and down the country.

  10. Here in Canada we had our own flag debate fifty years ago and I think it left our country a better place. The maple leaf flag is a strong emblem not easily confused with any other nation. As in any of the “dominions” there was a strong sentiment to keep some vestige of the British connection on the flag. A number of our provinces have done this on provincial flags but they are increasingly a puzzle for those whose roots are not in the British Isles. However, we found that, like the silver fern, a unique natural symbol was a better one to truly recognize that we are a free and independent country. It is interesting to note how few flags have natural motifs – Lebanon has a cedar tree, for example, and I can think of no others although they no doubt exist.

    • I think Canada is a very good point of reference for the flag debate in New Zealand – a similar heritage, similar reasons behind the change and a very succesful change at that. I think we can learn a lot from Canada’s lead.

      By the way – I recently discovered your blog and am loving your posts on maritime history!

    • Hey – thanks for the message! Yes all is well here, I have a few posts in the works which are taking longer than expected to research (but will be worth it!) and also have been kept particularly busy with the day job but I’ll be back soon!

  11. Have to say no Canada is not a good example for change at all. Whilst it’s certainly beloved by some now. The Canadian people had it foistered upon them by a republican leaning govenrment. There was no debate and there was no referendum, it was in fact a rather bitter time in Canadian history for all concerned and was an example of a government flying in the face of popular opinion. There is still widespread love in Canada for the red ensign, and some Canadians still refuse to recognise the Maple Leaf and stubbornly fly the red ensign. So perhaps lets leave Canada out of our own debate it’s really not a great example to use.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I wasn’t aware that the Canadian flag was chosen without public debate or referendum, and can certainly see how that would cause friction.

      It will be interesting to see what the New Zealand public will decide in the upcoming referendum. A change of flag is no small decision to make. Thanks for stopping by.

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