Signal Flags of Hobart Town 1851 by Mark Risby

Singnal Flags of Hobart Town 1851

                                                                                                              (c) Mark Risby


A little known picture held by the Maritime Museum of Tasmania is one of the most significant historical maritime art works of Tasmania.


It is an ‘elaborate ornamental illumination’ in water colours, pen and ink illustrating the individual house flags of merchant ships that regularly traded into Hobart Town during the 1840’s and 1850’s.


Many of the flagged vessels depicted were owned and mastered by local merchants.


This diagrammatic illustration is titled ‘Signals Hobart Town’ by a convict guard of the 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment of Foot, Private Edward Murphy.

The reason why this and another ten similar known works produced by Murphy are of such historical importance to the maritime history of Tasmania is that they are our only existing reference to the house flags.  No other illustration, reference book or port manual depicts these unique merchant flags.


The uniqueness of these works was fully appreciated by his contemporaries because Murphy’s works were prepared as commissions for port and signal authorities and prominent businessmen who would actually use his illustrations on a daily basis in their occupational and business life, and doubtless doubled as attractive and conversational works of art on their office walls.


Although the Maritime Museum’s work has no specifically named commissioner, many do. For example, Richard Dry an MLC and speaker who later became premier and was the first native-born Tasmanian of immigrant parents to be knighted by Queen Victoria purchased a Murphy picture. Another commission was for Olof Hedberg a whale shipping fleet owner and merchant. The State Library of Tasmania holds this work.

Signal Officer W Lewis commissioned an illustration, as he was the signal officer stationed in charge of the Mulgrave Battery signal station situated at Castray Esplanade and is held by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.


The development and use of the merchant house flags occurred at a time when signal flags played an extremely important role in communication between the port of Hobart Town and the colonial traders arriving and leaving Van Diemen’s Land.

Security was extremely tight because VDL was a penal colony, principally set up for the incarceration of felons, many of whom sort to abscond on poorly guarded vessels moored in the harbour.


The merchant ship house flags came into regular use as they allowed a simplified, accurate and rapid identification of an approaching or leaving vessel by the flying of a single signal. The Marryat signal code for merchant ships currently in use at this time required three or four signal flags, plus the special signal flags to be used for Hobart Town as shown in this picture making a considerable number of signal flags held by any one vessel.


Murphy’s diagram contains several major elements. The centrepiece is a finely detailed drawing of the British Royal Family coat of arms. Below this Murphy has drawn his name, rank, regiment and garrison location. (Hobart Town VDL) and the year of the illustrations completion, 1851.


 Either side of the centrepiece are two enlarged flags, on the left side is a depiction of the Union Jack (as this after all is a maritime picture), and on the right side a matching sized Van Diemen’s Land ensign for merchant ships. Both of these flags are rendered with movement very effectively by the use of diagonal darkening shading.


Surrounding the centrepiece is three concentric circles of 73 individual merchant ships identification or house flags. Next arranged around the circle of flags are four diagrams of different vessels under way with sails set (a cutter, ketch, barque and schooner).


 Below these, stretching right across the lower half of the diagram are the Telegraphic Signals featuring 312 individual semaphore messages, all drawn with the signal arms in position, 162 on the left hand side and 150 on the right side.


A Reference to the Telegraphic Signals is drawn in between features all 312 decodes of the signal arms. Such fine attention to this detail is a distinctive attribute of Murphy’s works.

Signal flags for homeports and local purpose identification along with a signal mast are depicted on either side of the centrepiece completing the key elements of this illustration.


To illustrate just a few of the merchant flags depicted in this illustration there is the one for Flying Childers, a whaling barque that now appears on the Hobart City Council coat of arms. John Watson built this vessel, probably the most prolific local ship builders of his time.

Its red flag has a single white vertical band through the middle. In 1851 it was owned by James Bayley.

Southern Cross, a barque, and Pacific, a ship, formed part of the largest whaling fleet in the southern hemisphere owned by Charles Seal. His distinctive house flag has a large black capital S in the centre of a white diamond with a red background.

Interestingly, the Pacific was the subject of several whaling paintings by the colonial artist, William Duke.

Swordfish, a brigantine, was another vessel built by John Watson in 1850 for John Clinch and Thomas Ogilvie displayed a white flag with a large Maltese cross in the centre. This flag and vessel was the subject of Edward’s first commission that is now held in the Mitchell Library of New South Wales.


With the passage of time the Maritime Museum’s illustration has faded but other works still show the luminous and vibrant colour Murphy used to present his signals flags and ships. I refer to the two works held by the State Library of Tasmania for Olof Hedberg and Captain J M Watts, commander of the brig Gertrude.


 During Murphy’s time he saw the development and adoption of many new colonial flags such as the United Tribes of New Zealand flag, the Van Diemen’s Land ensign, the Victorian and New South Wales flags and the Australasian League (anti-transportation) flag. All of these appear in his various works.


He witnessed the extreme importance the busy mercantile enterprise played to the economic and social growth of VDL, from colony to achieve statehood. He also saw the development of steam-powered ships and metal-hulled vessels, which would eventually replace the many and varied wooden hulled boats that sailed Tasmania’s coastal waters.

To understand the special place Edward Murphy’s works should be held is that they were works produced by an untrained draftsman who was the son of an Irish weaver. Murphy enlisted in the British army in 1840 at the age of 17 and arrived in Australia in1843. He was far better educated than his peers as he could read and write, and as his illustrations show, he had a sharp eye and mind for a well balanced design layout and an artistic ability for important details.


Irene Schaffer’s biographical publication titled “Private Edward Murphy, Soldier Artist: 99th Lanarkshire Regiment 1823-1871” details the story of his life, his trials and tribulations, his success as an ornamental illuminator, his marriage and his growing family.

I have referred to Irene’s book in the preparation of this article. She has been able to present Edwards life in detail from her extensive research and I thank her for her excellent book.


The first photo is a picture of the centrepiece coat of arms and merchant flags.

The second photo is of detail of some of the flags, from left to right, top to bottom are; Prince of Denmark, Flying Fish, John Bull, Lillias, Water Lilley (sic), Camilla, Cheviot, Munford, Agenora, Lord Hobart, Scotia; Sisters, Adelaide, Swan River Packet, Rebecca, Alert, Eliza, Creole, Letitia, Isabella, Timbo, Lady Leigh: Triad, Osprey, Macquarie, Flying Childers, Esperanza, Miranda.

The third photo
depicts some of the various signal flags for ships to display their port of origin or their purpose.


The vibrancy and variety of these flags is shown in their various designs, colours and shapes.



Pictured are from left to right, South America, Isle of France (now Mauritius), Government, Coaster, Launceston, Whaler, Two-Fold –Bay and Return to Port.





 Story was printed with permission of Mark Risby, it can also be found in Maritime Times No 26 Winter 2011. Available at the Matitime Museum Argyle Street Hobart.


Private Edward Murphy 99th Regiment VDL" tells how I discovered these paintings, I also was able to unfold the family history.  Book available in my book list.