You may sometimes see, flying from the Museum flagpole, a bright red flag with a black swan on a golden sun, and wonder “what is that flag?”
The Westralian Red Ensign
In one sense, this is simply the Western Australian state flag with a red field rather than a blue field. It has no official status – but it certainly has a history.
The earliest recorded flag flown in the Irwin district was a British red ensign flown from a pole on the estuary beach by Cattle Company harbourmaster Edward Bethel Downes in the 1850s. When Downes needed a passing ship to call in, he raised the red ensign used by merchant vessels to signal the passing captain. That red ensign was the same as this flag, but without the black swan.
The black swan on a gold sun was added to the red ensign in 1934 by Western Australian (or Westralian) secessionist James MacCallum Smith. On 8 April 1933, two-thirds of Western Australians voted in a referendum for independence from Australia. The State Parliament sent a delegation, led by the youthful secessionist leader Keith Watson, to London to have the Australian constitution amended to allow Western Australia to separate. The delegates sailed from Fremantle on RMS Oronsay on 24 September 1934, and Watson hung from the ship’s railings a large red ensign defaced* with the black swan and sun. It was presented to the cheering crowd on Victoria Quay as the flag of their soon to be independent country, and was flown on several occasions from the Western Australian Agent-General’s office in London. Anti-secessionists in Perth protested that it was illegal and provocative to fly the independence flag.
Australian Prime Minister Joe Lyons and Attorney General Robert Menzies also visited London at the same time, and after quiet negotiations, the House of Commons decided it would not act unless the Australians agreed. Not surprisingly, Lyons and Menzies would not! Watson’s parliamentary delegation returned angry and defiant. Watson was convinced he had lost Westralia’s independence to backroom skulduggery.
The Westralian red ensign is only occasionally seen now, but when it is, it remains an assertion of self-governance and community autonomy.
The ensign was first flown at the Irwin District Museum on Tuesday 24 September 2019, the day the Society’s petition to save Denison Hall from demolition was rejected by the Irwin Shire Council. The date was, serendipitously, 85 years to the day since the Westralian red ensign was first flown in Fremantle.
Westralian red ensign aflutter at the Old Police Station Museum, Dongara, 24 September 2019.
The Westralian Red Ensign was raised again at Port Denison on 10 October 2019 when the Irwin Shire Council commenced demolition of the Denison Fishermen’s Hall. That story is told elsewhere on this site. The people engaged in peaceful civil action to try and stop the unthinkable. But, as the picture below shows, the people were locked out of the site by fencing and exclusionary signs, by police and private security guard patrols. Friends of the Hall were described by one shire councillor as a “noisy minority” and in official shire correspondence as committing “unruly/unlawful acts”. Despite impassioned pleas to the Heritage Council of Western Australia, it refused to take any action to save the last colonial-era public building remaining on the Denison waterfront. This was a shameful episode in Port Denison’s history, and the defenders of the Hall keenly felt the same anger and despair experienced by Keith Watson 85 years earlier. The black swan in a golden sun on a red field flew over the people on the 10 October, and it remains a living emblem of defiance.
Excluded from the place, but not surrendering
This Westralian red ensign was made for the IDHS by Tudor House Flags, 282-284 Albany Highway, Victoria Park WA 6100 08 9470 2717 | www.tudorhouse.com.au
*Defacing a flag simply means to add a contrasting device or emblem to an existing flag design – it does not have the negative connotations of the word as used in ordinary speech.