Culture and heritage


The Bowman Flag of c1806

The Bowman Flag was made about 1806, and is the earliest known example of heraldry designed in colonial NSW. It was reputedly painted by the women of the Bowman household at Richmond on material from Mrs Bowman's wedding dress.

The commonly accepted story is that the flag was made to commemorate Lord Nelson's famous naval victory at Trafalgar (off the coast of Spain) (Concise Guide), and that it was made by Mary Bowman. A recent examination by a State Library curator, however, has suggested that it was painted by a professional painter (Woodford 2005: 19).

Consideration of the blazon contributes to understanding the flag and its coat of arms. The overall form of the Arms, especially the second motto above the shield, is typical of Scottish and French heraldry. The Arms of a Scottish clan chief are denoted by such a second motto or cri-de-guerre (war cry). The elongated shape of the shield is typical of 18th century British heraldry. The three flowers represent England, Ireland and Scotland, but are not grafted onto a single stem as in the Union Badge of Great Britain adopted in 1801 but remain separate, although gathered together in a posy. The border around the shield is characteristic of Scottish heraldry, although not unknown in English and Irish practice.

The supporters are the feature that usually attracts the most attention: a kangaroo and an emu on a grassy field, both alert and apparently watching something in the distance. They are the earliest known use of indigenous animals in Australian heraldry - and the grass the earliest use of indigenous plants.

The Scottish forms evident in the design strongly suggest the hand of a Scottish heraldic artist, and that the Arms were prepared for a person of some standing in the community. The shield shape and the separate floral emblems suggest that the artist had left Britain before 1801 and was not familiar with the official symbolism adopted after the Union with Ireland. John Bowman and his family had arrived in NSW in 1798 from East Lothian in Scotland, which is consistent with these Scots influences, and settled at Richmond in the Hawkesbury District. The rural character of the Hawkesbury is perhaps alluded to by the long grass.

The supporters clearly place the Arms in NSW, but what are they watching for? The two mottoes have lead all previous analysts of these Arms to attribute them to the news of Nelson's victory, but there is no certain evidence of this. Perhaps the emu and kangaroo are watching for other disturbances in the colony? The entwined floral emblems suggest an equality of status between the English, Irish and Scots settlers of the Hawkesbury, united (as the cri-de-guerre cries out) and expected to do their duty. But united against what, or whom?

Argent a bordure gules, a rose, shamrock and thistle all slipped and proper; Supporters: dexter an emu statant to the dexter regardant contourné, sinister a kangaroo regardant, both proper; In an scroll over the same the word 'Unit'y; and on a compartment below the arms 'England Expects Every Man Will Do His Duty' with a field of grasses (On a silver shield with a red border a flowered stem of a rose, a shamrock and a thistle in their natural colours; Supporters: on the right an emu standing rightwards and looking over its back leftwards, and on the left a kangaroo looking over its shoulder, both in their natural colours; motto above - Unity; Motto below - England Expects Every Man Will Do His Duty, with a field of grasses).

Some questions to research:

  1. Where any events taking place in NSW during the 1806-1810 period that might account for the heraldic design on the Bowman Flag?
  2. Are there other symbols and emblems of Lord Nelson's victory in Sydney today - what does this suggest about the importance of this event to early 19th century Sydneysiders?

Image Source: State Library of NSW, Digital a928642 State Library of NSW, Picman

Page last updated: 01 September 2012