Devon has fun with flags: Torbay doesn’t

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(Last Updated On: August 8, 2018)

“A garish flag, to be the aim of every dangerous shot” William Shakespeare

There’s a Torquay town centre pub which is currently having a bit of a makeover. One of the improvements is to have a few external flag poles and a debate began over which flags to use. One suggestion was to feature the green and white Devon flag, which many in the pub assumed to be the ancient symbol of Devon – although it was wondered why we don’t see it much in Torquay.

Just a harmless and colourful bit of cloth you may think?

It isn’t that easy. Without sounding too much like Sheldon Cooper, this is all about vexillology, the study of flags and their meanings.

 

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First of all, the Devon flag isn’t an ancient symbol of our county. It was just made-up and only dates from 2003.

For some time the popularity of Cornwall’s flag had caused Devon to seek its own. Bob Burns, a Devonian now living in North Lincolnshire, was one of those who started the original campaign, ”I have long thought that Devon should have its own flag, to act as a symbol of pride for the people of Devon,” said Bob.“Devonians are only too aware of the ubiquitous Cornish Flag, which can often be seen in the form of car bumper stickers, on vehicles entering Devon from Cornwall. Until now, there has been no way that Devonians could similarly express their pride in their own County of Devon.”

The ‘need’ for a Devonian flag was also raised in an interview on BBC Radio Devon in 2002 by the county’s contingent of scouts as they prepared to travel to the 20th World Scout Jamboree. The scouts were unaware of a Devon flag and wondered if any of the listeners knew of a flag they could use. The BBC took up the search and asked the public to send in designs. And, after a vote run by the BBC’s website, the winning design by student Ryan Sealey took 49% of the votes cast. From North Lincolnshire a delighted Bob commented, “When Devonians were given the opportunity of selecting a flag for Devon, they voted in their hundreds and chose a design which all Devonians should be proud of.”

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The new Devon flag (pictured above) was made of three colours: green, black and white. The predominant green – we’re told by the enthusiastic romantics promoting the flag – represents, “the colour of the rolling and lush Devon hills”. Then, “the black represents the high and windswept moors (Dartmoor and Exmoor) and the white represents both the salt spray of Devon’s two coastlines and the China clay industry (and mining in general).”

As part of a tenuous claim to a historical precedent it was pointed out that Lord Exmouth (the title being from the Devon town) flew a dark green flag with white circles at the Bombardment of Algiers on the 27 August 1816 (pictured below). As the attack by Britain and the Netherlands was to suppress piracy by the North African Barbary states and to free Christian slaves, this was a righteous war which fitted in well with modern sensibilities. This battle flag is now on view at the Teign Valley Museum.

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To promote the Devon Flag we have the Devon Flag Group – I’m not making this up. Founder member, Kevin Pyne proclaimed,“The flag emphasises the county’s history, especially it’s Celtic roots which are very strong….It’s a flag for everyone with Devon in their hearts, a unifying symbol, not just for people born, raised or living here.”

Now that Devon had a flag the question arose what to do with it. The Flag Group suggested a variety of dates when it would be appropriate for the banner to be flown all over the world. Most of these were the days of local events such as the Devon County Show, celebrations of famous maritime events or the feast days of Devon’s saints.

The Devon flag was quickly adopted in most parts of the county and in October 2006 gained “official” recognition when Devon County Council raised the flag outside County Hall. “In a few months it has achieved the sort of popularity that takes years or decades for most regional flags,” noted Charles Ashburner, of Mrflag.com. Tourism chiefs quickly seized on the flag as a marketing ploy – the Chief Executive of South West Tourism, Malcolm Bell, said, “You see what it’s done for Scotland and Wales, as well as Cornwall. It gives the idea that somewhere is special, and it gives the feeling of a sense of place. It says that this is a place that’s proud of where it is and is proud of itself.” Tesco’s helped by including the Devon flag on the packaging of local produce.

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Local variants then emerged. Our neighbours in Newton Abbot produced their own flag which was adopted by the Town Council in 2009. It incorporates a depiction of the tower of St Leonard, better known as the Clock Tower (pictured above).

The eagerness to fly the emblem also changed government policy. In April 2004 Rodney Lock of Ottery St Mary was threatened with legal action for flying a Devon flag in his back garden – planning permission was needed to fly non-national flags. Then Minister for Housing, Keith Hill, announced that local authorities could officially “turn a blind eye” to the practice of flying the county flag – so now the inventive flag fans on the old Newton Road can sleep easily in their beds.

So far, so good. Then the naysayers got started. First to complicate things was another group, ‘Bring Back the Devon Flag’ (which appears to be a drowning lion and pictured below), who stated that the new flag wasn’t the real one anyway but a modern imposter.

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The main criticism, however, came from our friends across the Tamar who still haven’t really got over being occupied by the English King Athelstan when he annexed Cornwall in 936. Didn’t you just see this coming?

Perhaps naively, perhaps provocatively, the Devon flag was dedicated to Saint Petroc who died in 564. With Saint Piran and Saint Michael, Petroc is one of the patron saints of Cornwall, described by the churchman and historian Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) as “the captain of Cornish saints”. Though Petroc was born in Wales and ministered to both the Britons of Devon and Cornwall, his association with a monastery at Padstow has traditionally made him a Cornish saint.

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Cornwall predictably reacted badly. The county’s (“country’s”) leading historical scholar, Prof Philip Payton, accused Devon of, “wanting to invent traditions…The idea of naming the flag after St Petroc is gratuitously offensive.” Cornish sensitivities were further tested with the merger of North and East Devon Colleges which led to them being re-branded under the name Petroc.

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St Piran’s flag – a white cross on a black background – is particularly emblematic for the Cornish. Though it’s probably only been around since the early nineteenth century, it has become a rallying point for Cornish independence and embodies the ancient Celtic heritage that nationalists believe distinguishes them from us English. Cornish patriots accordingly saw the new Devon flag as an attempt to “hijack” their culture and to promote “Devonwall” to dilute Cornish identity. The accusation was that the Celts had been forced out of Devon and into Cornwall by we Anglo Saxons. The Devon flag then became part of an ongoing  long term conspiracy to make Cornwall part of England. Cornish activist John Angarrack commented, “Promote Devon all you want, but do not denude Cornish distinctiveness in the process. Devon is a county of England despite any dodgy marketing ploy like the Devonshire flag. Reject this nonsense but cherish and defend the beating heart of Cornish culture.”

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In response, Bob Burns, who started the whole flag project, accused the Cornish of “distorting history” in a bid to further establish an identity distinct from their neighbours. Devon historian Dr Mark Stoyle then commented that, “People are quite aware in Devon that the Cornish make political capital by claiming to be different…besides, it’s fashionable to be a minority.”

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Enter Paul Turner. Originally from Devon, Paul has lived in Australia for 17 years and runs a “Celtic Devon” web site. He argued that the Cornish were “feeling threatened” by Devon’s new found Celtic pride – even though we’re actually Anglo-Saxon with a bit of Norman and all the other ethnic groups that now make up our county. The suggestion that Devonians were Celts too, and not that different from the Cornish, hit a nerve.

Yet, this may not be a quarrel that has much to do with us in the Bay – we just don’t see the flag that much. There are a couple of possible reasons for this. First of all, we’re predominantly urban and the flag has more of a rural emphasis. Mark Stoyle has also suggested that the flag is a symptom of a newly-found sense of Devonian identity – it’s a backlash against incoming “city-dwellers settling in the South West”. Since Torquay was deliberately created by incomers in the early nineteenth century, we don’t feel threatened by outsiders – almost all of us are incomers. Accordingly, we don’t need defensive symbols to assert a particular identity.

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The other reason for the Devon flag not being common in the Bay is its predominant colour. Although the flag is relatively young, its colours are those traditionally identified with Devon and those that have been adopted by the county’s sporting teams. Green, accordingly, became the colour of Devon’s Rugby Union team, Exeter University and – most crucially – Torquay’s eternal rival Plymouth Argyle (pictured above). The colour is clearly not one that can be worn with pride at Plainmoor or the Recreation Ground – as the images on this page suggest, Torquinians don’t go on green.

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So, if we can’t use the Devon flag, do we need our own?

Unfortunately, we can’t use the gold of Torquay United as that’s already been swiped by the Dorset Cross, another modern invention of 2008 (pictured above). Other suggestions for a Torbay flag are welcome… or should we just adopt the old tickling stick palm – pictured at the top of this article?

This all probably wouldn’t matter if having fun with flags wasn’t so damn cool. To prove it, here’s Sheldon and Amy:


(Author)

Kevin Dixon went to Audley Park – now Torquay Academy – and South Devon College when it was at Torre. After studying at Birmingham City University, he returned home because there’s nowhere else quite like Torquay. He then became involved in community and adult education, completed a PhD, and started writing about the weird and unknown side of town. He now Chairs Healthwatch Torbay and is involved in health and social care in the Bay.