Murdoch Mysteries

I was pleased to note a historically accurate Canadian red ensign flag in Season 11, Episode 16 of the Canadian television series Murdoch Mysteries, in contrast to an earlier appearance. The plot of this episode (“Game of Kings”) revolves around an international chess tournament taking place in Toronto in 1905. The players’ nationalities are represented by little tabletop flags. 

Constable George Crabtree has gone undercover as a Canadian entrant. His flag shows the original four-provinces shield devised for the Dominion of Canada in 1868, featuring the arms of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. It is true that Canada had nine provinces by 1905 (Alberta and Saskatchewan had been admitted on September 1 of that year, and Crabtree makes a reference to this in Episode 13 when, thinking he’s dying, exclaims “I’ll never see Egypt or any of those new provinces we have now!”). A nine-quartered shield for Canada was devised in the wake of this, but the original shield was still in widespread use until 1921. 

An American competitor is represented by a US flag with 45 stars on the canton (count them!), for the number of states in the union at the time – Utah having been admitted in 1896. Oklahoma (1908), Arizona (1912) and New Mexico (1912) would soon raise the total to 48.

Poland did not exist as an independent country in 1905, but a Polish player has entered the tournament and is represented by the flag of the Polish National Government 1863-64, which had been proclaimed following the January Uprising (although the bottom stripe, according to Wikipedia, should be blue).

Wikipedia.

The coat of arms is for “a proposed Polish–Lithuanian–Ruthenian Commonwealth which never came into being. It consists of the Polish White Eagle, the Lithuanian Pahonia and the Ruthenian Archangel Michael.”

Wikipedia.

Other Polish references in this episode include the Szczerbiec (the traditional Polish coronation sword) and the Husaria (Polish knights who wore decorative wings while mounted). 

Murdoch Mysteries

The Canadian television series Murdoch Mysteries (2009-present) is set in Toronto, starting in the 1890s. It’s a lot of fun; we’re currently up to season seven in our binge-watching. The characters are compelling, the plots not too convoluted, the art direction appealing, and the “future foreshadowing” (references to Area 51, the CN Tower, or Twitter, for instance) most amusing. I especially like hearing place names that I remember from my southern Ontario youth, like “Coboconk,” “Peterborough,” or “Grafton,” or seeing buildings like Victoria Hall, Parkwood Estate, or Boulden House (at Trinity College School) in various scenes. 

Through season six, the only flag on display in the show has been the Royal Union Flag, a.k.a. the Union Jack. 

To my puzzlement, these flags are often shown flying upside-down. But I reckon this subtly erroneous usage has always been a problem with this flag and the producers are in fact being historically accurate! 

Although I do wonder whether the Canadian Red Ensign wouldn’t have been flown more in the 1890s. A red flag with the Union Jack in the canton is at heart a naval ensign; throughout the British Empire it was often differenced with something in the fly, and some of these local variants achieved widespread use indeed, far beyond identifying ships. Canada’s flag was one such. It dates from the 1870s, was promoted for government buildings in 1891 by Governor-General Lord Stanley, and became Canada’s “civil ensign” in 1892. So you would think it would appear more than it has in the show. However, as far as I can tell, its first appearance is in season seven, episode one (set in 1901 as the portrait of Queen Victoria is being taken down in Station House Four, and Inspector Brackenreid proclaims “God save the King,” i.e. Victoria’s successor Edward VII).

The trouble with the Canadian red ensign is that the local signifier was the Canadian coat of arms. This means that one must watch for anachronisms, as Canada’s coat of arms itself changed as more provinces were accepted into Confederation. In 1901 there were seven provinces, although the original four-provinces shield also remained in common use. Flourishes like wreaths, crowns, and beavers could also be added at the manufacturer’s whim. But no one would have flown a red ensign with the coat of arms that was granted in 1921, or the version that was prescribed after 1957 (with red leaves, as in the image). 

This anachronism is especially glaring in season six, episode twelve, in which Julia Ogden is on trial for killing her husband. The Canadian coat of arms on display on the wall behind the judge was drawn by Allan Beddoe and dates from 1957. It’s far more likely that the arms on display in a courtroom in 1900 would be the royal arms of the United Kingdom. (And I wonder whether flags would actually be displayed in this context – it seems an American custom.) 

Royal arms. Wikipedia.

Royal arms in Osgoode Hall, Toronto. Wikipedia.

People just don’t know heraldry anymore.