The Broad Arrow mark

The symbol of the ‘broad arrow’ is one of the few official stamps found on silver alongside the hallmarks and maker’s or retailer’s marks.  Under the 1875 Public Stores Act the symbol was used to denote any timber or metal object supplied to or issued by the War Office.

On silver items the mark is found most often on cutlery from around the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign and decorated with the 'crowned anchor' symbol of the Admiralty.  The pattern is now called ‘Admiralty pattern’:

Stock number 4438

The Admiralty crest

The marks with the 'Broad Arrow'

However it is occasionally found on flatware of other patterns, presumably supplied by the War Office:

Stock Number 4484

Detail of marks showing the 'Broad Arrow'

The use of this mark on known pieces of Admiralty pattern predates the 1875 Act and even the existence of the War Office (founded in 1857) and its immediate predecessor the War Department (founded 1855).  Previously, the symbol had been associated with the predecessor of the War Department - the Office (subsequently Board) of Ordnance founded by Henry VIII in 1544 to equip the military, both at sea and on land.

Since at least 1933 (Ref. 1), it has been argued that the ‘broad arrow’ represented the crest of Sidney and was introduced by Philip Sidney, Earl of Romney who was Master of the Ordnance from 1693-1702.  Seventeenth century sources have, however, shown its use predating this by over a quarter of a century.

A charter issued by James II to the Tower of London mentioned ‘His Majesty's Mark, the Broad Arrow, [instituted] by his late Majesty's special command’ (Ref. 2) thus indicating its institution by Charles II.  This is confirmed by the November 25th-December 2nd 1661 edition of The Kingdome’s Intelligencer that reported a Royal proclamation ‘prohibiting the imbezlement of His Majesties Stores for shipping’ issued at Whitehall including the provision that ‘the broad arrow head be put in some part of the [stores]’.

The use of the 'broad arrow' can therefore be seen to date from at least 1661 and some of the early references suggest that it was an intrinsically Royal symbol.  It appears, along with other Royal Symbols, on the coinage produced at the end of Henry VIII’s reign (close to the time he founded the Office of the Ordnance) (Ref. 3).  Intriguingly one reference suggests that the inspiration behind the symbol is the Martyrdom of St. Edmund in 869 (Ref. 4).

Whatever its derivation it is difficult to overstate the importance and longevity of the 'broad arrow' as a symbol.  Due to the key role played by the Ordnance (and later the War Office) in the administration of the Empire, its symbols were and still are to be found in many parts of the World.

In America, the symbol was used to denote Government property from the late seventeenth century, most probably deriving from the proclamation of 1661 (see above).  This meant that it was applied to trees of sufficient size to be used for masts and these were then reserved for sale only to the British crown (thereby denying them for foreign trade and use in local construction).  However this law was frequently flouted and the 1772 ‘Pine Tree Riot’ in New Hampshire, triggered by the Government’s enforcement of the law, has been seen as an important test of Royal authority and a precursor to the Boston Tea Party (Ref. 5).

In Australia, ‘the Ordnance’ was the department in charge of organising the provisions for the penal colonies (and the ships on which the prisoners were transported).  As such the 'broad arrow' appears on the objects discovered on H.M.S. Bounty (Ref. 6) and on the uniforms used in the colony (Ref. 7).  The uniform was also illustrated in the Sidney Paget illustrations to Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Adventure of the Gloria Scott’ published in 1893 (Ref. 8).  The symbol is, however, still in use: an act of 2009 in Victoria saw its introduction as a mark on trees that are not to be felled.

In Australia and Bermuda, nineteenth century road markers are still to be found emblazoned with the 'broad arrow'.  The symbol is also being applied today in Australia to denote Ministry of Defence Property and in India on the number plates of military vehicles.

To return to Great Britain, the Public Stores Act of 1875 is still in force and under it if ‘any person without lawful authority… applies any one of these marks… he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour… [and] be liable to be imprisoned for a term not exceeding two years’ (Ref. 9).   Therefore alongside hallmarks the 'broad arrow' is one of the comparatively few stamps or marks the forging of which is covered by criminal law. 

Luke Schrager

Ref. 1   Army ordnance, Volume 14: 1933: p. 162

Ref. 2    Oxford English Dictionary.

Ref. 3    Evans, John: THE DEBASED COINAGE BEARING THE NAME OF HENRY VIII: The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Numismatic Society: Third Series, Vol. 6, (1886) (pp. 114-160).

Ref. 4     Cochrane, Robert: Notes on the Augustinian Priory of Athassel, County Tipperary: The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland: Fifth Series, Vol. 39, No. 3, [Fifth Series, Vol. 19] (Sep. 30, 1909) (pp. 279-289).

Ref. 5    Danver, S, ed.:  "Pine Tree Riot": Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History: An Encyclopedia: 2011: pp. 183–190. 

Ref. 6   Erskine, Nigel and Jon Solomon: Reclaiming the Bounty: Archaeology Vol. 52 No. 3: 1999: pp. 34-43.

Ref. 7>/Treasures/item/

Ref. 8

Ref. 9

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