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International Maritime Organisation – flag and flagpole change

The IMO is an agency of the UN, responsible for the regulation of shipping and has its headquarters on the Thames Embankment in central London. The organisation currently has 173 Member States and three Associate Members.

Twice a year, their HQ creates an imposing and unequalled display of the national flags of every one of its members, flying the flags from 173 flagpoles along the upper front of the building overlooking the Thames in Lambeth. This is usually done for very special occasions.

The flagpoles are stored in special racks at the IMO and the flags stored by Flagmakers. When the flags are not flying, Flagmakers checks that all are in good condition, repairing any damages if required and each flag is laundered. This week, on a fresh, breezy morning, I joined the Flagmakers team assigned to check and install the flagpoles and fly the flags.

Work began soon after 8am, beginning with the transferring of angled flagpoles from the storage racks (just out of sight and to the side of the building) to the front of the paved flat roof area. Meanwhile, two of our team secured a catenary wire at the front edge of the building and along the entire length of a huge steel flagpole holder. The wires were later used to secure the flying edge of each flag using a fly-rope and clip ensuring all flags fly correctly and do not become tangled or wrapped around the poles. The two carrying out this work wore special safety harnesses.

The angled flagpoles slot into the holes in the holder, which itself looks rather like a girder, firmly attached to the building front. Behind this are a further row of steel sockets, designed to accommodate vertical poles. Two of the team began fitting the angled flagpoles along the front whilst the others attached the flags and cautiously passed the poles over the guard rail.

All the guys on the team are familiar with the building and aware of the dangers associated with this kind of work. Each has the necessary certification and training and all work together well to get the job done efficiently and effectively. Two of the team are ex-London Fire Brigade and so no strangers to work at height. We continue to bring out the poles and attach the national flags to each before they are lifted over the guard rail and secured in their slots, then being turned outwards, perpendicular to the building and the flag unfurled.

Each white, glassfibre flagpole is wiped over, ensuring it is clean and the gold finials which sit at the top of each pole checked to ensure they are secure and rotate as they should. Each pole is heavy (probably over 20kg) and the vertical poles even heavier and so quite a weight to lift into place. This is not work for the feint-hearted.

Once we reached the end of the main front row, having already fitted 80 flagpoles and flags, we then continued along an upper roof, lifting a further 40 angled poles the 15 feet or so and into position. The final 53 flags were then flown from far heavier vertical poles fitted behind the angled poles and directly in front of the glass guard rail at the front of the flat roof.


Needless to say, the result really is impressive and probably unequalled anywhere else in London. The office workers get their own close-up view of these flags from their windows but passers-by below and those using the river cruisers get to see the full intended effect. On this occasion, the flags were flown for a high-profile visit and annual general meeting and will be taken down again afterwards. As this spectacle is one seen only a couple of times each year, your best chance of seeing the effect is here!

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Written by...

John Nickson

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