Number Plates History

Private Plates and Number Plates History

By Ruby Speechley

First number plates in Britain

Old Number Plates

From the beginning of road transport, there was a need to mark each vehicle so that they were clearly distinguished from each other. As far back as 1681, carts licensed for hire in the City of London were required to show not only the City coat of arms, but also a number on a brass plate. Later, The London Hackney Carriage Act of 1831 also referred to ‘Stage coaches…being duly licensed and having proper numbered plates.’

The birth of the automobile, powered by an internal-combustion engine, is thought to have been somewhere between 1826 and 1875. Britain’s first successful cars were not produced until 1896, at the Daimler works. In January of that year, there were just twenty cars in Britain, so perhaps it is not surprising that the first fully regulated number plate system wasn’t introduced until 1904. The Motor Car Act of 1903 required the universal registration of motor vehicles accompanied by the display of alphanumeric number plates. There had been many ideas as to what form the system should take. One was to give a name to each car, as with boats and ships. This would have been disastrous and wouldn’t have taken long to run out!

The Act stated that all motor vehicles used on the roads after 1 January 1904 had to be registered with the appropriate local council or county borough. Each authority was allocated a set of letters to use for their area, for example London was given A, Lancashire B etc. When single letters ran out, two were used – AA for Hampshire, AB for Worcestershire and so on. Letters thought to cause offence, such as BF, DF and the royal cypher, ER, were omitted. Each set of letters was followed by a series of up to four numbers. Separate registers were kept for ordinary cars, lorries/buses and motorcycles. One discrepancy that arose from this was that a car and a motorcycle could be allocated the same number.

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