How to look for records of... Registered designs 1839-1991

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will explain how you can use our records to:

1. Find representations of original designs for a variety of manufactured articles. These representations can be:

  • drawings
  • paintings
  • samples
  • photographs

2. Find the registration details for a design, such as:

  • the name and address of the person registering the design (usually the manufacturer or retailer rather than the designer)
  • the date of registration
  • a brief description of what the design is (for example ‘printed fabric’ or ‘dinner plate’)

There is a separate guide on diamond and trade marks. Diamond marks can help you to date when an item was registered.

2. Essential information

Ornamental or decorative designs were registered for copyright under a series of Acts of Parliament (see table headings at section 6).

Registration protected the decorative elements of the design from being copied and manufactured without permission. Details of how an item worked – the mechanics of the design – were protected by patents of invention.

The system used for registering designs changed as different Acts were introduced, which can sometimes make finding designs complicated. The tables in section 6 should help you find the right records.

The National Archives has representations for around 2,950,000 designs registered between 1839 and 1991. Registration was not compulsory, so many designs will not be found in our records.

3. Understanding the registered design records

Until 1839 there had been copyright protection for some textiles, but most areas of the decorative arts, such as glass, metalwork, ceramics and wallpapers, had no copyright protection at all.

There is information about each design in two places:

  • the registers, recording the name and address of the copyright owner, or ‘proprietor’ (who was not usually the designer), the registered design number, the date of registration and sometimes a description of the design
  • the corresponding volume of representations, containing a drawing, painting, photograph or sample of the design submitted at the time of registration

The representations are pasted into large leather bound registers and have a registered design number stamped on them. The same number is recorded in the register so that you can cross refer between the two volumes.

4. Searching our catalogue for records

4.1 Registered designs catalogued at item (design) level

The following record series have been described in our catalogue in more detail than others. This makes it easier to search the records within them:

Use the advanced search option in our catalogue and search within BT 42, BT 43 and BT 51 with one or more of the following as your keywords:

  • the registered design number (also the catalogue item number)
  • name of proprietor (person registering the item for copyright, usually the manufacturer or retailer and sometimes the designer)
  • address of proprietor
  • description of object – for example ‘hat’ or ‘vase’

From 1842 to 1883 the representations in BT 43 were filed according to their material classification – or what they were made of. The table in section 6 shows the classifications used.

The clerks sometimes placed items in the wrong material class so that, for example, a book binding may be misfiled as a carpet. The lace and earthenware classes were also used for miscellaneous items that did not fit into any of the other classes.

4.2 Registered designs in other record series

Designs in record series other than those mentioned above haven’t been catalogued in detail, and finding a design is difficult if you don’t know the registered design number.

If you know the registered design number, use the tables in section 6 as follows:

  • find the correct date, design number and material in the table
  • find the number range your design falls into
  • read across the table to see what record series and pieces  cover that number range
  • look in the catalogue at the record series piece numbers to find the one that covers your design number

If you don’t know the registered design number you will need to search through the registers for the relevant period, and cross-reference any registered designs which seem promising with the corresponding representations.

4.3 Example of a search for an item registered after 1883

In this example we are looking for the records for a glass vase with a design number 607120.

  • Go to section 6 and find the relevant design number range(s)
  • The table shows the number range 548920-861679 which covers the design number 607120
  • The table shows the representations will be in BT 52/166-2454, and the corresponding registers will be in BT 53/11-87
  • Go to our catalogue and type BT 52/166 into the search box. When you see the description of this record you will see what design numbers it covers. In this instance it is 548920-549300.
  • You can now either (1) click on ‘browse by reference’ and move through the piece descriptions until you find the one that included the design number 607120 or (2) type a BT 52 reference with a different piece number into the search box and note the design numbers it covers – this will help you to make an educated guess at which piece numbers are going to cover the design number you are looking for. This is an easier option if there are many piece numbers to look through
  • You will find design numbers 606980-607200 in BT 52/456 – so the design number we are looking for will be in the volume with that reference number
  • Carry out the same process to find the corresponding register

5. Searching without a design number

If you can’t find a design number but you have a diamond mark, you might be able to date the design and find out what material class it belongs to. Use our guide on diamond marks to do this. Unfortunately this process won’t help you to find the design in all cases.

If you know the proprietor for a design registered between c1840 and c1870 try the alphabetical register BT 44/38.

6. The classification tables

These tables should help you find the right records for the design or object you are interested in. The system used for registering designs changed as different Acts of Parliament were introduced and records are located in different series depending on the most recent Act in place when they were registered.

6.1 Designs registered between August 1839 and August 1842 (under 1839 Act)

Start Date Finish Date Design Range Classification Representations Registers
12/08/1839 31/08/1842 1-1424 Other than paper hangings with certificates(1) BT 42/1-6 None
14/10/1839 31/08/1842 1-1424 Other than paper hangings without certificates BT 42/7-13 None
14/10/1839 29/04/1842 26-1218 Paper hangings with certificates(1) (2) BT 42/14-15 None
14/10/1839 29/04/1842 26-1218 Paper hangings without certificates(2) BT 42/16-17 None

(1) Incomplete date range
(2) Incomplete number range

6.2 Designs registered between September 1842 and July 1885 (under 1842 Act – ‘ornamental’ designs)

Start Date Finish Date Design Range Classification Representations Registers
01/09/1842 18/06/1884 1425-408896 Class 1 – Metal(1) BT 43/1-56 BT 44/1-5
07/10/1842 22/12/1883 1912-408680 Class 2 – Wood BT 43/57-59 BT 44/6
01/09/1842 16/01/1884 1461-408895 Class 3 – Glass BT 43/60-63 BT 44/7
22/09/1842 29/12/1883 1694-408849 Class 4 – Earthenware BT 43/64-74 BT 44/8
01/09/1843 17/12/1883 1452-408445 Class 5 – Paper hangings BT 43/75-104 BT 44/9
01/09/1842 21/12/1883 1446-408592 Class 6 – Carpets BT 43/105-169 BT 44/10-11
21/10/1842 11/07/1885 2023-400649 Class 7 – Printed shawls BT 43/170-180 BT 44/12
02/09/1842 13/11/1883 1462-406857 Class 8 – Other shawls BT 43/181-186 BT 44/13
05/09/1842 27/10/1881 1465-372225 Class 9 – Yarn BT 43/187 (2) BT 44/14 (3)
01/09/1842 31/12/1883 1426-408890 Class 10 – Printed fabrics BT 43/188-354 BT 44/15-27
10/09/1842 24/12/1883 1655-408714 Class 11 – Furnitures (printed fabrics) (4) BT 43/355-381 BT 44/28
21/09/1842 31/12/1883 1693-408894 Class 12 (i) – Other fabrics BT 43/382-406 BT 44/29-30
22/11/1853 11/12/1883 73748-408165 Class 12 (ii) – Other fabrics (Damasks) BT 43/407-415
07/10/1842 31/12/1883 1911-408892 Class 13 – Lace BT 43/416-432 BT 44/31-32
12/08/1839 01/01/1870 Indexes to Proprietors
BT 44/33-38 (5)

(1) BT 42 and BT 43 form a single numerical series
(2) Incomplete number range
(3) BT 44/14 has an extended register range to 372225 whereas BT 43/187 extends only to 361923
(4) Class 11, Furnitures are printed fabric designs with a repeat pattern greater than 12 x 8 inches
(5) BT 44/33-37 are a set of registers to proprietors with indexes (volumes ‘A’-‘E’, but volume ‘B’ is not available). BT 44/38 is an alphabetical register of proprietors in BT 44/33-37

6.3 Designs registered between September 1843 and June 1884 (under 1843 Act – ‘useful’ designs)

Start Date Finish Date Design Range Classification Representations Registers
01/09/1843 30/06/1884 1-6740 Non-ornamental (useful) designs BT 45/1-30 BT 46/1-4
Index to Proprietors’ names BT 46/5-7 (1) (2)
01/09/1843 12/04/1883 Alphabetic index to subjects BT 46/9 (2)

(1) BT 46/5 Letter A is missing from the index
(2) BT 46/8 Number not used

6.4 Designs registered between January 1851 and December 1883 (under 1850 Act – ‘provisional’ designs)

Start Date Finish Date Design Range Classification Representations Registers
03/01/1851 27/12/1883 1-2025 Provisional: Ornamental designs BT 47/1-2 BT 48/1
02/01/1851 31/12/1883 1-3819 Provisional: Useful designs BT 47/3-10 BT 48/2
Index to Proprietors’ names
in BT 48/2
BT 48/3-4 (1)
18/03/1851 22/11/1883 20-59 Sculpture (2) BT 47/11 (1) (2) (3) BT 48/5

(1) Incomplete date range
(2) Incomplete number range
(3) BT 47/11 Designs 1-19 are missing

6.5 Designs registered between January 1884 and 1908 (under 1883 Act)

Start Date Finish Date Design Range Classification Representations Registers
01/01/1884 08/01/08 1-526397 All designs except sculptures BT 50/1-709 (1) (2) BT 51/1-173 (3)
1884 1894 Name index (submitting firm or person) BT 51/174-175

(1) Incomplete number range
(2) BT 51/138 Includes non-textile designs 518415-520895
(3) BT 51/173 For continuation of this volume see BT 53/7-8

6.6 Designs registered between January 1908 and 1991 (under 1907 Act and subsequent acts)

Start Date Finish Date Design Range Classification Representations Registers
08/01/1908 09/09/1909 518644-548919 Non-textiles designs BT 52/1-55 BT 53/1-8 (1) (2)
01/01/1908 15/12/1910 1-26041 (3) Textiles designs Classes 13,14 & 15 BT 52/56-165 BT 53/9-10 (2)
1910 1949 558872-860616 Non-textile designs
Classified summaries registers (brief description of design only)
BT 52/166-2454 (6) BT 53/88-106 (5)
1912 1913 600001-620000 Non-textiles designs
Branch entry books
BT 52/166-2454 (6) BT 53/107
09/09/1909 31/03/1950 548920-861679 Non-textiles designs
Registrations (names of persons or company registering design)
BT 52/166-2454 (6) BT 53/11-87 (4)
01/04/1950 31/03/1968 861680-935499 Non-textiles designs BT 52/7881-8162 BT 53/196-287
Mar 1968 Jan 1991 935500-2012308 Non-textiles designs BT 52/8665-9217 BT 53/309-479
21/06/1908 1964 11533-495183 Textile designs BT 52/2455-7880 BT 53/108-195 (5)
Sep 1964 July 1989 495184-515454 Textile designs BT 52/8163-8664 BT 53/288-308

(1) BT 51/138 Includes non-textile designs 518415-520895
(2) BT 51/173 For continuation of this volume see BT 53/7-8
(3) For designs 1-11532 see BT 53/9-10
(4) BT 53/104 Document missing
(5) Incomplete number range
(6) Only brief details (and no representations) were recorded during the First World War period

7. Further reading and resources

Read Inventions that didn’t change the world by Julie Halls (Thames and Hudson, 2014).

Read The National Archives’ blog posts on design registers.

Listen to the podcast A momentous question: decorating the Victorian home.

Listen to the podcast Inventions that didn’t change the world: a history of Victorian curiosities.

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 100