Relatively little is known of the details of GER locomotive liveries in the earlier period. Under Sinclair on the ECR the locomotives are understood to have been painted a pea green colour, panelled in black and lined in white or red, with chocolate-brown frames. Buffer beams were also in the green colour. The locomotive numbers were generally painted on the boiler sides, towards the front, but the name or initials of the railway company did not appear anywhere on the locomotives. This livery scheme was continued by Sinclair into the GER period, unaltered.
Under S.W. Johnson, the green was altered to a darker colour, probably similar to that which he used at first on the Midland Railway, lined in black with white edging. Buffer beams and buffers were again green. Elliptical brass numberplates were applied to the engines, with raised rims, lettering and numerals. The engine number was placed in the centre, with 'GREAT EASTERN' around the top, and 'RAILWAY' at the bottom. The background of the numberplates is understood to have been blue.
William Adams decided that the locomotives should be painted black, with vermilion lining. Buffer beams were vermilion, and the numberplates were rectangular, similar to those of the London & North Western and North London Railways. These were of cast iron, with the number in the centre, with 'G E R' at the top, and the initials of the builder (or 'STRATFORD') and date at the bottom. The raised rim and lettering was painted yellow, but the background colour does not appear to have been recorded, but was probably black or vermilion.
Bromley continued the Adams livery, but the vermilion lining was thicker, and the engine numbers were painted on the leading bufferbeam. He re-designed the number plates, and these were now elliptical, the arrangement of the lettering being the same as on the Adams plates. Again of cast iron, the raised rims and lettering were polished bright, and again, the background colour was probably black or vermilion, although it certainly was vermilion after 1882. As with the Adams number plates, they were placed on the cab sides of tender engines, and centrally on the tanks of tank engines. However, a third plate of the same design was carried on the rear of engine tenders.
It was T.W. Worsdell who first introduced the well-known GER ultramarine blue livery, and it first appeared on 'No. 134 Class' 0-4-4 tank engine No. 189, when it hauled Queen Victoria's train to Chingford on 6th May 1882. Although there are no known photographs of the engine at this time, it would seem certain that the layout of the lining, numberplates etc. was the same as the Bromley pattern. The 'standard' GER blue livery appeared at the end of the year on the first of Worsdell's new engines, the G14 class 2-4-0s.
On these, the flat panels of the cabs, splashers, tenders etc. were bordered in black, with vermilion lining between the black and blue. Boiler bands were black, edged in vermilion, wheel centres were blue, with vermilion lining around the axle-ends and tyres. However, the cab spectacle plates were unlined black. Worsdell introduced a new numberplate, which lasted until the end of the GER's existence. It was elliptical, of the same size as Bromley's, but of brass, with polished rim and lettering on a vermilion background. The lettering 'GREAT EASTERN RAILWAY COY' was placed around the top edge, and 'STRATFORD WORKS 1882' around the bottom. For the first time, the initials 'G E R' were displayed in gold lettering, elaborately shaded and counter-shaded in black, on the tender sides. Small, rectangular simple cast-iron numberplates were placed on the rear of the tender.
This 'standard' livery pattern was then applied to all new locomotives built from 1882 onwards, tank engines carrying the GER initials on the side tanks, with the brass numberplates on the bunker side. Cab spectacle plates were always plain black, and this generally applied to the rear weatherboards of tank engines, although there were exceptions. Existing engines were also painted blue, but retaining the Bromley numberplates in their original positions, and no GER lettering, as on No. 189.
When Holden succeeded Worsdell, he continued the standard blue livery for new engines, but the GER lettering was enlarged to six inches deep (excluding shading), and the coupling rods were painted vermilion. However, from 1890, the blue livery was only used on passenger or mixed traffic engines, i.e. those that had Westinghouse brakes. Goods engines built from this time onwards, and those that had been built since 1883, appeared in black, with the standard layout of brass numberplates and lettering. With perhaps typical GER perversity, a number of lowly shunting engines appear to have been fully lined in vermilion, whilst most other goods engines were without lining. The pre-1883 existing goods engines reverted to the Bromley black livery pattern, but usually without any lining.
During the late 1880s and the 1890s, a number of pre-1883 classes were rebuilt and modernised under James Holden - principally the various 0-4-4T classes - and they then received the standard blue or black livery, lettering and numberplates. From about 1890 the T19 class 2-4-0s and D27 2-2-2s had the GER garter crest (as used on carriages) applied to the driving wheel splashers, and from around 1893 its use was extended to all passenger and mixed-traffic tender engines. Most of the Claud Hamilton 4-4-0s built from 1900 had cast hand-painted crests, but the S69 class 4-6-0s of 1911 were entirely devoid of this feature.
The actual blue colour used was a pure ultramarine blue - a tin of which is in the GERS Collection. When painted over the French grey undercoat and varnished this gave a very deep, rich blue. The two preserved GER locomotives 87 and 490 were painted in a rather muddy shade, and thus do not give a true representation of the finished effect.
The blue livery continued in use until early 1915. Thenceforth, for reasons of wartime economy, all engines were left in the grey undercoat, with only those parts of the engines painted black that would normally be black if they carried the blue livery, plus the boiler bands. Thus, goods and passenger engines were then all given the grey livery. The vermilion parts - buffer beams, coupling rods and number plate backgrounds - were vermilion, as before. The shading of the GER lettering was simplified.
The blue livery was not re-instated after the Armistice, and the grey scheme continued well into the LNER period, the only change being made in 1921, when the GER introduced a system of Train Control, which relied on the engine numbers being plainly visible. The GER initials were then painted out, and large yellow serif numerals were applied to tank and tender sides. The ordinary numberplates were retained, and continued to be fitted to new engines.
The new LNER livery was applied to the new locomotives built just after the grouping, and to others as they passed through the works for repair. Thus, many carried the 'E' suffix to their running numbers before the new LNER numbers were introduced in 1924. The other ex-GER locomotives quickly lost their GER numberplates in favour of the smaller LNER pattern, but no instance has so far come to light of an ex-GER locomotive in grey with the 'E' suffix to the GER number, although the new LNER numbers seem to have been quickly applied from 1924 onwards.
Stratford Works was very inconsistent in applying the new LNER livery as engines passed through for repair. Locomotives were still being turned out in grey (with LNER numbers and numberplates) as late as 1928, whilst others were given the LNER green or black livery patterns. There seems to have been no discernable logic to this, for engines which underwent minor repairs were fully repainted in LNER green or black, whilst others might have an extensive rebuild, yet appear in the GER grey livery.