Postal addresses: a little history and a lot of photos

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Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   Text © Copyright February 2014, Chris Downer; licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.



The familiar postcode districts which we now use as part of the full postcode such as SW1, WC2 or E14 were drawn up in 1917, based on the unnumbered (e.g. N, NW) districts* formed as long ago as 1856, for reasons indirectly connected to wartime necessity as this illustration shows:

Introduction to G.P.O. leaflet dated 1 March 1917, "LIST OF PRINCIPAL STREETS IN LONDON showing in each case the Initials of the Postal District and the Number of the Office of Delivery." It implores postal users to include the number as well as the district, as most of the experienced sorters were now on War service and their temporary substitutes could not be expected to operate with the same level of memory.

All eight compass points were originally used, but NE was merged into E in 1866 (also, Ilford was removed from the London postal area at this time) and S was merged into SE and SW two years later.

The numbering of these appears to be rather arbitrary when looked at on a map: for instance, SE2, SE3, SE4 and SE5 do not border one another at all. The reason is that the districts were numbered alphabetically rather than geographically, once the number 1 had been assigned to the 'head district', i.e. closest to central London.

The SW area contained two districts* the South Western district* numbered SW1-10 and the Battersea district* SW11-20 and therefore has two alphabetical cycles. The SE area likewise has an alphabetical circuit through to SE18 (the original SE area) and then another from 20 to 27 (along with SE19, this is the part transferred to SE when S was abolished in 1868). An additional district, SE28, was created to cover the modern development of Thamesmead. The W area also has two head districts: W1 and W2 (Paddington).

* The word 'district' in this particular context is used slightly differently from today's definition as the first half of the postcode: it refers to the areas (N, SE, SW etc.) into which London was divided before 1917 when the numbers were added. The South West district and the Battersea district were both assigned to SW in 1917.

Here are the district listed along with the names: (* additional Head District)
1Head districtHead districtHead districtHead districtHead districtHead district
2Bethnal GreenEast FinchleyCricklewoodAbbey WoodBrixtonPaddington*
4ChingfordFinsbury ParkHendonBrockleyClaphamChiswick
5ClaptonHighburyKentish TownCamberwellEarls CourtEaling
6East HamHighgateKilburnCatfordFulhamHammersmith
7Forest GateHollowayMill HillCharltonSouth KensingtonHanwell
8HackneyHornseySt. John's WoodDeptfordSouth LambethKensington
9HomertonLower EdmontonThe HydeElthamStockwellMaida Hill
10LeytonMuswell HillWillesdenGreenwichWest BromptonNorth Kensington
11LeytonstoneNew SouthgateGolders GreenKenningtonBattersea*Notting Hill
12Manor ParkNorth FinchleyLeeBalhamShepherd's Bush
13PlaistowPalmers GreenLewishamBarnesWest Ealing
14PoplarSouthgateNew CrossMortlakeWest Kensington
15StratfordSouth TottenhamPeckhamPutney
16Victoria DocksStoke NewingtonRotherhitheStreatham
18WoodfordUpper EdmontonWoolwichWandsworth
19Upper HollowayNorwoodWimbledon
20see EWhetstoneAnerleyWest Wimbledon
21Winchmore HillDulwich
22Wood GreenEast Dulwich
23Forest Hill
24Herne Hill
25South Norwood
27West Norwood

Other large cities

In 1923, Glasgow became the first city outside London to introduce postal districts as with London, the predecessor to today's postcodes.

It contained the following numbered districts:
C1-5 (present-day G1-5)
W1-5 (present-day G11-15)
NW (present-day G20)
N1-3 (present-day G21-23)
E1-4 (present-day G31-34)
SE (present-day G40)
S1-6 (present-day G41-46)
SW1-3 (present-day G51-53)

Above: Counter date-stamps in use in 1941-67, inscribed GLASGOW W2, C1 and W1.

It can thus be seen that today's postcode numbering is very much based on the 1923 system it also explains why there are gaps in the modern-day numbering (e.g. G6 to G10 do not exist).

In 1931 similar schemes were looked at for various large cities and in 1932 greater efforts were made to publicise the new codes introduced in the following city areas:
BirminghamLeeds & Bradford
Brighton & HoveLiverpool
BristolManchester (& Salford)
EdinburghNewcastle upon Tyne

* Glasgow had already introduced these, as we saw above.

Glasgow and Leeds had been particularly successful due to the fact that these two cities replaced road name signs to incorporate the numerals.

Some of the original codes in Birmingham were further subdivided, such as 22 and 22a.

Norwich, Croydon and the national roll-out

The precursor to a national postcode system came in 1959, when postcodes were trialled in Norwich, because Norwich sorting office had already acquired eight automatic sorting machines. These codes were in the format 'NOR' followed by the last three characters of a street name. Larger businesses had their own codes assigned. The scheme was not as successful as had been hoped, because less than half of posted letters were addressed with a postcode. Also, it was found that a greater division of the street-name element was needed: these were tweaked to a format of two digits (including a leading zero if necessary) and a letter.

In the 1960s, the Post Office had embarked upon major mechanisation of sorting and required a machine-readable format to be used to maximise its potential. It was announced in 1965 that postcodes would be introduced across the UK "in the next few years". The Norwich system was tweaked and the first codes of today's national system were introduced in 1966 in Croydon. The three-letter code used for Croydon was CRO, and this lives on in the present-day postcodes where CROYDON is CR0 (a zero), there is no CR1, and numbering resumes at CR2.

The system continued to be rolled out nationally by 1967 Aberdeen, Southampton, Brighton and Derby; and in 1970 London N and NW were completed and the final piece of the jigsaw was fitted in 1974 when NORWICH was re-coded to the NR codes that are used today.

Like Glasgow (as discussed earlier), many of the other cities which had had early district numbering incorporated those numbers in the new postcodes. For example, The Liverpool 10 district was given an L10 postcode; Manchester 9 became M9 and Salford 6 became M6; etc.

In all, there were 120 postcode areas:

The only change to this initial list of areas came in 1995 when the Outer Hebrides were given their own postcode area, HS.

An anomaly at Newport

When the postcodes for Newport (Gwent) were introduced, they included a throwback from the original NOR and CRO codes discussed previously: The town centre was coded NPT and the remaining districts were numbered NP1 to NP8. This was therefore the only three-letter postcode area in the UK and lasted until 1984. Apart from being an obvious anomaly, a handwritten NPT was found too closely to resemble NP7 and it was therefore changed to NP9. (This was changed in 1998 when the whole of the NP area was reconfigured.)

Area and district, outward and inward

The postcode area is the large area represented by the first alphabetical part. The postcode district is the first half of the postcode, i.e. before the space and including the first set of numbers.

A further subdivision is the sector, arrived at by adding the digit after the space e.g. BH9 3.

The first half of the postcode is known as the outward code i.e. it is used for sorting outgoing mail to the various other parts of the country.

The second half of the postcode is the inward code i.e. used for incoming mail for ready for delivery around the town.

In central London, the codes have been given increased capacity by the addition of letters in the single-digit districts, for example EC2A, W1V.

To avoid confusion with other characters, the letters C, I, K, M, O and V never appear in the second half of the postcode.

Typical numbering setup

The most straightforward numbering system is where the district 1 is the centre of the head town, with numbers ascending around the suburbs and then spiralling through the neighbouring post towns. Often, large towns will have more than one district, and for smaller places each change in number represents a change in post town.

A good example is the WR (WORCESTER) area: WR1 is the city centre, WR2-5 are the suburbs and WR6-8 the surrounding rural area, all within the WORCESTER post town. Then come the surrounding towns of DROITWICH (WR9), PERSHORE (WR10), EVESHAM (WR11) etc.

But there are many variations on this theme. We have already seen that the LONDON districts are exceptionally ordered alphabetically based on historical designations; and that certain numbers are missing from the GLASGOW districts. We will shortly see how, for example, ABERDEEN (AB) postcodes have been renumbered so that there are no single-digit districts at all. The post town VERWOOD was also earlier cited as an example where a new postcode district has been created, with a significantly different number from the rest of the area.

There are a few cases where one postcode district is shared by two or more post towns. Examples are GL17 which covers the post towns LYDBROOK, RUARDEAN, DRYBROOK, MITCHELDEAN and LONGHOPE; and CH6 which is home to both FLINT and BAGILLT. Where this occurs, it is detailed in the album for the relevant postcode area.

Non-geographic postcodes

Another part of the Croydon scheme which survives today is the introduction of non-geographic postcodes, for large businesses and bulk mail. One such example is G58, the postcode for the National Savings Bank. There are others, often with high numbers: for example the CW postcode area, whose geographic districts are numbered from 1 to 12, uses CW98 for a specific large user.

Changes to postcodes

In order to accommodate growth of towns and other operational considerations, postcodes have changed in all sorts of ways, major and minor, since the first national scheme was completed. Here are a few of the more major examples:

The Outer Hebrides were completely re-coded in 1995, creating the new postcode area HS. The islands had previously had a PA postcode.

The AB area was given an increase in capacity by re-coding the original codes AB1 to AB5. These were given two digit numbers, AB1 becoming AB1x and AB2 becoming AB2x, etc. The SO and CF areas have been similarly altered, too, as have parts of several others.

The Wirral peninsula has been moved from L to CH, without changing any further digits.

Barnoldswick, in Lancashire, became a post town in its own right having previously come under COLNE. The postcode BB8, in which it fell, was split and the new BARNOLDSWICK post town was assigned BB18, with the COLNE section remaining as BB8. (This is similar to the VERWOOD example discussed under post town changes.)

These are just a few of the more significant changes which have been made, while changes on a more local level have occurred far more frequently. An obvious example situation might be where large housing estates have been built, perhaps exhausting the available codes in a district. This might be overcome by introducing a new sector within a district, or indeed by splitting the district and creating two new ones.

Where changes have occurred since 1990, these are mentioned individually in the album for the relevant postcode area. Some earlier changes, where I have been able to trace them, have also been mentioned.

Other postcodes

A selection of other postcodes based on the UK geographical system:

The Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey have adopted postcodes along the same lines as the UK IM for the Isle of Man (introduced in 1993), GY for Guernsey (1993) and JE for Jersey (1994). These UK dependencies had become separate postal entities in 1969 and had not adopted postcodes at the same time as the rest of the UK.

The postcode BF was introduced in 2012 in relation to BFPO (British Forces Post Office) addresses. These had previously simply used a BFPO number (e.g. BFPO 12) instead of a postcode. They now use BFPO as the 'post town' and the postcode BF1.

A non-geographic postcode area has also been introduced BX. This gives companies greater flexibility over where their post is delivered. An example of use is BX1 1LT, which is used by Lloyds Bank.

A long-standing nonstandard postcode was that of Girobank, GIR 0AA. This was taken over by its successor, Alliance & Leicester and is currently held by Santander, although it no longer appears on the Royal Mail's postcode data.

Finally, children's letters to Santa will be answered if sent to his special postcode, XM4 5HQ (a depiction of 'XMAS HQ'), in 2015 at least: LinkExternal link

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