Tag Archives: postcodes

Use your postcode at Christmas

In the lead-up to Christmas we are sharing with you 12 Posters of Christmas, a dozen classic postal posters from the Royal Mail Archive. Today’s is…

Poster promoting the use of postal codes when sending Christmas mail, 1968 (POST 110/1550)

Poster promoting the use of postal codes when sending Christmas mail, 1968 (POST 110/1550)

In the 1960s when this poster was produced most mail was still sorted by hand but the Post Office was hatching an ambitious plan to reshape the entire network and it needed the public to change with them. A new breed of sorting office was being developed, filled with “coding desks” at which staff would operate keyboards in order to register the mail as it entered the system. Postcodes, which compressed the information in every address were key to making this new type of sorting office work.

A line of postmen operating coding desks at Croydon Head Post Office, 1969. (POST 118/5424)

A line of postmen operating coding desks at Croydon Head Post Office, 1969. (POST 118/5424)

Between 1966 and 1974 every address in the United Kingdom was given a postcode and this poster from 1968 was part of the accompanying publicity campaign. Royal Mail was still promoting the postcode using posters and other methods as recently as the 1990s, a reflection of how long it takes to effect major change. You can read more about postcoding in our blog post Publicising the postcode or in our article on Postcodes on our website.

The birth centenary of Alan Turing

Tomorrow is the birth centenary of Alan Turing the mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist who was highly influential in the development of computers and artificial intelligence.

A stamp from the Britons of Distinction issue, 23 February 2012. 1st Class – Alan Turing.

A stamp from the Britons of Distinction issue, 23 February 2012. 1st Class – Alan Turing.

Turing is perhaps most famous for his work during World War 2 at the code breaking centre in Bletchley Park. There he and others broke a number of German codes, including that of the Enigma machine.

At Bletchley Park Turing worked with a number of engineers seconded from the General Post Office’s engineering department, including Gordon Radley and Tommy Flowers. Radley and Flowers were both involved in the development of Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, which broke the Nazi’s Lorenz codes and convinced General Eisenhower to go ahead with D-Day. While Alan Turing was not directly involved in the development of Colossus his work fed in to the thinking behind it.

After the war Gordon Radley returned to the Post Office where he was involved in the development of the first transatlantic submarine cable, the invention the hearing aid, and projects to mechanise post sorting which led to the development of the postcode. He eventually rose to become Director General (Secretary to the Post Office), the first engineer to do so.

Tommy Flowers also returned to the Post Office after his time as a code breaker, where he was involved in developing the pioneering electronic telephone exchange at Highgate Wood, and ERNIE, the random number generator used by Premium Bonds.

Alan Turing’s post-war work and legacy are even more significant. Until his death in 1954 Turing undertook pioneering work in computer development and programming, mathematical biology and morphogenesis. He also developed the “Turing Test” for artificial intelligence, which states that a machine can only be said to be intelligent if its behaviours are indistinguishable from that of a human being.

A stamp from The Inventors' Tale issue, 12 January 1999. 63p – Computer inside Human Head (Alan Turing's work on computers).

A stamp from The Inventors’ Tale issue, 12 January 1999. 63p – Computer inside Human Head (Alan Turing’s work on computers).

For this and his many achievements Alan Turing is often labelled a “genius”. A stamp from 1999, part of The Inventor’s Tale issue, is testament to this: it features E Paolozzi’s artwork Computers, portraying a computer inside a human head. It is one of many of Paolozzi’s artworks inspired by Alan Turing.

A stamp released earlier this year (pictured above) as part of the Britons of Distinction issue commemorates Turing’s work as a mathematician, computer scientist and code breaker. The stamp shows Turing’s “Bombe” code breaking machine at Bletchley Park.

2012 is Alan Turing Year, celebrating the life and work of Alan Turing.

The Last Post

The final episode of The Peoples Post reminded us of some of the postal service’s great innovations. These included William Dockwra’s Penny Post, the development of the Mail Coach system, Rowland Hill’s postal reforms, the invention of the postage stamp, and the introduction of curb-side letter boxes.

Exterior of a Sub-Post Office, Bristol, 1980 (H11401c)

Exterior of a Sub-Post Office, Bristol, 1980 (H11401c)

Throughout the series we have also heard about how the postcode has changed our lives, and the ways in which cheap postage and telecommunications, developed in Britain, have made it easier to keep in touch and send our love.

With Christmas just two days away many of us are preparing to travel to be with family and friends. Seeing people in person is the ultimate way to communicate, but if you can’t there’s always the post. Leave your views on The Peoples Post series as a comment below, on our Facebook page, or tweet us using the hashtag #PeoplesPost.

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Last Post. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

Publicising the postcode

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post explored the issue of modernising the Post Office, looking particularly at the development of postcodes.

In order for the introduction of postcodes to succeed the public needed to be willing to adopt them. Psychological studies showed that the best means of achieving this was for the postcodes to “compromise familiarity and brevity”[1]. Once a system of postcodes encompassing both these virtues was developed and rolled out, the next step was for the Post Office to publicise the new means of addressing the mail.

The Post Office invested heavily in a range of campaigns to increase the use of postcodes. In the late 1970s these campaigns were intended to “remind, not persuade people to use their postcodes”[2]. This recognised that the main reason for not using a postcode was forgetfulness, rather than outright resistance to postcodes.

One character helping promote postcodes in the 1980s was Poco the elephant. Although the use of an elephant in publicity campaigns played on people’s forgetfulness when using postcodes, Poco himself is well remembered by visitors to the Royal Mail Archive. In addition to this poster, we also have a range of other material produced as part of this campaign, including a pen, a sweatshirt, a badge, and a vinyl record (the Postcode Song, with Poco on the cover).

Poco the elephant says… (POST 110/3083)

Poco the elephant says… (POST 110/3083)

Other campaigns, such as the one below from the 1970s, attempted to use storytelling as a means of increasing the use of postcodes. This style of poster gave more scope to explain why postcodes were important. The storytelling element also helped members of the public relate to familiar situations.

Slapdash Harry and the missing postcode - educational poster featuring a cartoon storyboard explaining postcodes, c. 1970 (POST 110/2686)

Slapdash Harry and the missing postcode - educational poster featuring a cartoon storyboard explaining postcodes, c. 1970 (POST 110/2686)

Finally this poster from the 1980s uses the notion of a romantic rendezvous to drive the postcode message home.

Let's meet under the GU1 3AA. Please use your postcode - poster promoting postcode usage, c. 1980 (POST 110/1137)

Let's meet under the GU1 3AA. Please use your postcode - poster promoting postcode usage, c. 1980 (POST 110/1137)

This romance echoes attempts in the 1930s to promote the use of London postal districts, as beautifully portrayed in the film N or NW.

- Helen Dafter, Archivist

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Post Code. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.


[1] POST 17/173, Code Design and the Design of Keyboards: Report of work carried out on behalf of the Post Office, 1958-62.

[2] MD/FE/1342 Postcode system – design of postcodes and the extent to which consumer reaction was tested. Including “social survey on post office services” 1956.

The Peoples Post

Monday 5th December sees the launch of an exciting new series on BBC Radio 4. The Peoples Post is a 15 part series exploring the history of the postal service through the people that use and work for it. The series begins in the 16th century in the reign of Henry VIII and explores some of the key moments in the nearly 500 years since then. Each weekday there will be a new 15 minute episode touching on a different part of this fascinating and evolving story.

London Chief Office - Artwork for a poster by Grace Golden on the subject of postal facilities, 1948. (POST 109/198)

London Chief Office - Artwork for a poster by Grace Golden on the subject of postal facilities, 1948. (POST 109/198)

The first five episodes, during the first week, will look at the early history of the postal service. It will cover the days of the postal service as an instrument of state and consider the expansion of the system, first under Charles I and then later in the 18th century with the post being used increasingly to assist trade. The final episode in week one will look at a postal system that was becoming ripe for improvement and this episode will link to week two where we see the postal service undergoing its most important change, postal reform.

'The Country Letter Carrier' - Oil Painting by J P Hall, 1859 (OB1997.8)

'The Country Letter Carrier' - Oil Painting by J P Hall, 1859 (OB1997.8)

Week two opens with the story of the Penny Black and how postal reform changed the world. Throughout the week the massive expansion of the Royal Mail will be explored and the effect it had on the lives of people. From the expansion into the parcels posts in the 1880s through the development of social post and the part the post office played in the community, to the industrial unrest in the 1890s with the first postal workers’ strike.

The first 'First Day Cover' in the world, showing a Penny Black used on 6 May 1840, the first day of validity. (Phillips Collection Vol IV/3, POST 141/04)

The first 'First Day Cover' in the world, showing a Penny Black used on 6 May 1840, the first day of validity. (Phillips Collection Vol IV/3, POST 141/04)

The final week looks at some of the innovations and changes that were to impact on the industry. The rise of new technologies such as the telegraphs and later developments such as the introduction by Royal Mail of the postcode, and the way that system evolved to form a part of everyone’s life. This week will also consider the post office in the First World War, the impact of the loss of male workers and the employment of women, and also the massive new role of delivering mail to a world at war and managing censorship.

Norwich addresses need postal codes, GPO poster from 1961 (POST 110/4323)

Norwich addresses need postal codes, GPO poster from 1961 (POST 110/4323)

The series is supported throughout by the BPMA. With each episode there will be new content loaded onto the website, Flickr and this blog, exploring some of the issues in more detail. Links to these will be provided via Facebook, Twitter and Google+ – and you can live tweet the show on the hashtag #PeoplesPost. Much of the research for the series has also been drawn from the Royal Mail Archive, which is managed by the BPMA. Images and details from the BPMA’s rich collections will illustrate each episode.

The BPMA were involved with the series from the very beginning and a number of members of BPMA staff were involved in developing the links with the series producers and the BBC. Most particularly the BPMA would like to thank Peter Sutton for his role of researcher, helping to find the links within the collection, and Jenny Karlsson and Alison Bean for helping to build the links and develop the online content.

- Chris Taft, Curator

30 Years of Postman Pat

Postman Pat has been a popular children’s TV series for 30 years. Today marks the show’s 30th anniversary; the first episode aired on BBC-1 on 16 September 1981.

The stop-motion animated series follows title character Pat Clifton on his daily rounds in the North of England. Pat is always accompanied by his black and white cat Jess, and he drives a red vehicle similar to those in Royal Mail’s real van fleet.

Postman Pat Book Toy (2002-616)

Postman Pat Book Toy (2002-616)

For much of Postman Pat‘s history the show was sponsored by Royal Mail, who saw the series as a marketing opportunity. When Royal Mail sponsorship of the programme ceased Pat became an employee of the fictional Special Delivery Service.

Within our collections are a number of items which reflect the breadth of Postman Pat merchandise produced. This includes games, books, toys and badges. Several items are from the Wilkinson Collection, a special collection of pillar box-related items collected by enthusiast Ian Wilkinson. Several badges show how Royal Mail used the Pat character to promote postcode use.

'Postman Pat says Please use your Post Code' Badge, 1982 (2002-618)

'Postman Pat says Please use your Post Code' Badge, 1982 (2002-618)

Today it was announced that a Postman Pat film will be made starring David Tennant, Rupert Grint, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Mangan, so expect to see more Postman Pat merchandise in the shops soon.

You can now see a selection of Postman Pat items from our collection on Flickr.

Designing the postcode: sorting machines, psychology and Sir Gordon Radley

In this series of blog posts, Peter Sutton, PhD candidate researching the post-war history of technology and industrial relations in the British Postal Service, offers some reflections on the history of the modern postcode. The significance of the postcode and its origins in the post-1945 era are considered followed by some archival examples tracing different aspects of its design along its journey from a specialised engineering concept to a universally recognised geographical referencing tool.

As mentioned in previous posts, the GPO’s design of the modern postcode became, after the Second World War, a systematic, long-term project which was part of wider attempts at designing sorting machines for a future national sorting system based on new technology. The vision outlined by leading engineers and postal experts in 1946, when sorting was predominantly done by hand at the sorting frame, was of a future system in which the national flow of mail would pass through large, mechanised sorting offices containing machines capable of “reading” each address. Their ultimate goal was to have human labour largely replaced within a generation by the new system, in which the public would cooperate by adding a code when addressing their letters to enable both interpretation and handling to be processed by machines.

As we have seen, as both postmen’s wages and the national volume of mail continued to rise over this period, there was good incentive to pursue these aims and to make what was termed the “code-sort concept” a reality. In the 1950s, the formative years of postal coding theory and practice, new lines of research pursued by GPO engineers helped lock particular characteristics into today’s familiar alpha-numeric postcode, as records held by the BPMA make clear. In particular the files of the Mechanical Aids Committee (MAC) and its subcommittees, which guided GPO policy on letter mechanisation and postcoding, show that choosing from many possible alternative code designs was no simple business.

A colour print of Mount Pleasant sorting office. The print is done in a comical style, portraying the 'un-pleasant' nature of the sorting office with its electronic sorting machine. Post, post bags and postmen are being flung through the office while two managers in suits stand in the middle. Outside is a post van with 'ER' on the side.

A colour print of Mount Pleasant sorting office. The print is done in a comical style, portraying the 'un-pleasant' nature of the sorting office with its electronic sorting machine. Post, post bags and postmen are being flung through the office while two managers in suits stand in the middle. Outside is a post van with 'ER' on the side. (Circa 1965)

One aspect of 1950s postal engineering involved trying to understand the psychological processes at work during the act of sorting letters when operating the new experimental machines then being trialled. This was an important step in both the development of the postcode and also in the GPO’s understanding of the so-called “man-machine interface”. Although at the outset it was hoped optical character recognition technology (OCR) might develop to the point of being able to reliably “read” handwritten postcodes, it was known early on that this was decades away at best. Machines for preparing and stacking the mail were then in development and, through an intricate arrangement of rollers, belts, diverters and memory storage, there were excellent prospects for an economical and reliable automatic sorting machine.

The problem was uniting these two phases of sorting – initial preparation of mail entering a sorting office into uniform piles followed by automatic sorting of that mail for particular destinations. In the absence of OCR, people stationed at keyboards (the man-machine interface) would still be needed to read the postcodes on letters and mark each with the correct machine-readable binary imprint. In any national code-sort system this would mean many millions of keystrokes every working day which placed a great financial premium on finding the most efficient arrangement of characters when designing the optimal postcode. A format acceptable to the public and major commercial mail users and also capable of accommodating the required address information was needed. But of no less importance was arriving at a format agreeable to the postman at his keyboard. An optimal format needed to encourage the most efficient possible coordination of hand, eye and brain.

Sir Gordon Radley

Sir Gordon Radley

A key figure in this regard was Sir Gordon Radley who took over the Mechanical Aids Committee (MAC) in 1955. This coincided with his appointment as Director General (Secretary to the Post Office), the first engineer to hold this office. Born in Birmingham in 1898, Radley gained his Doctorate in Engineering and served with the Royal Engineers during WWI. He joined the GPO in 1920 where he gained successive promotions through the Engineering Department. During WWII he and fellow telephone engineer Tommy Flowers made significant contributions to code-breaking at Bletchley Park and the design of “Colossus”. He spent ten years as Controller of Dollis Hill Research Station, the GPO centre for technological research, where he earned international fame for leading the development of the first transatlantic submarine cable and helping to invent the hearing aid.

When Radley chaired his first MAC meeting on 16 November 1955, he spoke of injecting more efficiency and pro-activity into the mechanisation field, issuing tighter deadlines and drafting in more senior staff. He oversaw the continuation of various long-term lines of technical enquiry and wished to see quicker progress in the development of postcodes, identifying the coding of letters by fluorescent marks as a priority project. Here, he encouraged Mr. A. Crisswell, a Deputy Regional Postal Director who headed the coding study group, to take a more liberal approach and worry less about the financial prospects of new ideas. Crisswell was directed to increase collaboration with operational experts in the Postal Services Department and to specify the desired characteristics of a code and to consult mathematicians specialising in coding theory.

Radley’s personal intervention into developing codes came as a series of questions posed in April 1956. A series of field trials with the Single Position Letter Sorting Machine (SPLSM) were then underway at Bath. There, postmen were trained to operate the machine’s keyboard to which letters were presented for processing, in which a memorised list of two-letter codes (denoting counties and towns) were added to the letters based on their addresses at between 32 and 52 items per minute. Their movements were filmed and then timed and analysed, prompting a series of questions on the MAC about how to deal with this data, with Radley leading the way. “Which kinds of codes are easiest to learn and use?” he asked. “What is the relationship between number of codes in a series and learning time?”, “What is the relationship between coding time and the number of possible codes to choose from?”, “How long does plural coding take relative to simple coding?” and “What is the best training method?”.

Single Position Letter Sorting Machine

Single Position Letter Sorting Machine (1956-1986)

Such precise questions were used to direct new lines of research on the MAC as they sought to evolve better and better machines for letter sorting, of which the coding position was a vital “link”. The Bath trials and the manner in which their results were put to use by GPO engineers is just one early episode in a long history of ergonomic design for coding desks and added to a body of research into the physical and mental demands made upon postmen who sorted the mail. Radley’s questions might also be seen as illustrating the diversity of factors at play in choosing the most suitable code for the British postal service.