Why are postcodes significant and where did they come from?

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.

Home sweet WV3 8ZR. Remember your house now has a postcode

Poster promoting postcode usage, circa 1978

We think about postcodes regularly. Perhaps, as it gets lost in the noise of everyday activity, we aren’t aware of how often we do it or at least how many ways we benefit from them. In our correspondence, by ‘phone, in the car and in all manner of ways online, we engage with them in the everyday sense. A moment’s thought reveals the wide-ranging uses of postcodes, and yet, as a tool, it has many more hidden and no less important applications. After all, they are today used in demographic profiling, monitoring crime levels, determining insurance premiums, data analysis and marketing techniques – not to mention their role in house prices or catchment areas for schools and healthcare. In fact trying to list all applications of the postcode has been made virtually impossible by the internet where ordering a pizza or a beanbag can be done with little more than a postcode and a credit card. The geographers Jonathan Raper, David Rhind and John Shepherd have pointed to its diverse usage whilst acknowledging its postal origins in their book Postcodes: The New Geography (1992). “We need”, they write in their introduction, “something that provides the ability to divide up the country into small areas or large ones, is simple to understand, can be related to everyday experience and is easily handled by computers as well as human beings. This is the Postcode, born out of the postal system and founded upon postal addresses.” And yet it is a relatively recent invention. It differs in its form from country to country, but in all cases (including the British with its familiar, even reassuring, two-part alpha-numeric arrangement) it did not exist until the 1960s. Not, at least, in anything like a modern, widespread or standardised sense.

Your requisition may be delayed if your postcode is not quoted

Informational handstamp about using postcodes. (20th Century)

So where did the postcode come from? In Britain, Royal Mail can take the credit, or, as it was then, the General Post Office. Some codes were used locally in the nineteenth century postal service, such as in London where compass point abbreviations had evolved by the end of the First World War to include several sub-districts helping to simplify the Capital’s sorting and delivery. However it was not until after 1945 that a systematic, national coding scheme was seriously considered, as new types of technology and logistical techniques combined with growing financial pressures to create a powerful incentive to code the country. It was originally intended to reduce the information contained in a written address into a machine-readable code in order to help increase the speed and reduce the cost of mail delivery, and it continues to serve this purpose today. Its design began in earnest in the 1950s, primarily to enable the spread of mechanised sorting, leading to a major trial at Norwich from 1959 and then to a period from 1965-1972 when every British address received a code. The timing of this coincided with an early phase in the first national mechanisation programme known as the Letter Post Plan in which the national mail flow was concentrated onto large mechanised sorting offices. The modern postcode therefore has its origins in the long history of postal mechanisation and automation.

Let's meet under the GU1 3AA. Please use your postcode

Royal Mail poster about using postcodes, circa 1980

In the next post we delve a little further into the history of the postcode after 1945, summarising the simple economics that made it such an attractive scheme to Post Office officials as well as highlighting the diverse range of factors that helped shape its design.

One response to “Why are postcodes significant and where did they come from?

  1. Pingback: Designing the postcode: a complex history for a simple purpose | The British Postal Museum & Archive

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