House numbering in the UK

We often receive questions about the history of the postal service via our Facebook page or Twitter. Yesterday @jamespurdon asked “anybody know when house numbering begins in UK?” We asked Archives Assistant Penny to find out, and as so often with these questions the answer is a bit complicated.

A postman delivers mail to cottages in North Street in Brighstone, Isle of Wight, 1937.

A postman delivers mail to cottages in North Street in Brighstone, Isle of Wight, 1937.

The first recorded instance of a street being numbered is Prescot Street in Goodmans Fields in 1708. By the end of the century, the numbering of houses had become well established, and seems to have been done on the consecutive rather than the odd and even principle which we have now become familiar.

None of this was regulated and numbering systems varied even in the same street. For example about 1780, Craven Street in the Strand had three sets of numbers. There were irregularities everywhere, and the naming of streets and parts of streets was left to the idiosyncrasy or whim of the owner.

Regulation did not take place until 1855 with the passing of the Metropolitan Management Act. For the first time the power to control and regulate the naming and numbering of streets and houses was provided for and given to the new Board of Works. Under pressure from the Post Office the Board started work in 1857 on the simplification of street names and numbering by working through a hit list of the most confusing streets given to the Board by the Post Office.

Do you have a question for us? Don’t forget to join us on Twitter on 24 August when you can tweet our Director.

18 responses to “House numbering in the UK

  1. Brightston? No such place. No wonder post office have problems

    Brighstone may be. I stayed there for a while.

  2. what do you make of Wikipedia explanation, anywhere between 1720 & 1765

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  6. In 1831 James Elmes published a ‘Topographical Dictionary of London’. The entry for ADAM AND EVE COURT reads, “Bishopsgate Street Without, is in Angel Alley, near Skinner Street, and received its name from the sign at its corner, before numbering was introduced by Act of Parliament.”
    This is 24 years before the Metropolis Local Management Act gave the Metropolitan Board of Works control over regulating the “nomenclature” (and numbering) of streets. There must be another Act that nobody has found.

  7. John Copeland

    In 1765 in the Act 6 Geo III c24 there was provision for the numbering of houses in the Borough of Southwark and in the Act 6 Geo III c26 similarly for the City of London. Other places were provided for by subsequent Acts of Parliament.

    • It’d be interesting to know what the source of those two legal references is John?

      • John Copeland

        Mark The references stand for the 24th and 26th Acts of the 6th year of the reign of George III and should enable one to find them in a volume of statutes for the appropriate period. I found them in the 27th volume of Pickering’s ‘Statutes at Large’ on Google Books (can’t seem to copy the link in). I found out subsequently that though the volume said 1765 in fact the Acts didn’t receive the Royal Assent until 14th May 1766 – see relevant House of Lords Journal available on British History Online.

  8. Ah sorry, I meant I was curious about how you found out that both those acts have references in them to house numbering? I’m assuming you didn’t set out to read all the 18th century’s acts to see if any did 🙂

    • John Copeland

      I worked on the assumption that 1765 was the right date, as it appeared in more than one source, and it was just the wrong Act that was mentioned and looked in the list of statutes for a likely Act involving the City of London.

  9. John, thank you for finding the answer. (remove any blank spaces to use this link)

    Taken from:-
    The Statutes at Large
    Passed Anno Sexto George III. Regis (1766)
    by Danby Pickering
    Volume XXVII
    Published 1767

    CAP. 26 (covers the City of London and the liberties)
    Clause 24
    Pages 104 – 105

    “XXIV. And it is hereby further enacted, That the said commissioners shall and may cause to be painted, engraved, or described, in stone, or otherwise, and to be affixed in a conspicuous part of one or more house or houses, building , or buildings, at or near each end, corner, or entrance, of each of the said streets, lanes, squares, yards, courts, alleys, passages, or places, the name by which each respective street, lane, square, yard, court, alley, passage, or place, is properly or usually called or known; and may also cause every house, shop, or warehouse, in each of the said streets, lanes, squares, yards, courts, alleys, passages, and places, to be marked or numbered, in such a manner as they shall judge most proper for distinguishing the same: and if any person or persons shall wilfully and maliciously destroy, pull down, obliterate, or deface, any such name, description, marks, or numbers, or any part thereof, or cause or procure the same to be done: every person so offending, shall, for every such offence, forfeit and pay the sum of forty shillings.”

    The similar Act in CAP. 24 covers the town and borough of Southwark and certain parts adjacent in the county of Surrey. It makes roughly the same provision for street names, but “houses within the said streets” etc., “to be numbered with figures placed or painted on the doors thereof”. (clause LXIV pages 76-7)

    I am not a legal expert, but they read to me as if numbering is optional and not obligatory, “may” rather than “shall and may” used for street names.

    • John Copeland

      I agree with your interpretation regarding numbering. That this view was taken at the time is confirmed by the following extract from the Derby Mercury for Friday 1.8.1766
      ” In the numbering of the houses at present in Fleet-Street, Mr William’s House, taking in Seven more, on the same Side of the Way, in the Courts, would have been the 45th from Temple- Bar. But the Commissioners Orders being to number only those in the Street, he now stands at 38, and Number 45 is fallen to the Lot of his neighbour the Pastry-Cook.”

  10. Revisiting the statutes at large I have found the 1762 amendment that first mentions street name signs in Westminster, but not numbering. It is all written up here

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