diamond geezer

 Wednesday, March 25, 2020

At a time when some of the population is frantically busy but much has little to do, you may be in need of 'content' to help you through the coming weeks. An archive of films you've always meant to watch, a shelf of books never quite conquered, or perhaps the deeper recesses of the internet. So I'm indebted to Peter Watts for pointing out that The London Topographical Society, an august body of map-based historians, has just put all of its newsletters since 1975 online for the first time.

What a fascinating treasure trove, not just for the learned articles and embedded cartography within, but also for observing the evolution of presentation, availability and content over the best part of fifty years. The full downloadable archive is here, a 1999 index is here and the most recent edition is here. Should you wish to join the other 1200 members in supporting the LTS through our uncertain future, an annual subscription costs £20 and their back catalogue of publications is here.

Issue 35 includes a treatise on the evolution of the Metropolitan Police District, issue 48 reports at length on London's Telephone Exchanges and issue 34 muses on Big Ben's time delay across the centre of town. But I've decided to focus on issue 29 from November 1989, and Simon Morris's essay on The London Postal Districts, because people always seem to be interested in where London's postcodes came from. Read the original for full details and proper maps, I'm merely summarising.

The London Postal Districts

Although postal districts were first introduced in 1857, their origins lie in the 18th century. By 1794 postal services within built-up London had been divided into nine 'walks', more for their practicality than geographical spread. The St James's walk, for example, covered much of Mayfair, while the East walk stretched from the edge of the City towards Stepney and the Docks. Camden and Islington were not included, despite being much closer to the centre, so would not have received direct deliveries of General, Foreign and Twopenny Post. [map page 2]

Outside this elongated envelope a more circular structure emerged, because delivery services operated up to a 15 mile radius. Nine horse-drawn delivery 'rides' spread radially along main roads to drop off mail in towns along the way, from which they were distributed on foot. The Edmonton Ride reached Enfield, the Brentford Ride stopped off in Kensington and Hanwell, while the Wadden Ride tackled Morden and Croydon. Areas covered varied enormously in size, with the Sydenham Ride by far the smallest, while the Woodford Ride spread as far as Barking and Loughton. [map page 3]

By 1837 the system was ripe for reform. Enter Penny Post pioneer Rowland Hill, who proposed replacing one single sorting office at St Martin's le Grand by half a dozen offices closer to coaching hubs (for example at Bank and Angel). Commissioners initially resisted his restructuring ideas, but in 1854 Hill was elevated to the role of Secretary of the Post Office and was finally able to establish a Committee On Establishing District Sorting Offices. This proposed introducing two compact central districts, WC and EC, surrounded by a circle with 12 mile radius divided into eight compass-based segments (N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W and NW). [map page 4]

West Central and East Central were defined so that postmen would start their rounds no more than fifteen minutes walk from the GPO at St Martin's le Grand. The outer districts showed more flexibility, their boundaries bending to keep distinct geographical localities together, and beyond London sticking mainly to the original 'rides'. For example, although the western boundary of the NE sector was pretty much straight, mostly following the Lea Valley, the eastern boundary wiggled across the East End and the Essex countryside. Specifically it followed the Whitechapel and Mile End Roads as far as the Regent's Canal, then the Hertford Canal along the edge of Victoria Park, then zigzagged onwards to include Leytonstone but omit Stratford and Barkingside. [map page 5]

Londoners were first urged to add Postal Districts to their addresses in 1857. Adoption by the public was initially slow, but the innovation meant their mail started to arrive more quickly. However further reform of the outer segments soon became necessary because equality of area didn't equate to equality of population. N, for example, included twice as many addresses as NE, whereas SE, S and NW were predominantly rural. Several peripheral towns were spun off into separate districts, for example Romford, Beckenham and Ealing, and the use of postal district notation became far less commonplace beyond inner London.

The abolition of the NE and S postal districts can be laid at the door of the novelist Anthony Trollope, no fan of Sir Rowland Hill, and by 1864 Surveyor to the Post Office. He spotted that postmen in these districts carried fewer letters per delivery, so decided to improve efficiency by merging the North Eastern district with the Eastern. Staff were transferred at the end of 1866, and the public asked to stop using NE on their letters from 1869. Street names were not initially changed, however, because the Metropolitan Board of Works and local boards disagreed over who should foot the bill. The Metropolitan Borough of Hackney continued to use NE on its street signs until 1917.

As for the Southern District, its viability had been weakened when Croydon was withdrawn, so Trollope proposed splitting it between the two adjacent districts. Kennington, Lambeth, Camberwell, Dulwich, Norwood and South Norwood were transferred to SE, while Clapham, Tooting, Merton, Stockwell, Brixton, Streatham and South Lambeth moved to SW. The change was implemented in early 1868 - SW on 1st March and SE on 1st April. The abolition of the S and NE districts would later allow these codes to be used by Sheffield and Newcastle.

Minor tinkering to boundaries continued over the years, for example rationalising to fit new suburbs built across former fields. But the most obvious next step, the introduction of numbered sub-districts, was for years thought too complex and costly to enact. It took WW1, an influx of untrained sorters and a suggestion from a Mr Percy Holland of Cadogan Gardens, SW, to force the Post Office's hand. Within each existing district the subdivision containing the head district office was numbered 1, then the remainder followed in alphabetical order. For example the Eastern District's list begins E1 Whitechapel, E2 Bethnal Green, E3 Bow.

Postal districts are now known as postcode areas, but London's haven't changed much since 1917, at least in outline. Central London exceptions include Aldgate, Mount Pleasant and Clerkenwell Road which were later absorbed into EC, and Shaftesbury Avenue and Northumberland which switched to WC. Further out, the NW district gained Kilburn Park from W in return for Park Crescent. But for most of us, whether we're in E or SW or whatever comes down to horse rides, postmen's walks, compass directions and a huge circle centred on St Paul's. As Simon Morris's essay explains, it's a fascinating topographical tale.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan20  Feb20  Mar20  Apr20
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19  Jun19  Jul19  Aug19  Sep19  Oct19  Nov19  Dec19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream