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.


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