The Post Office’s instructions for “finger gymnastics” contain 12 thorough steps, starting from “shaking every joint of the limp hand”, through to elaborate explanations of how to bend, stretch and shake every finger. These exercises were designed to prepare the digits of a 1950s “postal coder” starting their shift. Workout complete, coders would punch in the postcodes of more than 2,000 letters an hour – until the system became fully automated around the mid-90s.
Many of us use our postcode every day, from entering it on a satnav to shopping online, without giving those letters and numbers much thought. A new exhibition at the Postal Museum seeks to change that. Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes takes in the beginnings of our area codes in ingenious Victorian London, to the 1930s and the marvellous red brick Post Office Research Station which started to develop automation, to the 1960s strikes as workers dealt with the incoming mechanisation and low wages, to the 1980s advertising campaigns and, now, the way we’re profiled by our postcode.Like a stamp on a letter, this exhibition is small but efficient and covers a lot of ground.
“In the mid 1950s, the Post Office developed the first successful British sorting machine, known as Elsie,” says Chris Taft, head of collections. “All of the Post Office machines were given human names.” Indeed, as well as Elsie (Electronic Letter Sorting Indicator Equipment), there was Ernie (the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, built to choose the winning numbers of premium bonds) – both given recognisable names so as not to spook the public with all this newfangled automation.
Elsie had been born at the research station at Dollis Hill, north-west London, which opened in 1933. A poster paying tribute to “the men of Dollis Hill” – it was mostly men with the exception of a few women such as Dame Stephanie Shirley, who worked at the research station at the beginning of her engineering career – and their “modern miracles”, shows them testing everything from the lifespan of a rubber stamp to the effects of lightning on telegraph poles. These mid-century mavericks, depicted as clean-shaven if slightly dishevelled scientists, were developing a sorting machine and system that could code and process the increasing load of mail. Some of the technology for it had been used earlier for Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, which was designed at Dollis Hill by the Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers, and helped the Bletchley Park codebreakers during the second world war.
There is an Elsie in the centre of the exhibition, a charming machine in that beautiful 50s mint green, with curves and cogs. Slots marked with the original black tape labels show newly coded addresses such as “Min of Soc Security”. A single operator could use it, but they would have to know their geography (if the sender hadn’t written the county on the envelope), as well as remember more than 140 codes that would sort the post, ensuring it got to the right part of the country. “The PostOffice realised that if they asked the public to write these codes on to the letters, that would aid the sorting process,” says Taft. “Then all the operators have to do is key in the code without having to memorise anything. That’s essentially where the postcode came from.”
A new longer code, that we recognise today, was developed and trialled in Norwich in 1959 – despite some people saying they had no intention of using their new postcode when the price of postage was already too high (“HAVE NOT WRITTEN LETTERS SINCE POSTAGE WENT UP TO 3d” reads one feedback card in indignant capitals), the trial was successful and the postcode was rolled out to the rest of the country. By 1974 every address had one. Over the next decade, the Post Office ran advertising campaigns to encourage people to use theirs, until it was deemed that we had all got the message.
Now, postcodes have become an integral part of life, but brought some negative effects the Post Office didn’t foresee. “People talk about the postcode lottery, how you might not be entitled to certain healthcare facilities based on your postcode,” says Taft. A postcode can affect property prices, and things such as car insurance. “You might live in a really quiet, safe road, but your car insurance might be inflated because you happen to be in a postcode area where crime is considered high.”
You can probably remember your childhood postcode, and there can be an emotional attachment, or an importance placed on them, even though they’re simply “a tool for the Post Office”, says Taft. “Occasionally places and businesses do request postcode changes, or to be in a different postcode. The famous example is Wimbledon football club.” When AFC Wimbledon moved back to Plough Lane in 2020, their new stadium was less than 200 metres from the original, but it had slipped into a different postcode – many at the club, attached to the previous SW19 postcode, wanted it changed from SW17. “But it doesn’t really work like that,” adds Taft. “If you change your postcode, your post would end up in the wrong place. That’s all it is – a means of the Post Office knowing where to send your letter.” A postcode doesn’t respect political constituencies and often not even counties, it is just an everyday cipher that imposes a little bit of order on our lives.