The Post Code

For much of the twentieth century, Post Office engineers were at the cutting edge of technological change. Telephone exchanges, subterranean railways, sub-oceanic cables, satellites relay stations, computers and electronic banking – all were pioneered by the scientists and technologists of the GPO. By the 1960s, the organisation was a powerhouse of research and development and the postal, telegraphic and telephone networks were among the most sophisticated in the world. When Tony Benn became Postmaster General in 1964 he preferred the term "ministry of communications" to General Post Office, describing it as "a science-based enterprise on the threshold of a new era of expansion and improvement made possible by new inventions and the application of new techniques which are changing the art and shape of communications". The following year the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, officially opened the Post Office Tower, London's tallest building and a perfect symbol of modernisation.

Even the postal service was caught up in the enthusiasm for a new age of communication. Postal engineers had devised an ingenious system of mechanised mail, at the heart of which was the postcode. Electronic sorting machines were then in development, using belts, diverters and computers to manipulate the mail, turning it, facing it and sorting it at high speeds. And yet in the 1960s most letters were still sorted by hand at the sorting frame. What the Post Office needed was for the public to begin attaching special codes when addressing their mail, compressing this information in such a way that it could be understood by the machines. The Post Office was hatching an ambitious plan to reshape the entire network around a new breed of sorting office, which they hoped to fill with coding desks at which staff would operate keyboards in order to register the mail as it entered the system.

This episode of The People's Post delved into the story of the postcode to discover how, although it was originally designed for an age of automated letter sorting, it ended up being used much more widely and in unexpected ways. It also highlighted the struggles of the Post Office as it came to grips with the challenges of modernisation, from the grievances of staff whose working environment changed overnight, to a sceptical public who needed persuading to change their correspondence habits.

Further Reading

More information on the history of the postcode and mechanised sorting can be found in Duncan Campbell-Smith, Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of the Royal Mail (2011). The BPMA has much more at the Royal Mail Archive including articles published by the Mechanisation Study Circle and many original documents on the design of sorting machines found in POST 17. Helen Dafter's blog Publicising the postcode gives further information on this topic.

Illustrations
Norwich addresses need postal codes

Norwich addresses need postal codes

Norwich addresses need postal codes

Norwich addresses need postal codes

Always include your postal code...

Always include your postal code...

Tilted belt parcel sorting machine

Tilted belt parcel sorting machine

The Post Office Tower

The Post Office Tower


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Masters of the Post

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How the postcode developed in the 19th and 20th century

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