If you’re recording your address for postal purposes, or trying to direct someone to your home, then one piece of information is more important than perhaps any other:  the postcode.  This is a jumble of letters and numbers and the bottom of every address, which allows the people working at your carrier-of-choice to quickly and efficiently sort your package and dispatch it to the right destination.  With the help of a good postcode finder, it’s now possible to easily look up almost any address in the country digitally.  Let’s take a look at how this state of affairs came to be.

History of postcodes

In 1857, the postal service in London decided to divide itself into ten distinct postal districts.  There was one for every compass direction, plus two districts in the middle.  Over time, some of these districts proved more popular than others, and eventually the ‘south’ and ‘north east’ sectors were abolished or amalgamated into their neighbours.  Eventually, these directions were augmented with numbers to refer to the specific part of the district.

The system was a success, and led to fairly substantial improvements in efficiency.  So much so, in fact, that it was adopted in other parts of the country.  By the end of the 1860s, both Liverpool and Manchester had their own similar systems.  Then, in 1917, the system found its way to Dublin.  During the 1930s, the Post Office began to introduce more such systems in towns across the country – including Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester.

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It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that the postcode we might recognise today came to be.  The Post Office was beginning to introduce mechanical sorting devices, which would rely on an operator to place packages into the relevant bin.  Such system quickly ran into a performance bottleneck, however – the human beings operating the machines would be unable to remember enough place names to sort the mail quickly and accurately.

Initially, the Post Office were wary of introducing the system on a national scale.  After all, they still had yet to convince the public of the system’s merits – and it would be the public who would ultimately end up writing the postcodes down.

It was decided that a six-character postcode system would be tested first in Norwich.  The code for Norwich consisted of the abbreviation ‘NOR’ followed by a three-digit code.  The system proved enormously successful, and in 1965 it was announced by the Postmaster General, Tony Benn, that the system would be gradually rolled out to the rest of the UK.

Of course, the Post Office faced a little bit of a challenge during these early years – as they had to decide which areas got which codes.  This was made all the more complicated by the fact that some areas already had codes of their own.  The existing city-based code systems were therefore dispensed with, and amalgamated into the nationwide system.

In 2010, the postcode database was made available to everyone – not just the post office.  This made it possible for ever-more sophisticated means of postcode lookup to be developed.  Today, postcodes remain an invaluable tool for modern logistics – and one that’s set to be around for awhile longer!

What does the postcode mean?

We’ve examined how the postcode system first came to be.  But what do all the numbers and letters in each code actually represent?  Let’s take a closer look.

From left to right, the different sections of the code represent ever smaller areas of the country.  Read the letters on the left and you’ll know where in the country the package is meant to be sent.  As you move right, you’ll begin to gradually zoom into the destination.

From left to right, you’ll find four discrete chunks to an address.  Let’s consider the postcode of 10 Downing Street: SW1A, 2AA.

SW – this is the postcode area.  It refers to the South Western and Battersea are of London.

1A – this is the postcode district of the area for Downing Street is in.

2 – this is the postcode sector.  Each postal worker will generally be charged with delivering mail to one of these every day.

AA – this is the postcode unit.  It generally refers to just a single street.

This makes it easy to sort post without really thinking about it – if the postcode area doesn’t match the post office you’re in, then it needs to be sent to another sorting office.  If it does, then you’ll need to give it the relevant postal worker to deliver to the various units.

About The Author

Kenneth Hart