Postal Museum's Postcode Exhibition Gets Our Stamp Of Approval

By M@ Last edited 26 months ago

Last Updated 30 March 2022

Postal Museum's Postcode Exhibition Gets Our Stamp Of Approval
A big letter C welcomes people into an exhibition about postcodes

Postcodes are powerful identifiers — not just for the Post Office but in our own personal lives.

Think of all those people who live in places like Romford (RM), Twickenham (TW) or Bromley (BR) and consider themselves NOT Londoners because "we don't have a London postcode" (even though they pay their council tax to a London borough).

A new exhibition at the Postal Museum explores the power of the postcode from every angle. It starts off with the Victorian origins of the postcode, when London was divided up into its still largely extant postal districts (minus NE and S).

A black and white line map of postal districts
An early scheme to divide London into postal districts. Image courtesy of the Postal Museum

The heart of the show is the story of how machines got involved, and it's a very Londony story. The first serious attempt to move to automated sorting was developed at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill. ELSIE, as the machine was dubbed, leaned heavily on the WWII codebreaking tech of Tommy Flowers at the same site. You can see ELSIE in all its greasy mechanical glory as part of the show — the first time it's been on public display in 20 years.

A big green machine with lots of exposed cogs or wheels
ELSIE. Image by author

Strictly speaking, ELSIE didn't sort the mail. It mechanically filed letters after an operator had clocked the county and punched in a letter code — a rudimentary postcode. You can try your hand at assigning codes on a fiendish simulation next to ELSIE. An experienced operator could file an astounding 110 letters per minute. We managed four. As in all good postman jokes, we'd have got the sack.

The first proper postcodes were introduced in the late 50s, in Norwich. They worked well, but the public were slow to adopt the system. That prompted the Post Office to deploy a fluffy pink elephant with a knot in his trunk.

A pink elephant with a knot in its trunk on a badge
Image courtesy of the Postal Museum

This was Poco, the Postcode Elephant. Apparently, he was huge in the 1980s. Poco had a fan club, a newsletter, and a record deal (with songs written by Brian Daley, the same guy who composed the Postman Pat theme). If you went to the right county show, you could even ride a robotic Poco. He was a household name for the entire decade (except, it seems, in my household), and went a long way towards persuading us to use that damn code. This guy was less successful...

A 60s man tells us how he uses his postcode
A winning chat-up line in the 1960s. Possibly.

It's a small exhibition, but they pack a lot in. Make sure you read every information panel because golden nuggets of trivia lurk here aplenty. Ian Visits even noticed that the Post Office almost invented the QR code half a century before Japan got there.

One bit of trivia that's absent here, and will be of interest to the London-denying Romford-Twickenham-Bromley contingent mentioned up top... the village of Sewardstone carries the London-sounding postcode of E4. But it's not London. It's just over the border in Essex. The postcode is a wonderful invention for sorting mail, but it's not the most reliable way to sort your identity as a Londoner.

Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes is at the Postal Museum in Clerkenwell until 1 January 2023. Entrance is included in general admission ticket.