Cracking the Code

With the news that the Olympics site has been designated with its own postcode, my question today is:

Does anyone understand postcodes in London?

Until now, the E20 postcode of Albert Square in BBC’s soap Eastenders (no I don’t watch it either) was merely fictitious, but Olympic bosses applied for premises on the Stratford site to use the iconic postcode.

[T]he move, due to be take effect for the start of the Games next July, has been made despite the next available East London code being E19. Postcodes it would seem have no obvious logic to their designation and no relevance in relation to the adjoining areas.

To complicate life for a cabbie house numbers sometimes have even and odd numbers on opposite sides of the street, while on others the numbers run sequentially up one side and down on the opposite site, in addition some houses are designated a street and number even though their front door actually opens onto an adjacent road; the lowest number on any street is supposed to be the house closest to Charing Cross or is that an urban myth?

If London’s postcodes are allocated alphabetically why is it that E2 is Bethnal Green; E3 Bow; E4 Chingford; E5 Clapton; E6 East Ham; E7 Wanstead; and then arbitrarily E8 Hackney?

Conversely if the postcode number denotes its position away from the centre of London why is NW1 near Mornington Crescent but NW2 miles away in Cricklewood; and Sloane Square SW1 while Brixton Hill is SW2 and Scotch Corner just yards from Sloane Square near Harrods SW3? How does that work?

You have to ask yourself, just why it is necessary for Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens to be in five different postal districts unevenly divided between W1, W2, W8, SW1 and SW7, with the lines curving and twisting through the parks.

It all started out so simple; during the 1840s the number of letters being sent in London was increasing rapidly, with many localities having similar street names, letters were often misdirected. So in the 1850s a committee was instructed to find a way to stop the confusion. They originally planned to rename the streets, but many residents objected, so they decided instead to split the city into various sectors. The two central sectors were EC and WC (East and West Central) and the outer ones were named N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W and NW after the points of a compass. A scheme which involved people adding these letters to their addresses was implemented during 1857 and 1858. In 1866 in author Anthony Trollope, then a surveyor, who also introduced our red pillar boxes, suggested that NE be merged into E and then S vanished two years later, after being split between SE and SW.

While it is immensely helpful for the Post Office in locating addresses, without a vast knowledge of the postcode system it is of little use to the man, or cabbie, on the street, except to perhaps point people to a general area, say within 10 miles from their destination. If you want to find where you are going don’t rely on a postcode; use a map or better still jump in a cab and let him figure it out.

Some notable postcodes:
SAN TA1 – Father Christmas
GIR OAA – Girobank
RM1 1AA – Royal Mail Customer Service
E20 – Walford (Eastenders) or the Olympic Park
SW1A 1AA – Buckingham Palace
SW1A 0AA – House of Commons
SW1A 0PW – House of Lords
SW1A 2AA – 10 Downing Street
SW1A 2AB – 11 Downing Street
W1A 1AA – BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place

8 thoughts on “Cracking the Code”

  1. Part of the logic to the London postal districts are the steps you left out. I am afraid I do not have the references to hand, so as though I were a doctor, you must trust me!

    The letter districts were again proving to be too large, so they were divided again, alphabetical order of the boroughs that formed the LCC (the old London County Council). In turn those were judged to be too big, and each was divided with one half of the borough retaining the old number, and the other half getting a new number. The series of these new numbers started where the previous numbering had left off. They may have gone round again in Borough alphabetical order, but I am not sure.

    What this proves beyond any doubt is that the bureaucrat’s constant obsession with making their systems more orderly just doesn’t work. It never will. And life has to catch up with reality, constantly!


  2. For your information the E postcodes are as follows:-
    E1 Aldgate
    E2 Bethnal Green
    E3 Bow
    E4 Chingford
    E5 Clapton
    E6 East Ham
    E7 Forest Gate
    E8 Hackney
    E9 Homerton
    E10 Leyton
    E11 Leytonstone
    E12 Manor Park
    E13 Plaistow
    E14 Poplar
    E15 Stratford
    E16 Silvertown
    E17 Walthamstow
    E18 Woodford


  3. One way of looking at it, I suppose, is to say that postal codes are precisely that – codes for sorting mail. They were not intended to help citizens find their way around. This being so, they do not need any “logic” – arbitrary strings of letters and numbers will suit the computer just as well.

    As you say, the best help in finding your way around a city is a good map. That is what the A to Z maps were created for and they have been doing a splendid job since the 1930s.


    1. The problem is that we ‘humans’ try to give logic to arbitrary codes understood by computers but not intended as a signpost for us to understand.


  4. E16 is officially designated “Victoria Docks” by the Royal Mail, hence it’s position in the list above. Funnily, Royal Mail vans that work E16 have the code “VT” on the back instead of the obvious “VD”.


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