Many of us know of Number 1, London – Apsley House, built in 1778 on the north side of Piccadilly. At the time, it was next to the main turnpike or toll into central London, so became known as ‘Number 1, London’, because it was the first house you came to once you entered London.
The property’s official address today is 149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner, London, W1J 7NT, but rumours still abound today that if you posted a letter to ‘Number 1, London’ it would reach this address. We haven’t tried this one, but if you do, let me know how you get on.
Apsley House by Paul Farmer (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Just before a lease for the land was negotiated from the Crown Estate and builders stood around shaking their heads while telling his Lordship they had discovered problems in the build, The Postage Act of 1765 was given Royal Assent, apparently to start numbering houses for the postie.
The full text of the 1765 Postage Act does not contain any direct reference to house numbering, either introducing or for standardising. The Act enabled plans to measure distances along roads, encouraging house numbering, but the Act didn’t directly require numbering.
So when did the first number appear?
Most likely at the start of the eighteenth century, for this is what The British Postal Museum & Archive says:
The first recorded instance of a street being numbered is Prescot Street in Goodmans Fields in 1708. By the end of the century, the numbering of houses had become well established and seems to have been done on the consecutive rather than the odd and even principle which we have now become familiar.
None of this was regulated and numbering systems varied even in the same street. For example about 1780, Craven Street in the Strand had three sets of numbers. There were irregularities everywhere, and the naming of streets and parts of streets was left to the idiosyncrasy or whim of the owner.
Regulation did not take place until 1855 with the passing of the Metropolitan Management Act. For the first time, the power to control and regulate the naming and numbering of streets and houses were provided for and given to the new Board of Works.
That version can be traced back to the 1708 publication, Hatton’s New View of London, which, using slightly different spelling, recorded that:
In Prescott Street, Goodman’s Fields, instead of signs the houses are distinguished by numbers, as the staircases in the Inns of Court and Chancery.
There are hints that house numbering spread throughout the 18th century, all without that 1765 Postage Act. So his Lordship might not have lived in Number 1, London after all.