ROLAND WHITE examines how postcodes could reveal which type of 66 social types you belong to

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They help us navigate and can be a mark of social status. Companies use them to identify potential customers. They can affect our insurance premiums and even the quality of health care provided to us. Oh, and they help the mail arrive on time.

Today, an exhibition at the Postal Museum in London pays homage to the humble postcode.

It was Postmaster General Tony Benn who in 1965 announced the introduction of the full alphanumeric codes we know today. But it wasn’t until 1974, nine years after that announcement, that the complicated task of assigning postcodes to every address in the country was completed.

After all this effort, the letter-writing public did not exactly embrace the new system.

They found postal codes to be new and difficult to remember. And people in upscale rural areas weren’t thrilled to find they’d been picked up by the nearest big city.

Today an exhibition at the Postal Museum in London pays homage to the humble postcode

We can only imagine how the Queen of Windsor Castle – SL4 1NJ – felt upon finding out she was living in Slough.

In response, Royal Mail launched a massive advertising campaign, led by a pink elephant called Poco: because elephants never forget.

Poco toured the country, attending parties and providing rides for children whose parents could remember their code.

Composer Bryan Daly, who wrote the music for Postman Pat, was commissioned to write songs about Poco and postcodes. One of them is gone:

‘Use your postal code, it’s so easy to do

Then the people to whom you send

They can do the same for you.

I regret to report that Poco was not always treated with respect. During a show, the poor elephant was decapitated by a group of young farmers. The head, a big balloon, flew away.

Paul Diggens, then head of media at the Post Office, remembers how he received a phone call at home in the middle of the night from the Air Ministry.

‘Are you responsible for the head of a giant elephant?’ asked a furious official. “You are interfering with flights to and from Stansted, Luton and Heathrow.”

It took another two hours for Poco’s head to float gently to the ground.

Zip codes hadn’t really been a quick decision. London was first divided into ten postal districts by Sir Rowland Hill, the inventor of the penny post, as early as 1856.

You can still see letters such as EC, N and W on some old London road signs.

This system was reformed slightly by novelist Anthony Trollope, who spent over 30 years as a postal official and is credited with the invention of the red column box. Between 1866 and 1868, he suppressed the S and NE districts.

If you want to mail a letter to Santa, the postcode is SAN TA1 (File Image)

If you want to mail a letter to Santa, the postcode is SAN TA1 (File Image)

In 1934, major cities were divided into lettered and numbered postal districts, and the public was invited to use the new system under the slogan: “For speed and certainty, always use a postal district number on your letters and paper to letters.” Nice, huh?

The system we use today was designed to facilitate the sorting of letters by machines called Elsie (Electronic Letter Sorting Indicating Equipment).

“Mail volumes were increasing and machines were being used to speed up the process,” says Chris Taft, collections manager at the Postal Museum. “To put this into context, a Victorian postman could sort up to 30 letters a minute. A skilled Elsie operator could process up to 110 letters per minute.

There are now 1.8 million postcodes covering approximately 31 million properties. This means that each code covers an average of 17 addresses.

We might have been suspicious at first, but now we would struggle without them. Millions of us connect them to our satellite navigation systems every day, and they help couriers find their way to our doorsteps. In addition, postal codes can affect our health. The term “postcode lottery” describes different health outcomes in different parts of the country. (There’s also a real postcode lottery where your code can win you a prize.)

Codes are also a valuable marketing tool. The consumer credit agency Experian has divided us into 66 different social types based on our zip code.

If you visit the Experian website, you can enter your own code and find out how you are perceived by the company’s marketing departments. Do you live in what Experian calls a Bungalow Haven (“peace-loving senior citizens”)? Or maybe you’re more Penthouse Chic (‘city professionals’) or Rural Vogue (‘country-loving families chasing rural idyll’).

Zip codes can even tell us which restaurants to avoid. A 2019 survey by insurance company Claims Direct reported that UB (including Southall and Uxbridge, Middlesex) had the dirtiest restaurants, while DT (which includes Dorchester and Weymouth, Dorset) boasted being the cleanest.

Similar studies have identified the most expensive postcode in the country as SW1X (Knightsbridge and Belgravia). In February, property in this area was worth £2,189 per square foot.

At the top of the Royal Mail social ladder, some people and institutions are blessed with their own postcodes (file image)

At the top of the Royal Mail social ladder, some people and institutions are blessed with their own postcodes (file image)

At the other end of the scale was Burnley’s BB11 at just £69 per square foot.

Nothing seems too obscure for the postcode search. Earlier this year the owners of TS23 (Teesside) were named and shamed by Northumbrian Water as the worst for putting baby wipes down the toilet and blocking drains.

No wonder a good zip code is considered a social asset. Author Mark Mason even wrote a book on the subject, Mail Obsession.

He moved from London to Suffolk and was disappointed to find his postcode started with CO (Colchester).

‘Why should I be tarred with the Essex brush?’ he’s complaining. “I had never worn white stilettos in my life.”

There were similar sentiments in Whitton, whose residents wanted to be classified in the leafy area of ​​Richmond upon Thames (TW2) rather than the more downmarket area of ​​Hounslow (TW3).

At the tip of the Scottish continent, the problem is more financial than social.

Thurso and surrounding areas share the KW (Kirkwall) postcode with the Orkney Islands. When courier companies see the Orkney postmark, they set high delivery charges or even refuse the job.

If you have an enterprising postman, you probably don't need a postcode (file image)

If you have an enterprising postman, you probably don’t need a postcode (file image)

At the top of the Royal Mail social ladder, some people and institutions are lucky enough to have their own postcode.

To send a letter to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, you address the envelope with SW1A 1AA.

If you’re very lucky, you might have an almost personalized zip code. DA1 1RT will reach Dartford Football Club, known as The Darts.

If you want to mail a letter to Santa, the postcode is SAN TA1. Of course it is.

The VAT Comptroller’s BX5 5AT desk doesn’t look so remarkable until you remember that V is the Roman numeral for five. It’s almost too clever.

Despite the official Royal Mail line, the wrong postcode is not necessarily a problem. As a child I occasionally lived with an aunt and sent letters to Somerset postmarked BS8 2LR.

It was not the right code at all: our house was in the BA (Bath) district. BS8 2LR was the address of the BBC office in Bristol, which had become etched in my memory after hearing it so many times on regional radio and TV. The letters are always passed.

At least I had the right address. In April 2020, Sheffield postman Darrell Gilmour received a letter addressed to ‘David Easson, Somewhere in Sheffield, England’.

The sender, from Sweden, had also written some clues on the envelope. He noted that David was a sports journalist and added, “I think his wife’s name is Helen and they have a kid, or a dog, or both.”

Thanks to some research on Google and Facebook, the letter got through. If you have an enterprising postman, you obviously don’t need a zip code.

Poor Poco the elephant could have lost his mind in vain.

Sorting Britain: The Power Of Postcodes is at the Postal Museum, London (postalmuseum.org) until 1 January 2023.

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