Highlights from Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes

Head of Collections Chris shares his top 5 objects and stories from our exhibition.

Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes celebrated the story of a postal innovation that changed life in Britain. From the price of your house to range of health care you can access, postcodes impact people daily. It was developed in the mid-20th century to help sort and process the post. Since then, it’s become much more than that.

Here we look at some of the exhibition’s highlights.

1. See maps of London from the 19th century

Map of the London Postal District with the sub-divisions, 1856 (POST 21/71)

The modern postcode has its origins in the 1850s when London was divided into a series of districts. These are still used today, at the start of postcodes (N, SE and EC). These districts once each had their own district offices. You can see early maps that show these early districts at the museum for the first time.

2. Have a go at sorting letters on ELSIE

ELSIE at Norwich Sorting Office, Operating position, 1960 (POST 118/16227)

ELSIE (Electronic Letter Sorting Indicating Equipment) was the first successful British sorting machine. The only known surviving 1950s machine is the centrepiece of the exhibition. ELSIE is a long narrow machine with a series of pigeon-holes or boxes along one side. Letters ran on conveyor belts and were presented to an operator at one end of the machine. The operator keyed in a code that related to the destination of the letter. The machine then sorted this coded letter into the relevant box. This sped up the process of sorting the mail considerably. Visitors can try sorting the post on an original wooden sorting frame or try out an interactive and see how fast they can code the post through ELSIE.

3. Discover Dollis Hill’s innovations and the people who worked there

Dollis Hill Research Station, exterior, 1935 (POST 118/17011)

The Post Office’s research team researched how modern technology could help all aspects of postal operations. In the 1920s lots of experiments were taking place and a new research centre was needed.

Dollis Hill, in North West London, was officially opened in 1933. The exhibition celebrates the people that made the innovations at Dollis Hill possible. This includes Dame Stephanie Shirley CH, who tackled barriers including sexism to establish her career. One of her projects was the Premium Bond number generating machine, known as ERNIE. Working alongside Dame Stephanie Shirley CH was Tommy Flowers, an electrical engineer working in the Signalling and Circuit laboratory. He previously developed Colossus, the world’s first programmable computer.

4. Learn about the Norwich trial

Norwich and Postal Coding Leaflet, 1961-1994 (POST110/6043)

The first trials of the postcode happen in Norwich. On 28 July 1959, the trial of postcodes was formally launched and every delivery point or address in Norwich was given a code. There was a lot of publicity to encourage the public to use postcodes, which you can see in the exhibition. After the success of the Norwich trial, the postcode was rolled out nationally, starting with Croydon. Over the next eight years, every city, town and village in Britain was given its own postcode.

5. Meet Poco the Postcode Elephant

Poco The Postcode Elephant Badge, Late 20th Century (2002-0595/3)

Once the whole country had postcodes, then came the challenge of getting people to remember them. A huge advertising campaign was launched. The biggest success came with an idea dreamt up by one of the Post Office’s publicity managers, Paul Diggens.

Paul created Poco the postcode Elephant, an Elephant with a knot in his trunk to help him remember his postcode. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, it became a familiar feature. It even had its own fan club. Merchandise featuring Poco started to appear from pens and badges to portable televisions.

– Chris Taft, Head of Collections

Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes ran until January 2023.