When Norwich was the testing ground for postcodes

Postcode launch, Royal Norfolk Show 1978

A novel way to remind people to use the postcode, on the Post Office stand at the 1978 Royal Norfolk Show. - Credit: Archant

Dear Reader, My name is Derek James, writer at Let’s Talk magazine, and our postcode is NR1 1RE. An easy one to remember when you drop us a line.

PLONK. A letter drops on the mat. Apart from the bills, we still love receiving mail, and have done all our lives.

Even in these days of emails, mobile phones, lap tops and the like it is still good to sit down and read a letter, and thank goodness we still send cards to mark special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Rather than just clickerty-click and pushing buttons, people have taken time to find a pen, write a letter, address an envelope, look for a stamp and nipped along to the local post box or post office.

One part of an address which comes automatically to us all now is the postcode, but I still remember the time when few of us bothered to use them.

Norwich which was the first place in the country to be selected to test out the revolutionary code back in 1959.

It was chosen because, at the time, it had eight new sorting machines which were adapted so that operators could just key in the postcode to sort letters.

Leaflet explaining postal coding in Norwich.

The Norwich and Postal Coding leaflet. - Credit: Royal Mail Group courtesy of The Postal Museum

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The six-character code had three letters to spell out the area and two numbers and a letter to identify the individual letter.

This was a big deal and in July of 1959 the Postmaster General Ernest Marples (remember him?) arrived in Norwich to launch the experiment in front of the people and newspapers.

Each of the city’s 150,000 private and business addresses would get a code, with bigger companies receiving their own codes. Norwich City Football Club, for example, was assigned NOR 22T.

The actual demonstration at the launch was a fake one with employees hiding behind the machine and manually sorting the letters!

It took a while for postcodes to catch on. The machines breaking down and many customers never bothered to use them – putting up the cost of postage was not popular!

The experiment  did work well, eventually, and in 1965 Postmaster General (by now Tony Benn) announced that postal coding would be spread across the rest of the country, through a 10-year plan costing £24m.

Today postcodes are part of everyday life. They affect everything from communications and identity to houses prices and care. Not forgetting the sat-navs.

In 2014 a blue plaque was installed at the site of Norwich’s first Post Office, on Gentlemen’s Walk, where the first postcodes were used – not forgetting the high-tech new sorting machine known as ELSIE - Electronic Letter Sorting Indicating Equipment.

Mervyn Pike, Assistant Postmaster General, and Richard Gurney, Lord Mayor of Norwich.

Mervyn Pike, Assistant Postmaster General, explains the intricacies of one of the electronic postal coding sorting machines to the Lord Mayor of Norwich, Richard Gurney at Norwich Sorting Office on Thorpe Road in July 1961. - Credit: Archant

Visit ELSIE in all her glory at the Postal Museum in London

ELSIE is a star of a new exhibition at the fascinating Postal Museum in London, which runs all this year. Not forgetting Poco the Postcode Elephant, the star of the biggest advertising campaigns of the 1980s.

And ELSIE will give visitors the chance to try coding the post.

In 1960, there were about 28 million letters and packages passing through the postal system every day, and with the help of our ELSIE and coded post, an operator could sort up to 110 letters a minute, or 6,000 letters an hour.

It contained 144 destination pigeonholes. About eight million packages a day were incorrectly labelled, ending up in the 'Dead Letter Office'.

The exhibition Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes is a great attraction at the popular Postal Museum, in Phoenix Place, London WC1X ODA. Admission is included in the ticket price (£16 online and £9 for children). Visit:  www.postalmuseum.org