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Mail Obsession

A guest post by London  Historians member Mark Mason. This article was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of September 2015.

The Victorians who invented the postcode system couldn’t have known it, but they were putting in place the perfect device for compiling a list of trivia over 150 years later. Londoners got their first taste of those funny little numbers and letters at the end of their addresses in 1857, when Sir Rowland Hill (he of the penny post) split the capital into 10 postcode areas: the eight points of the compass plus EC (‘East Central) and WC (‘West Central’ – Evelyn Waugh had a friend who always insisted on pronouncing the words in full because she thought ‘WC’ had ‘indelicate associations’.) The area covered was a circle with a 12 mile radius, centred on the Post Office’s headquarters near St Paul’s (now the headquarters of BT). A few years later the novelist Anthony Trollope, as part of his day job working for the Post Office, decided that the small weights of postal traffic meant NE and S weren’t needed, so he gave their territory to neighbouring areas and handed the codes over to Newcastle and Sheffield respectively.

rowland hill

Sir Rowland Hill, King Edward Street.

The system has now expanded to give the UK 124 areas, all the way from AB (Aberdeen) to ZE (Shetland). As it happens that’s the right sort of number for a book in which you travel around the country collecting one fact – one piece of trivia, historical or modern – from each area. So I did just that. The result, Mail Obsession, attempts to paint a picture of the country as a whole. As with my previous travel books there was a real joy in recording the sights and sounds you encounter as you make your way round. In Manchester I overheard a student talking to her friend: ‘My mum is so hormonal at the moment.’ In the Welsh town of Barmouth I passed the Café Carousel, though as they misspelled it and the ‘C’ fell off you’re confronted with the Arousal.

The London facts showed the variety of life that has always been the city’s hallmark. For instance the SW area (the only one to span the Thames) offered up the Royal family receiving help from a furry friend:

SW: Some of the TV cables at Buckingham Palace for the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were installed by a ferret.

The cables had to be fed through a very narrow underground duct. Conventional methods had failed, so the trusty beast was fitted with a harness to which a very light but very strong line was attached. Then, lured by a piece of bacon, it scuttled through the duct. When it emerged at the other end engineers were able to attach the TV cables to the line and pull them through. Meanwhile over the border in SE there was a famous statesman being rather cheeky:

SE: Winston Churchill’s coffin left London from Waterloo station purely to annoy General de Gaulle.

Relations between the wartime leaders hadn’t always been cordial, so towards the end of his life Churchill ordered that if de Gaulle outlived him, the train carrying his coffin should travel to Oxfordshire (Churchill’s final resting place) not from the logical station of Paddington, but from the much more awkward Waterloo.

There was another railway-related fact in one of the capital’s suburban areas:

HA (Harrow): In the early days of the London and Birmingham Railway conductors travelled outside the train, leaning in through the open windows to check tickets.

The first carriages were based on stagecoaches, in which the guard sat outside at roof level. Boards were fitted, along which the train guard could walk during the journey, reaching in to take passengers’ tickets and make sure that no second-class passengers were travelling first-class. The unfortunate Thomas Port was doing just this on 7th August 1838. His train was travelling at its top speed of 30 miles per hour when, stepping from one carriage to the next, he slipped. His legs were pulled under the wheels, which ‘as they successively passed over, dragged his legs in, crushing them inch by inch up to one of his knees and above the other.’ The train stopped, and two doctors who happened to be onboard administered emergency first aid. Port was then taken to Harrow where the doctors fully amputated both legs. But it was no use: he died from loss of blood, leaving a wife and two children. Within a few years trains were achieving much higher speeds, and guards were allowed the luxury of travelling inside (this was when British bosses really started to go soft). We only have Port’s gravestone to remind us of an incredible period in railway history. It seizes the chance with quite shocking directness:
Ere noon arrived his mangled form they bore,
With pain distorted and o’erwhelmed with gore,
When evening came to close the fatal day,
A mutilated corpse the sufferer lay.

Down in Bromley I discovered a cheerier tale:

BR: The sundial in Petts Wood, unlike almost every other sundial in the UK, is set not to Greenwich Mean Time but to British Summer Time.

One summer morning in the early 20th century a man called William Willett was riding his horse through the wood. He found himself all alone. ‘What a pity,’ he thought, ‘all those people still in bed, missing out on this beautiful sunlight.’ And that’s how the idea came to him: why not bring the clocks forward? His 1907 pamphlet The Waste of Daylight proposed an advancement of the clocks by 20 minutes each Sunday in April, then a similar retreat during September. Sadly Willett died eight years later. Very bad (if you’ll forgive me) timing, as the following year, on 17th May 1916, Parliament passed a simplified version of his plan, advancing the clocks by an hour on the following Sunday. The First World War had focused everyone’s minds: any possible way of saving coal was attractive. (The Germans had already introduced a similar scheme.) After the war was over, the Summer Time Act 1925 made the measure permanent. As a final bizarre twist to the story, Willett’s great-great-grandson is Chris Martin of Coldplay.

It was back to the Royal family for the W postcode area …

W: Queen Elizabeth II was the last British monarch whose birth was attended by the Home Secretary.

The convention that the holder of this office witnessed royal births had its roots in the ‘Warming Pan’ scandal of 1688. A rumour went round that James II’s son had been stillborn, and that a replacement baby had been smuggled into the room in a warming pan. To ensure everyone knew a possible future monarch really did have blue blood, it became a tradition for the Home Secretary to show up and confirm that the baby in question had indeed emerged from the royal womb. (The tradition has since been ended, which must have been a relief recently to both the Duchess of Cambridge and Theresa May.)

james stuart

James Stuart, the Old Pretender. Legitimate royal heir or imposter?

Over in East Central, meanwhile, I found a prisoner getting all clever:

EC (London East Central): The toothbrush was invented in London’s most notorious prison.

In the 1770s William Addis was serving time in Newgate for causing a riot. Brushing his teeth the same way as everyone else – in other words using a rag to rub them with soot and salt – he decided that there had to be a better way. Inspired by the sight of a broom, he took a small animal bone left over from his dinner and drilled small holes into it. Persuading a guard to fetch him some bristles, Addis threaded them through the holes and glued them in place. On his release the invention made him a fortune. His most expensive brushes used badger hair, while the lower end of the range featured pig and boar hair. His company, now known as Wisdom Tootbrushes, survives to this day.

If you want the rest of the London facts (and indeed the rest of the country’s), the book will soon be available in all good bookshops, and quite a few ropey ones too. But for now let us finish with the WC fact, which fittingly relates to the postcode system itself:

WC (London West Central): The Manor House suite at London’s Rosewood Hotel is the only hotel suite in the world with its own postcode.

The hotel kindly showed me round the six-bedroom, six-bathroom, three living-room, one-dining room and one-library affair, with its 52-inch TV, walk-in steam shower stalls, Toto Neorest combined toilet-and-bidets and Geneva sound systems. A night here will cost you £25,000, but included in that price is your very own postcode. The rest of the hotel comes under WC1V 7EN, but the Manor House suite glories in the code WC1V 7DZ. The Royal Mail were happy to provide this because the Manor House suite has its own entrance from the street. Instead of coming up through the hotel’s main gated arch on High Holborn, across the courtyard and through reception, you can simply slip through a discrete black door at the building’s eastern end, which leads directly up to the suite.

Not that celebrity guests take this route, however. They tend to use the main entrance, because then the hotel can close the gates across the archway and stop the paparazzi following them in. When you buy your own postcode for the night, you buy the right not to use the door which gave rise to that postcode.