The History of UK Postcodes
The Introduction of Postal Codes
As far back as the early 19th century, people were using post towns and county names to help their mail reach its intended recipients. Yet as mail volumes began to increase during the 1850s, it became clear that a more comprehensive solution would soon be required. Initially, this simply meant splitting London into the postal districts, based on the points of the compass, that are still used today. Central London was divided into EC and WC, and Outer London areas were given N, E, SE, SW, W, and NW postal codes respectively. This system was then gradually adopted across the UK’s other major cities, in a process that was finally completed in 1934.
However, it wasn’t until 1959 that the Postmaster General, Ernest Maples, first trialled the 6-digit postal code of the type we know today, in Norwich. This was followed by other trials throughout the 1960s, which resulted in a gradual, nationwide rollout of postal codes that was finally completed in 1974.
The Creation of the Postcode Address File
By the early 1980s, a database containing all of the UK’s business and residential addresses was created: the Postcode Address File, or PAF. While the data was being captured electronically by this time, maintenance of the file was still paper-based, which meant that updates were slow and infrequent.
Fortunately, advances in digital technology ensured that by 1992 we were well on the way to having a fully integrated, digital maintenance system that was capable of being updated in real time. So much so that PAF now receives some 4-5,000 updates a day, or 1.3m a year, ensuring that it is always the UK’s most accurate and up-to-date addressing database; comprising all 29.5m deliverable UK addresses across 1.8m postcodes.
Refinements and New Roles
One of the greatest changes to PAF in recent years was the introduction of UK-style postcodes for British service personnel overseas. While mail has been getting through to our armed forces worldwide for centuries, many modern websites failed to recognise traditional British Forces Post Office (BFPO) addresses. So in 2012 we introduced the new BF ‘virtual postcode’, which enables service personnel across the globe to receive the same online products and services that the rest of us take for granted.
Speaking of which, it’s fair to say that we all interact with PAF data many times a day. It sits at the heart of all our lives, enabling everything from satellite navigation systems to digital maps, and from rapid addressing on websites to fraud prevention over the phone and online. Perhaps that’s why more than 37,000 UK businesses and more than 64 million British residents rely on PAF every single day.