Sorting Britain – The Power of Postcodes

The world's first programmable computer and a letter writing elephant star in the Postal Museum's new exhibition. Peter Gray reports.

The Postal Museum’s new exhibition Sorting Britain – The Power of Postcodes looks at the ground-breaking technology which revolutionised the processing, sorting, and delivering of Britain’s post in the post-war years.

The exhibition, which begins on the 30th of March 2022, will look at the outcomes of these changes, both expected and sometimes unexpected.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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“Postcodes are part of everyday life. They affect everything from communications and identity to house prices and care” says a press release for the forthcoming exhibition.

Area codes were first trialled in Norwich in 1959, but their story goes back further. The exhibition looks at the early postal districts of London, Liverpool, and Manchester in the 1850s to the modern coding we know today.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Highlights of the exhibition include an original 1950s Electronic Letter Sorting Indicating Equipment (ELSIE), the world’s first programmable computer, and advertising sensation, ‘Poco the Postcode Elephant’.

ELSIE was at the forefront of a post-war revolution in the Postal Service. With over twenty eight million letters and packages passing through the system each day in 1960, sorting the post took an increasingly monumental effort. With the help of automation, however, Royal Mail were able to successfully achieve the feat, with operators able to sort up to 110 letters a minute using ELSIE.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The invention of Colossus was accelerated by the urgent need to decode intercepted German radio messages during the 2nd World War. Up until this point, NAZI messages were all but impenetrable. Thanks to the genius of people like Alan Turing, Gordon Radley and Thomas Flowers, however, Britain soon had a machine which could crack even the most difficult codes. Colossus was put to work under great secrecy at the Government Code and Cipher School in Bletchley Park, a Victorian estate some 80 km north of London. The results were not only remarkable but also critical to the Allied war effort.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Radley and Flowers had both worked for the General Post Office’s engineering department before the war and following the cessation of the conflict in 1945, the pair returned to the organisation where they were to be instrumental in the creation of the postcode and the processes and methods used to sort the post.

Poco the Postcode Elephant was the star of one the most successful advertising campaigns of the 1980s. Designed as part of an initiative aimed at getting the public to use postcodes on their mail, Poco came with a knot in his trunk which meant he always remembered to use a code.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The campaign was the brainchild of Paul Diggens, the Eastern Postal Region’s Head of Public Relations and Media. A massive hit with the public, Poco made regular appearances at country shows up and down the UK in the 1980s. The campaign would prove so successful that an animatronic version of Poco was created in 1980 for an attraction at Colchester Zoo. A spate of souvenir items (which will be available to view at the museum) only added to Poco’s popularity with youngsters. 

Sorting Britain will also look at what happens to incorrectly labelled mail, what happens in the onminous sounding ‘Dead Letter Office’ and what a person’s postcode can say about them.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Meanwhile, British artist Alison Turnbull has been commissioned to create a response to the exhibition’s many themes. Using her signature style of transforming and reimagining readymade information, such as plans, diagrams, blueprints, and charts, into vivid abstract paintings, Turnbull will produce art which directly references the subject matter in Sorting Britain.

“There was a great sense of national pride at the heart of the drive for innovation at the Post Office” says The Postal Museum’s Head of Collections, Chris Taft.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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“The mechanisation of traditional systems, and ultimately the adoption of the postcode system, helped changed the face of Britain forever. Today, the advent of new technology continues to change how we communicate with each other at astonishing speed. Sorting Britain is a fascinating look into this little-known history, told through the wonderful collections at The Postal Museum.”

Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes is at The Postal Museum from the 30th of March 2022 until the 1st of January 2023. More information about the event can be found here.

For information on other great exhibitions in London, please click here.

 

-London's Best Events-
What: exhibition
When: 30 Mar 22 - 1 Jan 23
Where: 15-20 Phoenix Place
Website: Postal Museum