NE Postal District Signs

The NE Signs Scavenger Hunt took place on 21 April 2018. It is still possible to contribute by tagging photos on Twitter with the #NESigns hashtag on twitter and we will use these to update the map.

This scavenger hunt came about via a twitter conversation where a few of us were finding and mapping surviving street signs featuring the now-defunct NE Postal District. Our aim is now to conduct a comprehensive survey of these signs, verifying those that are already known about. We are doing this through a free public scavenger hunt where everyone is invited to participate, either as individuals or in teams.

The process consisted of dividing up the area that we identified into sections and each person/team took on one or two to survey. This consisted of walking down each stretch of road, looking for and documenting the surviving signs that exist there. Results were recorded via paperwork and/or digitally via Twitter and email. Some basic instructions are given below.

  • Take two photos of the sign, one close up, and one showing the wider context. (See an example.)
  • Share the photos on Twitter with a description of the location (e.g. at corner of Queensbridge Road) and the hashtag #NESigns. The hashtag is very important to allow us to find your contributions.
  • If you aren’t on Twitter then you can also email with the photos and location description.

For those interested in the historical context to this work it is well worth obtaining a copy of The London Postal Districts by Simon Morris which appears in both the November 1989 London Topographical Society Newsletter (No.29) and the Spring 1990 issue of The Terrier (No.18). Some key dates from this article include:

  • 1856 was when London was first divided up by the Post Office into ten districts, two central (WC and EC) and then eight radiating out from the centre, corresponding to the points of the compass (N, S, E, W, NE, SE, NW and SW).
  • 1866 saw the merging of the S district into SE and SW, and the NE district folded into E. This was to save money running what were significantly smaller postal districts.
  • 1869 was when the distinction between NE and E was more formally abolished and the public instructed to address all letters using E. Despite this, the Post Office still permitted the use of the NE form until 1917, perhaps in response to local objections to the changes made (see below). The Metropolitan Borough of Hackney continued to use NE on street signs until 1917, seemingly oblivious to the delegation of responsibility for changing them issued by the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1869.
  • 1917 saw the introduction of numbered postcodes that we still largely use today and the gradual replacement of street signs to include this new component. However, some NE signs remain as a reminder of what once was.

The changes that took place between 1866 and 1869 were not opposed at the time but, in 1881:

‘some substantial residents in Hackney including the bank manager, doctor and member of Paliament got up a petition complaining that “transferring them to the East End” affected the value of local property, the selling price of businesses, and deterred new residents.’

There were some moves to restore the NE initials in Hackney, and even to merge them into the N district instead. Both these options were rejected, and there was no change in policy, even when Dr Daly of Dalston (the petitioner):

‘wrote with evidence of the effect of the reorganisation, including a statement from a private school master in Hackney who said that continued to use the “NE” initials on his writing paper in order to keep his boarders.’

These protests seem to be grounded in the negative perceptions of the E postal district among those that strongly identified with their distinct NE. The financial implications live on today in things like insurance premiums varying according to postcodes, and the myriad other postcode ‘lotteries’ that often make the headlines.

[Since conducting this work Alistair Hall has written a wonderful book ‘London Street Signs‘. He is scheduled to deliver two talks, one to the Bloomsbury Festival on 25th October 2020 and the other hosted by Better Letters on 12th November 2020.]