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GB Postal History with a Difference: Addressing Letters 

Continuing his series on the more quirky aspects of British postal history, Don Davies takes a look at some of the more unusual methods used by early letter senders to ensure mail reached its correct destination.Quirky GB

Ever since I started collecting GB postal history I have been fascinated by the methods and styles used to address letters. This subject is of course on the periphery of traditional postal history but it can be a fascinating avenue to wander down (no pun intended!)

In the early days (17th and 18th centuries) there were no organised street naming or house numbering systems (if it occurred at all, the naming and numbering was purely random), thus the addressing of a letter was more akin to an RAC route planner with a descriptive narration to guide the post boy to the ‘target’ residence. Two examples are shown: A 1670 letter addressed ‘…. at the Signe of the Kings Armes and Civett Catt a Perfumers neare Temple Barre’ and a 1763 letter addressed ‘Below the Signe of the Cock Main Street Edinburgh’.

Street naming and numbering

The first official record of house numbering occurred in London in 1708 and although the numbering of houses became established by the end of the 18th century, it was not regulated. In fact one London street had three sets of numbers! In those days when a person moved house it was possible to take their number with them (similar to nowadays transferring a house name to a new property).

I have found references to letters being marked to indicate to the post boy how many houses down the street the addressee is located and also to a person’s ‘house-mark’ , but have not seen actual examples of either.

It was not until 1857 that schemes were afoot to re-name the streets of London (evidently at this time there were no less than 20 Albert Streets and over 40 George Streets!).

A further major renaming and renumbering exercise was undertaken in 1888, jointly between the GPO and London County Council, with a view to eliminating duplicate road names throughout the capital and to renumber houses consistently with the lowest number being closest to the local post office.

I have not been able to uncover similar details for other cities but no doubt they followed suit.

Learn more about the more quirky side of British Postal history in the December issue of GSM

You can download the online issue of Gibbons Stamp Monthly here or download the app from Stanley Gibbons here.

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