New exhibition reveals ground-breaking technology that revolutionised Britain and the post forever

Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes
30 March 2022 – 1 January 2023

From wartime tech pioneers to ‘Poco the Postcode Elephant’ the surprising story of the postcode is uncovered in a new temporary exhibition at The Postal Museum in London.

Opening on Wednesday 30 March, Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes, delves into the Post Office innovation that revolutionised how post was processed, sorted, and delivered and its unintended outcomes for life in Britain.

Exhibition highlights include:

  • ELSIE, one of the only original 1950s Electronic Letter Sorting Indicating Equipment left in existence, goes on display for the first time in 20 years, as visitors try their hand at coding post.
  • Discover ‘Poco the Postcode Elephant’ which became one of the biggest advertising campaigns of the 1980s.
  • From hearing aids to Colossus – the world’s first programable computer – understand how the Post Office was one of the biggest innovators in mid-century Britain.
  • Stunning unseen maps of London from the 19th century to be displayed.

Postcodes are part of everyday life. They affect everything from communications and identity to house prices and care. Postcodes were trialled in Norwich in 1959, but their story goes back further. The exhibition explains the early postal districts of London, Liverpool and Manchester in the 1850s and 1860s to the modern coding we know today.

Tech pioneers Tommy Flowers, Dame Stephanie Shirley CH and Sir Gordon Radley, were some of the brilliant minds working at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill in the 1930s to 60s. Their impact will be explored, from postal mechanisation and postcodes to inventions like Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, and even hearing aids.

ELSIE, original 1950s Electronic Letter Sorting Indicating Equipment, will give visitors the chance to try coding the post:

  • In 1960, there were around 28 million letters and packages passing through the postal system every day.
  • With the help of ELSIE and coded post, an operator could sort up to 110 letters a minute, or about 6,000 letters an hour.
  • It contained 144 destination pigeonholes.
  • Around 8 million packages a day were incorrectly labelled, ending up in the ‘Dead Letter Office’ where addresses were traced by ingenious methods.

Visitors can find out about the importance of ‘Poco the Postcode Elephant’ – and the array of incredible memorabilia created for it – which helped change the nation’s habits in the 1980s through a decade-long advertising campaign.

And, finally, Sorting Britain will consider ‘what does my postcode say about me?’, as it delves into how postcodes are now used to sort people, as well as post.

Contemporary British artist, Alison Turnbull, has been commissioned to create a response to the exhibition’s themes. Alison is known for transforming and reimagining readymade information, such as plans, diagrams, blueprints and charts, into vivid abstract paintings.

Chris Taft, Head of Collections said:

“There was a great sense of national pride at the heart of the drive for innovation at the Post Office. 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, 30 March 2022 – 1 January 2023

The exhibition will be accompanied by events throughout 2022 at The Postal Museum and online. Details to be announced soon.

Admission included in the ticket price for The Postal Museum (£16 online)