Postal addresses: a little history and a lot of photos

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Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   Text © Copyright February 2014, Chris Downer; licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.


This article takes a little look back at the history of postal addressing, especially the period in the 1970s when the postcodes became national. We look at post towns, postal counties and postcodes and the way these have developed.

Following this, an albumExternal link displays a photograph from each current geographical postcode district.

The article ends with an alphabetical indexExternal link to all current and many former post towns.


For well over 100 years before the introduction of postcodes in the latter half of the 20th century, the post town was a fundamental unit of a postal address, and remains so today. It identifies the destination sorting office of the item being posted, and a post town is assigned to every address in the UK. There are today around 1,500 post towns, from the large cities like London, Swansea or Aberdeen, to small but postally significant places like Umberleigh, Crymych or Achnasheen.*

Modern processes now mean that many of the post towns do not actually have their own sorting offices, but they remain an important part of the postal address and a letter is not correctly addressed without it.

In postal addresses, post towns are written in uppercase letters, as I will be doing from this point forward.

* Often these smaller places, which it seems strange to consider on a par with London, were significant rural places because of the existence of a railway station. Indeed, there are many examples in Scotland of small places which were post towns until the railway stations closed – Bunchrew and Gollanfield, Inverness-shire, to name but two – as well as larger places such as East Wemyss and Falkland, Fife. While in Scotland these places ceased to be post towns soon after the station closed, this has generally not happened elsewhere.

Changes to post towns

As places have grown over the years, there have been many changes to the post towns. This may have been done in a number of ways, as in the following examples:

The village of Westhill, in Aberdeenshire, whose post town was SKENE, had grown to be much bigger than the village of Skene itself. Here, the post town for AB32 was simply changed to WESTHILL without changing any postcodes or their boundaries. So Skene now has the post town WESTHILL.

WIMBORNE, in Dorset, provides examples of two other methods of creating new post towns. WIMBORNE was originally assigned BH21 and BH22. By 1991 Ferndown (in BH22) had grown substantially, so FERNDOWN was designated the post town for BH22 while WIMBORNE remained so for BH21. Verwood (in BH21) had likewise grown. But because it was part of the same district as WIMBORNE, the district BH21 was divided into VERWOOD, BH31, and the remainder of BH21 unchanged. This left the BH area with districts 1 to 25, plus the seemingly random 31.

Above: Counter date-stamp in use in West Moors, BH22, in 1993 still showing the previous post town, WIMBORNE; meanwhile the Wimborne Road date-stamp was changed promptly after FERNDOWN was introduced.

Sometimes, the change goes the other way and a post town is subsumed into a neighbouring one, presumably for operational reasons. There are numerous examples of this throughout the last 100 years; a recent example is RHYMNEY, whose postcode district was reassigned to the neighbouring post town of TREDEGAR in December 1998.

Where these changes have occurred since 1990, this has been noted in the album for the relevant postcode area. (Some earlier changes have also been mentioned.)

Post town in a different county

Because the post towns had developed according to the efficiencies of mail delivery, there are many, many instances where a locality comes under a post town in a neighbouring county. If a town is close to the boundary, it will probably be the nearest town for parts of the next county and it would not make sense to deliver mail from within the 'correct' county when there is a sorting office so close by over the border. Therefore, the vast majority of county boundaries feature some kind of discrepancy, though of course a river forming the border does help to keep them aligned.

For instance, the Dorset/Hampshire boundary has reciprocal examples: RINGWOOD (Hampshire) is the post town for the Dorset villages of St. Ives and St. Leonards; while CHRISTCHURCH (Dorset) is the post town for Sopley and Bransgore, in Hampshire.

In these instances, the correct county on a postal address is that of the post town, not the location of the village.

Left: Counter date-stamp in use at Sopley, in Hampshire, correctly displaying the county Dorset for the post town, CHRISTCHURCH.

There are even instances across the England/Wales and England/Scotland boundaries. Small parts of northern Cumbria come under NEWCASTLETON, Roxburghshire, while Gretna came under CARLISLE until around 1990 when GRETNA itself became a post town. Meanwhile Gladestry, Powys is under KINGTON, Herefordshire; and Chirbury, Shropshire is under MONTGOMERY, Powys. The most extreme example is certainly OSWESTRY, Shropshire, whose post town area extends a good distance into mid-Wales – as far as Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant and Lake Vyrnwy.

Counter date-stamps at
Gladestry (in Wales but postally Herefordshire);
Chirbury (in England but postally Powys);
and Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant (well into Wales but postally under OSWESTRY, Shropshire or Salop.).

Welsh spelling changes

The following is a selection of spelling changes that have been made to Welsh post town names – these are mainly superseding old anglicisations of Welsh names:

¹ DOLGELLEY had changed from DOLGELLY on 1.4.1911
² CAERNARVON had changed from CARNARVON in c.1926
³ LLANDYSSUL had changed from LLANDYSSYL on 1.1.1908

Hebridean, Orkney, Shetland and Scilly Isles


The larger islands of Islay, Mull and Skye had multiple post towns (Islay eight, Mull fourteen and Skye twelve). Mull was the first change to a single 'ISLE OF...' post town, in the late 1970s, and this was a precursor to what would happen to all the Hebrides by the end of 2000. (I have not traced an exact date for Mull; there are inconsistencies in the guides published by the Post Office in the mid/late 70s, but they were all listed as separate post towns in 1974 and were all ISLE OF MULL by 1983. It is surely likely that they all changed at the same time.) In around 1980 Skye was changed to ISLE OF SKYE for all previous post towns apart from BROADFORD and PORTREE; BROADFORD followed in 1993 and PORTREE remains a post town in its own right. Islay post towns were changed to ISLE OF ISLAY in 2000.

Lewis used STORNOWAY until the early 1950s when ISLE OF LEWIS became the post town for all but Stornoway town, which remains STORNOWAY. Harris comprised the post towns LEVERBURGH and (somewhat peculiarly) HARRIS without the 'ISLE OF'. These were both changed to ISLE OF HARRIS in 2000.

Other islands which had more than one post office (except Benbecula; plus Cumbrae) used the name of the island's main place, but these were changed in 1995 (Outer Hebrides) or 2000 (Inner) to the island name:
IslandOriginal post townDate of changeNew post town
ArranBRODICK, Isle of Arran2000ISLE OF ARRAN
BarraCASTLEBAY, Isle of Barra1995ISLE OF BARRA
ButeROTHESAY, Isle of Bute2000ISLE OF BUTE
CumbraeMILLPORT, Isle of Cumbrae2000ISLE OF CUMBRAE
North UistLOCHMADDY, Isle of North Uist1995ISLE OF NORTH UIST
South UistLOCHBOISDALE, Isle of South Uist1995ISLE OF SOUTH UIST
TireeSCARINISH, Isle of Tiree2000ISLE OF TIREE

(Much of this had no effect on what words appeared on an address, only affecting what was capitalised: 'BRODICK, Isle of Arran' became 'Brodick, ISLE OF ARRAN'. Some of the subsidiary villages changed, though, for example 'Balemartine, SCARINISH, Isle of Tiree' to 'Balemartine, ISLE OF TIREE'.)

The islands that had only had one post office (except Cumbrae; plus Benbecula) all simply use the island name as the post town, namely:


Finally, the following other inhabited islands, unconnected to the mainland, have never been post towns: Lismore, Kerrera and Luing come under OBAN, Argyll; Raasay comes under KYLE, Ross-shire; and Muck, which has never had a post office, comes under MALLAIG. (Of the now-uninhabited islands, Scarp came under HARRIS; Soay under MALLAIG, Inverness-shire; and St. Kilda was a post town.)


In Orkney, the post town KIRKWALL covers the town; STROMNESS covers the southwest Mainland plus Graemsay, Hoy and Flotta; while the rest of the Mainland (including the connected southern islands) and the northern isles come under the post town ORKNEY.

It should be noted that Stroma is not an Orkney isle and came under WICK, Caithness when inhabited.


In Shetland, LERWICK was the post town until 1951, when it became SHETLAND for all apart from Lerwick town, which remained LERWICK. However, in 2000 the LERWICK post town was redesignated SHETLAND to leave the one post town covering the whole of the islands.


The five Scilly isles were post towns in their own right: BRYHER, ST. AGNES, ST. MARTIN'S, ST. MARY'S and TRESCO. These were all changed to ISLES OF SCILLY in 2000.

These changes are detailed in the relevant postcode area albums – see HSExternal link, IVExternal link, KAExternal link, PAExternal link and (for Scilly) TRExternal link.

Full list of post towns

At the end of this article is a full alphabetical list of post townsExternal link, including selected former post towns.


Post towns not requiring a county name

In 1974, the Post Office published a list of post towns which did not need to have the county name suffixed: these were generally (a) the major cities which would never be confused, and (b) those where the post town gave its name to the county – in which case this was considered repetitious.

These post towns were:

LONDON is excluded from the list because it was never considered as having a 'county', as such – but essentially qualifies for inclusion.

Prior to 1974 a shorter list had been given as "Berwick-upon-Tweed, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Huntingdon, and Peterborough; and generally a county town which gives its name to a county, for example: Lincoln." (Post Office Guide, July 1969).

Some Welsh post towns qualified under the 'county towns' proviso prior to 1974 when the counties were changed: BRECON; CAERNARVON (now CAERNARFON); CARDIGAN; CARMARTHEN; DENBIGH; FLINT; MONMOUTH; MONTGOMERY. These all required the 'new' county name after 1974 (likewise HUNTINGDON).

Further post towns could have the county omitted, only as long as the full address and postcode were present. These were mostly post towns which were at the head of the postcode areas:

Changes in 1974

When Local Government was reorganised in 1974, the Post Office went with some of the new names, but not with others – with no apparent pattern:

Counter date-stamps showing the 'new' counties of Tyne & Wear, S. Humberside and Dyfed; one showing an 'old' Scottish county, Kirkcudbrightshire; and one from 1950 showing Sussex – before it was split into West and East Sussex.


Unless a postally acceptable abbreviation was shown below, the county name should be written in full:
Beds.Hants.Northants.S. Glam.W. Sussex
Berks.Herts.N. HumbersideS. HumbersideW. Yorkshire
Bucks.Lancs.Northd.S. YorkshireWilts.
Cambs.Leics.N. YorkshireStaffs.Worcs.
E. SussexMiddx.Notts.W. Glam.
Glos.M. Glam.Oxon.W. Midlands.

Also Salop (but not Shrops.) was permissible for Shropshire; and Co. for County was permissible in the case of Durham and the six Northern Ireland counties (with Co. Derry acceptable for Londonderry). The 'abbreviation' Tyne & Wear (with the ampersand) was also specified for Tyne and Wear.

The abbreviation Warks. for Warwickshire was later accepted too. I have not found an exact date; it was not listed in October 1979 but had been included by May 1983.


In the case of Hebridean islands, the islands were considered 'counties' in their own right – in that it was the island name rather than the county that was written on the address. (For example, one would write SCARINISH, Isle of Tiree; not SCARINISH, Argyll; or STORNOWAY, Isle of Lewis, not STORNOWAY, Ross-shire.)

Of course, for those islands where the island name itself was the post town, it would not be repeated (for example, one would write simply ISLE OF IONA; not ISLE OF IONA, Isle of Iona!) in the same way as one need not write DERBY, Derbyshire. However, Tarbert on Harris had the post town HARRIS (without the 'ISLE OF'), so the correct postal address there was actually HARRIS, Isle of Harris.

This became largely academic in 2000 when almost all the place-name post towns (such as BRODICK, Isle of Arran) were renamed as the island (Brodick, ISLE OF ARRAN). The only instances of Hebridean 'island counties' now which do not match the post town are PORTREE, Isle of Skye (which covers the northeast of the island; the rest is ISLE OF SKYE) and STORNOWAY, Isle of Lewis (which only covers the town itself; the rest of the island is ISLE OF LEWIS) – although this occurred after postal counties were made redundantExternal link in 1996.

Left: Counter date-stamp at Amhuinnsuidh in 1975, showing the then correct postal address HARRIS, Isle of Harris.

(We have already discussedExternal link the way placenames or island names were used as post towns, and the changes that were made to these over the years.)

Counties whose names never appear on an address

Kinross-shire and Nairnshire are two curiosities because, although correct postal county names, they are never used. The reason is that each has only one post town – KINROSS and NAIRN – and these towns are both among those listed above which do not require a county nameExternal link.

As noted earlier, London arguably falls within the same category, as has Shetland since 2000 when LERWICK, the only post town on the islands other than SHETLAND, was redesignated as Lerwick, SHETLAND. The same actually applies to the 'Isle of...' postal counties, discussed earlier, except for Skye and Lewis which have further the post towns, PORTREE and STORNOWAY respectively. (However, the Shetland and Hebridean examples here occurred after postal counties were deemed redundantExternal link in 1996.)

A few little anomalies

There are a few post towns which have a county assigned to them even though they are not in that county:

Left: Counter date-stamps showing RHYMNEY, Gwent;
GATWICK, Surrey; and STAINES, Middlesex.

Redundancy of counties

In 1996, Royal Mail declared that counties were redundant as a postal address unit, as advances in the sorting technology meant that the postcode district was sufficient. Counties could still optionally be used by the sender but had no actual function in the sorting of mail.

They became known as 'former postal counties' and are still listed in the Royal Mail's address files, albeit not under the major headings, along with administrative and traditional counties.

Post towns created after 1996 are not assigned a former postal county, although they are included in the albums to distinguish them from the towns discussed above which did not require county names.

Changes in 1996-8

Because the counties had been rendered redundant, the Royal Mail made the decision not to officially update county names after that point. Therefore, despite the wide ranging local government reorganisation from 1996, the extant county names remain officially correct to this day.

The one exception to this is Rutland, whose residents successfully campaigned to have Rutland reinstated for its only post town, OAKHAM. This took effect in January 2008.

Having said that, the people of East Yorkshire have similarly campaigned to have that name substituted for what is often considered the 'made up' title of North Humberside: nevertheless Royal Mail has not acceded to this request.

Full list of postal counties

There are a total of 118 former postal counties, including London and the various islands previously discussed (using postal abbreviation where applicable):
AberdeenshireDumfriesshireIsle of EiggLondonShetland
AngusDunbartonshireIsle of GighaCo. DerryShropshire
Co. AntrimCo. DurhamIsle of HarrisMerseysideSomerset
ArgyllDyfedIsle of IonaMiddx.S. Glam.
Co. ArmaghEast LothianIsle of IslayM. Glam.S. Humberside
AvonE. SussexIsle of JuraMidlothianS. Yorkshire
AyrshireEssexIsle of LewisMorayshireStaffs.
BanffshireCo. FermanaghIsle of MullNairnshireStirlingshire
Beds.FifeIsle of North UistNorfolkSuffolk
Berks.Glos.Isle of RumNorthants.Surrey
BerwickshireGwentIsle of ScalpayN. HumbersideSutherland
Bucks.GwyneddIsle of SkyeNorthd.Tyne & Wear
CaithnessHants.Isle of South UistN. YorkshireCo. Tyrone
Cambs.HerefordshireIsle of TireeNotts.Warks.
CheshireHerts.Isle of WightOrkneyW. Glam.
ClackmannanshireInverness-shireIsles of ScillyOxon.West Lothian
ClevelandIsle of ArranKentPeeblesshireW. Midlands
ClwydIsle of BarraKincardineshirePerthshireW. Sussex
CornwallIsle of BenbeculaKinross-shirePowysW. Yorkshire
CumbriaIsle of ButeKirkcudbrightshireRenfrewshireWigtownshire
DerbyshireIsle of CannaLanarkshireRoss-shireWilts.
DevonIsle of CollLancs.RoxburghshireWorcs.
DorsetIsle of ColonsayLeics.Rutland
Co. DownIsle of CumbraeLincs.Selkirkshire

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