If you still receive letters and postcards – remember them? – they will probably arrive addressed with your suburb and a four-digit postcode like Footscray 3011, Hawthorn 3122, St Kilda 3182. No doubt you add those numbers to your address whenever you fill in a form.
It wasn’t always thus – for much of the 20th century, if you lived in the Melbourne suburbs, your address would have included a postcode modelled on the London system. Under that system, in place from 1928 to 1967, Footscray was W11, Hawthorn E2, and St Kilda S2.
You will have seen postcodes like this if you have visited London or watch British TV.
It came as news to me that Melbourne once followed a similar system. The fact was pointed out to me by an alert Twitterer who noticed the lost codes in an old telephone book. Oddly I had never spotted them before. But when I look at my 1946 edition of the Sands & McDougall directory, the old post codes are everywhere. Check out these ads:
Want to know the post code of your suburb? Check out this handy map of the Melbourne suburbs, produced in 1927 by the Deputy Director of Posts and Telegraphs.
The postal district system was officially introduced in the year 1928. It worked on a simple and intuitive code, like London’s, of N=north, S=south, SE=south-east, W=west, E=east, C=central, SC= south central. Each of these main districts was subdivided by number. Roughly speaking, the higher the number, the further out you were from the city centre.
An article in The Argus of 11 January 1928 explains the rationale for the new system. It states “for the purpose of facilitating and reducing the cost of handling mails” the metropolitan area had been divided into 104 areas, “based on that used in London”. Once the new codes were in use, there would be no need to add the name of the suburb. The scheme was needed, it was explained, because “at present many letters are addressed to the wrong suburbs”, such as Elwood instead of St Kilda.
Here’s another map, with a list of postal districts.
Why did Melbourne choose a postal system based on the London model? Was this imitation of the colonial ruler another example of the cultural cringe? Did those who lived in South Yarra, SE1, dream of a home in Grosvenor Square?
The system survived pretty much unchanged for almost 40 years, until it was replaced by the switch to Australia-wide postcodes in 1967, shortly after the conversion from British pounds sterling to decimal currency. It’s tempting to see the repudiation of both systems as symbolic of a belated national independence.
All the same, I think the old approach had something to commend it.
If someone tells you they live in Kingsville, Hughesdale, or Merlynston, how do you know where that is? Adding the current postcode, Kingsville 3012, is not much help. But if they said “Kingsville W12” “Hughesdale SE12” or “Merlynston N14” then straight away you would have a rough idea.
But if we’d kept the old postal districts, imagine how much snobbery would be attached to them; how much the already inflated price of real estate would be exaggerated by the addition of an ‘SE’! As in London, people would kill for a flat in the fashionable district. Social climbers would refuse to date anyone with an N or W postcode* …
But the Ws and Ns would fight back; young writers from the west would defiantly start a lit mag called ‘W13’; artists from the northern suburbs would show in a gallery space called ‘N19’ …
As I was speculating on these matters, I happened to walk past the old post office on Little Bourke Street. These days there’s a retail mega hub in the old GPO building, and nothing as quaint as mail sorting goes on there. But cast your eyes up above the designer goods at ground level and you might catch sight of a faded ghostsign that includes the words “letter delivery”.
I imagined, for a moment, long-gone postmen plodding around N12 and SE5, C1 and W13. Did they know them by heart, their local postcodes, murmur them like a mantra as they walked their rounds? Do the lost district codes live on in the memories of elderly residents, becoming fainter and fainter with the passing of years?
* I once had a friend whose snobbish grandmother proudly boasted that she had never set foot off ‘Map 58’ (that’s Toorak in Melways)