The postcode was born in London, so unearthing trivia about the city for my new travel book seemed particularly fitting. 'Mail Obsession' features facts from every one of the UK’s 124 postcode areas – here are a few of the capital’s mentions:
SW (London South West): Some of the TV cables at Buckingham Palace for the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were installed by a ferret.
The cables had to go through a very narrow underground duct. Technicians couldn’t work out how to do it, until someone had the idea of fitting a ferret with a harness, to which a very light but very strong line was attached. Then, lured by a piece of bacon, the trusty creature scuttled through the duct. When it emerged at the other end, the engineers attached the TV cables to the line and pulled them through.
E (London East): The tin opener was invented 40 years after the tin can.
Actually that’s a conservative figure – tinned food was around in the late 1700s, though it was 1812 before the first patent was taken out. It wasn’t until 1855, however, that Robert Yeates of 233 Hackney Road gave us a dedicated tool for opening the tins. Before that the instructions had read: ‘Cut around the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.’ What, as they say in casualty, could possibly go wrong?
SE (London South East): Winston Churchill’s coffin left London from Waterloo station purely to annoy General de Gaulle.
Even though they’d worked together during the Second World War, the two men had never been the cosiest of chums. So Churchill ordered that if de Gaulle outlived him, the train carrying his coffin to Oxfordshire (his final resting place) should leave London not from Paddington – which would have been much easier – but from Waterloo. The wish was carried out.
W (West London): Queen Elizabeth II will be the last British monarch whose birth was attended by the Home Secretary.
This strange bit of constitutional shenanigans dated from 1688, and the so-called ‘Warming Pan’ scandal. A rumour started that James II’s son had been stillborn, with a ‘replacement’ baby being smuggled in to the bed chamber in a warming pan. So from then on the Home Secretary had to attend the birth of any baby that might one day become monarch, in order to confirm that it really had been born with blue blood. By the 1930s, however, even the British royal family had decided this was a bit much for the modern age, and the practice was quietly dropped.
N (North London): In 2001 a Spurs fan lost £10,000 by betting on his team to win when they were already 3-0 ahead.
The team they were beating at home that day were the then-invincible Manchester United. At half-time the fan decided to add a bit of financial excitement to his sporting joy, so put a bet on. Unsurprisingly the odds were pretty poor – 16 to 1 on, meaning he had to lay £10,000 just to win £625. Then he watched Man Utd score five goals in the second half, winning the match 5-3 and losing him his ten grand.
As well as letting me travel round the country collecting the facts themselves, the book also gave me the excuse to unearth some postal history. I travelled on London’s fantastic Mail Rail (the Post Office’s own underground train system – due to open to the public in 2017), and also learned how Oscar Wilde posted his letters: he put a stamp on them, then threw them out of the window of his Chelsea home, knowing anyone finding them on the pavement would assume they’d been dropped and post them for him. Job done. By someone else.
By Mark Mason
'Mail Obsession: A Journey Round Britain By Postcode' is published by Orion on October 15. Mark Mason will be talking about the book at Stanfords in Covent Garden on October 29, and Guildhall Library on November 12.