26 Mar 2018

N.E. Signs

The following is an account of the work done in 2018 (and since) to record the surviving remnants of London’s lost N.E. postal district.

A more detailed paper documenting the history of the N.E. postal district and its surviving street signs can be found in Volume 21 of Hackney History. This is available for £5+P&P by emailing robertwhytehead@msn.com.

A Brief History

In 1856 London was divided into ten postal districts, comprising the eight points of the compass, plus the East and West central districts (E.C. and W.C.).

In 1866, the N.E. postal district was folded into E., followed by S. being split between S.W. and S.E. in 1868, ostensibly as cost-saving measures. However, there may be more to it given relations between the system’s creator, Secretary to the Post Office Rowland Hill, and Surveyor to the Post Office Anthony Trollope who proposed the changes.

The Pavement, Clapham, now SW4, is one of just two surviving street signs featuring the former S. postal district. Photo: Roy Reed.

The N.E. and S. initials would later resurface as the postcodes for Newcastle and Sheffield respectively. However, while formally lost, new signs adorned with the characteristic red N.E. continued to be manufactured and installed well into the 20th Century, far beyond the removal deadline of 1869.

In addition, the Post Office Guide allowed the use of N.E. on addressed post from at least 1889 until the adoption of numerical postcodes in 1917, which finally brought an end to the postal district.

There is evidence that public opposition to the change played a role in the continued use of the N.E. initials after the abolition of the postal district. Objections were raised about being branded as ‘Eastenders’, and the impact of this on property values and insurance costs. In 1889, it was observed that residents and property owners:

“have ever since been suffering from the place being associated and included in a district which is supposed to be unfortunately much lower in the social scale, and as of a work-a-day rather than of a genteel residential character.”

Hackney and Kingsland Gazette, 9 January 1889, p.3

The 2018 Scavenger Hunt

Following meetings of the N.E. Signs Appreciation Society (NESAS) it was decided that a thorough survey of surviving N.E. signs was needed. A public ‘scavenger hunt’ was scheduled for 21 April 2018 and preparations began for tramping the streets.

Detailed online and printed maps identified the search area and this process suggested that the surviving signs only existed within the overlap of the former Metropolitan Borough of Hackney and the one-time N.E. postal district. This hypothesis was later verified by data from the scavenger hunt.

The scavenger hunt setting off at Downs Road. Photo: Alistair Hall.

The scavenger hunt setting off at Downs Road

The scavenger hunt successfully identified 55 surviving N.E. signs, with eight more added later via the #NESigns hashtag on Twitter and a virtual survey of one area that was missed on the event day. The final 66 are plotted, with images, on the Google map accompanying the project.

Saving the Signs

During the scavenger hunt it was sad to note the loss of the N.E. sign on Adley Street, photographed in 2016 by Alistair Hall. Its fate is unknown, and there wasn’t even a trace of the frame remaining, as seen on Ickburgh Road. [3 February 2021: This sign has been verified as back in situ on its host building, having been removed while repainting the house.]

Lost between 2016 and 2018, whereabouts unknown. Photo: Alistair Hall.

There are also reports that since the scavenger hunt, further specimens on the map have been lost. It isn’t clear if these are the result of council or public actions, but it’s hard to escape the thought that our work in 2018 may have raised their profile in both positive and negative ways by drawing attention to the signs, their age, history, and value.

Only the frame remains on Ickburgh Road

The fate of the surviving N.E. signs is still uncertain, and malicious actions remain a risk. However, there was positive news in October 2020 when, following lobbying by The Hackney Society, Hackney Council acknowledged the signs’ value with the street management team lead taking direct action:

“I have given instructions to my team that any future heritage nameplates should not be removed without having first consulted Planning.”

Communication from Hackney Streetwise team leader

This news was celebrated by members of the N.E. Signs Appreciation Society around the world, who are now looking forward the 10-yearly repeat of the scavenger hunt in 2028, unless someone else gets there first…


Thank you to everyone that participated in the 2018 scavenger hunt, and to the founding members of the N.E. Signs Appreciation Society, an informal membership organisation that can be joined by simply declaring, out loud, “I appreciate N.E. Signs”.

Further Reading

Elderfield Road and Rushmore Road by Tom Uprichard

Subscribe to my newsletter for news, events and projects from the world of ghost signs. I curate the newsletter roughly monthly and welcome submissions.