By the numbers: How Waters Upton’s doors got their digits (Part 1)

House numbers are something we take for granted these days, but it hasn’t always been that way. They didn’t exist in England before the beginning of the 1700s, and they did not appear in Waters Upton until another two centuries had passed. Here are some edited highlights from the 200-year story of the spread of house numbering, from London to other urban areas, and from Shropshire’s towns to its rural parishes, including Waters Upton.

My interest in house numbering, particularly in the parish of Waters Upton, stems from my desire to research the histories of individual houses there as part of my wider one-place study. For me to be able to do this, I need to be able to distinguish one house from another in records relating to the place and its people. The absence of house numbers before the early 1900s makes this a tricky task.

There were a few houses with names of course (The Hall, the Swan, the Lion Inn), and a couple which can be identified from the occupation of the ‘head of the household’ (the rectory, the smithy). There are also a couple of hamlets in Waters Upton parish (the Terrill, the Harebutts) each consisting of just a few houses (and each with a variety of variant spellings in days gone by!). If house histories are not possible for those places then ‘hamlet histories’ – smaller one-place studies within a larger OPS – might be feasible.

What about street names, which were around long before house numbers (my favourite being Shall-I-go-naked Street in Whitechapel St Mary)? In common with many other small settlements, the road along which most of the village’s houses are situated does not have a name. There is the Market Drayton or Hodnet road of course, on the west side of the village, but few of Waters Upton’s homes faced onto this (two of which were the inns which can be identified from their names). And back in the days before Waters Upton expanded, the one road with a name – Riverside Lane – was not a residential street.

The absence of a named street and of numbered houses would not have been a great problem in a small village like Waters Upton. Those seeking a particular house or its occupants would no doubt have been pointed in the right direction soon enough by one of the villagers. In larger settlements however, and particular in cities like London, a plethora of properties made things more complicated. How did people find the building they were looking for?

“Before house numbers,” says The Postal Museum, “businesses used illustrated signs to show people where they were”. In times of less than universal literacy, such signs, using images rather than words, were an important part of the ‘visual culture’ of towns and cities. As Kathryn Kane states in her blog post On the Numbering of Houses they would have “served as landmarks by which a person could give directions to their residence.”

Those who could wield a quill had to write out such directions, rather than addresses as we know them today, when sending letters. I suspect the shortcomings of this way of doings became more and more apparent as the population, and built-up areas, expanded.

The earliest reference to houses in England being numbered appears in volume one of Edward Hatton’s A New View of London, published in 1708. Describing “Prescot street, a spacious and regular Built str. on the S. side of the Tenter Ground in Goodmans fields,” Hatton said that “Instead of Signs, the Houses here are distinguished by Numbers”.

It does not appear that this early experiment sparked immediate imitation elsewhere. The notion of numbers being used to identify properties did eventually catch on though, and in the latter part of the 18th century received ‘official’ approval. This came about as part of much broader efforts to tackle the state of the streets in and around the city of London.

Writing about these times in his Modern History of the City of London (1896), Philip Norman stated: “The condition of the paving in the roads and foot-paths of the City [had] long given rise to complaints”. He also observed that “The want of proper tablets to distinguish the names of streets and courts, and of regularity in numbering the houses, occasioned great difficulty, especially to strangers.”

These issues led to laws designed to bring cleanliness, safety and order to the capital’s thoroughfares, through the appointment of commissioners with powers to put improvements in place. The city of Westminster was the first to secure such legislation, in 1762 (2 Geo III c21), although further statutes were needed to make this workable. The first of those updates (3 Geo III c23) to the original “act for paving, cleansing, and lighting, the squares, streets, and lanes” in Westminster (and other parishes and liberties in Middlesex) is of particular interest. It gave commissioners the power to order “the names of the streets or squares to be affixed on the corner houses”.

By 1766, according to John Noorthouck (in A New History of London, published 1773), “The paving of Westminster under the new regulations was […] far advanced, and the great disparity in elegance and convenience between the Westminster side of Temple bar, and the London side, was […] observable to every one who passed through”.

Westminster’s example was quickly copied. Acts for Southwark (6 Geo III c24) and the city of London (6 Geo III c26) were soon secured. Southwark’s act empowered commissioners to order the names of streets, lanes, courts etc to be displayed, and to “order and direct the houses within the said streets and lanes, and within the said courts, yards, alleys, passages, and places, or any of them, to be numbered with figures placed or painted on the doors thereof, or in such other part of the said houses respectively as [the commissioners] shall think proper”.

London’s legislation included very similar provisions. Other districts followed. Evidence for claims made elsewhere online that house numbering resulted from provisions in the Postage Act of 1765 has been sought but not found.

“Across London,” wrote Jerry White in London In The Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing (2012), “these were momentous changes. They were not comprehensive, because some place like the ancient Liberty of Norton Folgate in Shoreditch, for instance, opted out of parish statutes through the poverty of their residents. And doubtless the commissioners were not always and everywhere as vigilant as they should have been. But the reorganisation of paving and lighting, the naming of streets and numbering of houses, all made London tangibly more manageable. And more modern too.”

London’s streets certainly saw improvements, but there were still problems with regard to the house numbers and street names on display. The names to be used were those by which streets were usually or ‘properly’ known, and the commissioners had no say in exactly which numbers were used.

The consequences, as described by the Postal Museum, were that “numbering systems varied even in the same street”; as for street names: “There were irregularities everywhere, and the naming of streets and parts of streets was left to the idiosyncrasy or whim of the owner.” The Illustrated London News of 16 May 1846 complained:

Scores of streets in different and widely-separated parts of this vast City bear the same name, and the numbering of houses is sometimes past all comprehension. The slightest imperfection in the address of a letter sends it on a voyage of discovery to all the squares and terraces of the same name, till it finds the right one. This must add much to the labour of the [Post Office], while the defect is out of its power to remove.

The same concerns were expressed in 1854 by the Inspector of Letter Carriers in a report to Rowland Hill, which gave several examples of horrendous house numbering and street naming nightmares. The very next year however, the enactment of the Metropolis Local Management Act (18 & 19 Vict c120) offered hope of a solution. It created a Metropolitan Board of Works with wide-ranging powers including the regulation of the numbering of houses and the naming of streets.

The slow progress in the early years of this body were noted in the annual reports of the Postmaster General in 1856 (“No improvement has yet been made in the street nomenclature of London”), 1857 (“some little has been done”), and 1858 (“further progress has been made in improving the nomenclature of the streets in London and the numbering of the houses; but the main work has still to be accomplished”).

Despite this slow start, and some resistance from the public to altered addresses, by 1871 4,800 street names had been changed and 100,000 houses renumbered in London (Postal Museum figures). The work of letter carriers was made a little easier. The work of future house historians, not so much!

In the meantime, while this progress was being made in London, legislation allowing similar improvements to be made beyond the capital had been introduced. It’s time for this story to move away from the Metropolis.

On to Part 2 >

Picture credits. Number 1, © Leo Reynolds (Flickr), used under a Creative Commons licence. Colorful house number, 2, © Martin LaBar (Flickr), used under a Creative Commons licence. Door Number 3 by George Hodan, public domain image from “34”, © Brian (Flickr), adapted, used, and made available for reuse under a Creative Commons licence.

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