Search around online for information about the origins of house numbering in the UK and the chances are you will find stories which say it started with the Postage Act of 1765.
This, for example, is what the BBC website has to say:
Most British houses started being numbered with the introduction of the Postage Act of 1765.
Yet more precise information, such as a quote from the act itself or a more detailed explanation, is conspicuously lacking.
The widespread appearance of the same claim, all without any detail behind it, made me suspicious. It has the classic signs of one wrong piece of information being provided the once and, in the absence of any other convenient online sources of information, that then spreads and spreads as everyone copies everyone else. Yet its widespread prevalence doesn’t mean it is true; it just means it is the easily available version of events so it is the one that people always cite.
So is it true? I’ve been doing some digging and so far the answer looks to be “probably not”. The full text of the 1765 Postage Act does not contain any direct reference to house numbering, either introducing or standardising it.
Perhaps the standardisation of the postal service it introduced, along with the plans to measure distances along road, encouraged house numbering, but the Act didn’t directly require numbering.
So if the 1765 claim is so dubious, where does the truth lie? Most likely at the start of the eighteenth century, for this is what The British Postal Museum & Archive says:
The first recorded instance of a street being numbered is Prescot Street in Goodmans Fields in 1708. By the end of the century, the numbering of houses had become well established, and seems to have been done on the consecutive rather than the odd and even principle which we have now become familiar.
None of this was regulated and numbering systems varied even in the same street. For example about 1780, Craven Street in the Strand had three sets of numbers. There were irregularities everywhere, and the naming of streets and parts of streets was left to the idiosyncrasy or whim of the owner.
Regulation did not take place until 1855 with the passing of the Metropolitan Management Act. For the first time the power to control and regulate the naming and numbering of streets and houses was provided for and given to the new Board of Works.
That version of events seems to have rather better evidential support, for it can be traced back to the 1708 publication, Hatton’s New View of London, which, using slightly different spelling, recorded that,
In Prescott Street, Goodman’s Fields, instead of signs the houses are distinguished by numbers, as the staircases in the Inns of Court and Chancery.
There are hints that house numbering spread through the 18th century, all without that 1765 Postage Act* – and so leaving a mystery quite why anyone thought the 1765 Act was relevant in the first place.
Thanks to Ben Williams for some of the digging on this.
* Update: this idea of numbering spreading sporadically during the 18th century fits with this discussion thread, which highlights two acts from 1766, both setting out house numbering requirements. In Streets, Southwark Act (Act 6 Geo III c24) there was provision for the numbering of houses in the Borough of Southwark and in London Paving and Lights Act 1766 (Act 6 Geo III c26) there were similar provisions for the City of London. In other words, street numbering grew haphazardly through grassroots introduction in different areas at different times.