No Known Address



I was tooling through the online version of ‘A Topographical Dictionary of London and Its Environs’ by James Elmes (as you do), which lists all of the streets and squares, alleys and wharves now largely lost to London, and my reading coincided with an article in Red Herrings, the ‘Confidential Monthly Bulletin of the Crime Writers Association’, which ran a list of sinister lost streets, from Cut-Throat Lane and Breakneck Steps to Crackbrain Court.

You can find London’s lost addresses in ‘The History and Survey of London from its Foundation to the Present Time’, ‘The Compleat Compting-House Companion’, and ‘The New Complete Guide to all Persons who have any Trade or Concern with the City and Parts Adjacent’, written by Richard Baldwin in 1783. Virtually any gory term you can think of is in those pages coupled with ‘Alley’ or ‘Lane’. Streets were named after the activities that took place in them, which is entirely logical.


The buildings have been so repurposed that few streets now describe their occupants. But what about addresses which are deliberately obscured? We may have lost most of those wonderfully arcane descriptors, but the British public love testing the Royal Mail with finding modern addresses. For years postmen (post-people?) have so prided themselves on deciphering deliberately hidden addresses that for a while the winners were announced on television. If you write ‘The best hatters in the world’ it will be delivered to Lock & Co, 6 St James’s Street. If you write ‘The best hotel in the world’ it will be sent to the Savoy Hotel (which houses the world’s number one-voted cocktail bar).

Pranksters, artists and people with too much time on their hands have been testing the Post Office for years with anagrams, puzzles, drawings, crosswords and dot-to-dot pictures of their intended destinations. W Reginald Bray wrote addresses backwards, then posted, unwrapped, a bee, a carved turnip, an onion, a pipe, a bicycle pump, a clothes brush, a shirt, a drawing slate, a clump of dried seaweed and a cyclist. All of which got delivered.


I wonder if Bray was the model for Albert Haddock in the ‘Misleading Cases’ books, AP Herbert’s charming tales of a man who constantly tests obscure English laws. The Royal Mail remain remarkably good-natured about such tests. A couple recently received a Christmas card from an old friend despite the address simply saying ‘Somewhere near the sea in Suffolk’. Antony and Sarah Wren live in Lowestoft, received the post from a former colleague who had lost their address. Written on the envelope was the note: ‘Good luck with that postie.’ The card arrived in four days.


Perhaps it’s time to start messing with the Royal Mail’s head again. Among the regular visitors to this site, I nominate Snowy, Brooke, Helen and Terenzio for the challenge.


12 comments on “No Known Address”

  1. Jan says:

    If I had the time I would go in for this but am off to collect the 8lb of cockles I can harvest from the beach down at West Bay (or anywhere else on the British coast at a pinch ) that The Magna Carta allows me to gather each day before I need a licence.

  2. Brooke says:

    As a U.S. resident, an undeveloped country when it comes to public services, I admire: 1) the Royal Mail; and 2) the London transport network. Our postal system routinely declares “no known address” for my mail and returns it to sender; at tax filing time, this is especially worrisome. Consequently, I’d rather not mess with the Royal Mail. However, one is tempted to mail a package of books on leadership to: “That May woman…not the one in the videos my husband watches, the other one.” Maybe include pastilles?

  3. Ian Luck says:

    The classic, though possibly apocryphal address has to be:

    – James Underwood Andover, Hampshire.
    If that was real, and was actually delivered, I’d love to know.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    I wondered if the Royal Mail would still allow us to post cyclists. Their restricted items list on their website is a bit vague and confused, especially on live animals. It seems to indicate they accept only insects, spiders and fish eggs. It also says no live animals – I think they must mean mammals (use of English again). Certainly, they don’t accept dangerous animals, which rules out a number of cyclists. Though the one sent by W.R. Bray looks fairly placid.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I am tempted to try and see how a combination of Canadian the postal service and the Royal Mail would deal with me. My quilting teacher claims that her mailings to London were regularly tampered with and delayed because she is Irish. Perhaps I will if I can get someone else to post it for me as I’m not able to walk just now.

  6. David Ronaldson says:

    Back in the days of Punch Magazine, I seem to remember Hunter Davies sending a letter to his daughter Caitlin, who was studying at Davis University, in Davis California, addressed:


  7. Mark Davies says:

    Helen, what does a quilting teacher teach?

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Mark, the quilting of fabric. I am currently trying to finish a double bed spread in blue and white. Any two or three layer sewing could probably be referred to as quilting and the word comes from the 13th century OF coilte, a mattress, from L culcita a stuffed item of bedding.(Collins Concise Dictionary 3rd Ed. 1992) Thank you for asking as I’ve always wondered idly where the word came from. Not too many words went the qu route, more becoming cw or kw. Hmmm.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Qu’ Hmm. I wonder, then, how many of the people who have ever used the word ‘Quaint’, realise that they have actually said something very rude indeed? They have, inadvertently, ‘dropped a ‘C’ bomb’ albeit in an archaic form. Not that many people these days would use the word ‘Quaint’, but still…

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Of course later I realised how wrong I was about the q. And quaint is just the beginning: queer, quill, quiver, quail, quite, quinine, quints, and so many others. My apologies. Yes, I will look up quaint.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I did look up quaint (in my reliable Collins) and found the usual meanings which derive from OF 13C from Latin cognitus and resulting in a meaning derived from ‘clever’. I don’t doubt but that there may be an other nasty meaning lurking elsewhere but I don’t think I’ll chase it. Not today anyway.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    I was amused by the comment about mailing Cyclists. I have a horrible feeling that few of today’s Postmen could resist trying to fold it to get it in the slot. I have found that putting ‘Fragile, Do Not Bend’ seems to be an invitation for some Postal operatives. I have often heard our porch door opened, and a parcel hurled in. I often feel like leaving the door open, so that the Postie can toe-punt our parcels from the back of his van, to save shoe-leather on that tedious 20 foot trek to open the door.

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