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I am not a number…I have a name

Have you ever wondered why some streets have all the even numbers on one side and the odd numbers on the other side whilst other streets have both odd and even numbers on the same side. Just think of Number 10, Downing Street and it’s immediate neighbour, Number 11 to get the picture.

Before the eighteenth century, houses didn’t have numbers at all. Indeed some streets didn’t have names. Buildings were generally identified by a name. The name was either taken from its own characteristics such as Red Roof, The White House or Lavender Cottage or from its location, Sea View, Hill Top or Riverside or from the name or trade of its occupier, Duncan Manor, Windsor Castle or The Smithy.

But in the early eighteenth century, during the Age of Enlightenment, a time of classification and order, the idea of numbering houses seemed essential to know exactly how many houses there were in a city, where they were and what they were. This wasn’t to help the traveller find an address that he had come to visit or to ease postal deliveries (which still didn’t exist) and certainly wasn’t in anticipation of online supermarket deliveries. House numbers were simply needed  to control what was going on, to ease tax administration, to allocate billets for military personnel and generally to exercise state control. The first known comprehensive house census was carried out in Paris in 1727 although more rudimentary listings had been undertaken in the fifteenth century when rents were collected from the city owned houses on the Pont Notre Dame. Other areas followed: Prussia in the early 1730s, Philadelphia in 1785. To begin with, many cities used the sequential numbering system and the first example in this country was in Goodmans Fields, London but gradually through the nineteenth century and later, with the advent of comprehensive postal services, the “odd / even” system became more common.

Numbering the properties for ease of identification, to avoid duplication and make sure that all were included became something of an obsession but it wasn’t until the Metropolitan Management Act of 1855 that house numbering became obligatory in this country. Even then, many owners ignored this requirement and old houses just kept the names that they had been given. This tradition continues to this day sometimes to aggrandise the property by calling it something “Hall” or “Manor” or “Mansion” and sometimes as a bit of a joke: Costalot, Dunraomin’ or Llamedos (read it backwards and you’ll get the idea). Occasionally time takes its toll so that Laburnum House may have long since lost its laburnum but still keeps it in its name. Oddly enough, new owners invariably keep a house name even though they don’t like it. Habits die hard and so do names.

We have a deep propensity to personalise a property. Just think of identical houses on an estate or the doors to homes in a terrace that have been individually decorated with different shrubs or hanging baskets, different door bells, door mats and letter boxes, use different materials for paths and driveways and have gnomes and other decorations scattered around the front garden. The name is just another extension of this deep rooted desire to give an identity to a property and distinguish it from those around. Yet strangely, we rarely give flats and apartments names. Even with legal restrictions in leases, flat owners struggle to find ways to give their front doors a bit of unique character: they don’t want to be seen to be run of the mill. They want to be different. They hang up chimes, knockers or little mirrors, place an umbrella stand or a shoe rack to the side or paint the door a vivid colour.

So why not give the flat a name? After all, with a name begins the creation of a unique personality, a singular property with more than a hint of being just a little bit better than the one next door. And with an even number, it can be a little odd!