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Helen Kearney

PhD Work

Mapping Modernity: the London Postal Map

The London Postal Map was introduced in 1856. It drew a boundary around London, and then divided the city into ten districts: EC, WC, N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W and NW.

It was a technological innovation that greatly increased the speed and efficiency of the movement of post around London, in a period when the postal service was the primary form of communication. Service became incredibly quick, frequent, and accessible; almost as instantaneous as the internet today. Deliveries began at 7.22am, with deliveries on the hour, every hour throughout the day. Letters posted at 7.30pm in central London would reach outer London suburbs that same evening.

This thesis describes the origins of the Postal Map, and then explores its effects in the context of a rapidly developing city. It speculates on meanings of mapping the city where new names and boundaries are introduced and visualised. It investigates the development of the city, understanding the post as an essential part of London’s infrastructure. It considers how people experienced a city in which millions of letters, thousands of postmen, and hundreds of train carriages and mail carts were moving around each week. 

The Postal Map is argued to be one of the causal factors of modernity within London; it meant urban space was linked to a particular temporality – modern, fast-paced, connected. It changed how Londoner’s conceived their city through providing a new framework for labelling places in relation to each other – stating what was east, what was west.  

The project uses the extensive archives held by the British Postal Museum and Archive, which include hundreds of maps, to tell the story of the Postal Map. It combines methodologies from social history, technological and administrative histories, mapping theory, urban planning history, and design history to gain a rich understanding of the full spatial implications of this designed object: the London postal map.

MA work

Getting Lost – Environmental lettering, signage and ‘Supergraphics’ Britain, 1944–1965

In 1961, the graphic designer Robert Brownjohn, writing about lettering on buildings, signage and advertising – typography that has a relationship with architecture – stated:

‘…The fact is that we begin to see our cityscape not so much as architecture as three-dimensional typography.’

My dissertation looks at the practices of graphic design and architecture in Britain 1944–1965, investigating three instances in which large, brash, colourful lettering and graphic design made striking, obtrusive statements in the environment. Through this lens, I consider how architects and graphic designers theorised their surroundings – how space was comprehended, how environments were ‘read’, and how design should react to this.

My case studies are the illustrations of the town planner and sketch artist Gordon Cullen for the Architectural Review, the typographer Edward Wright’s lettering mural for an exhibition building in 1961, and Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s designs for road signage across Britain. Archival material is analysed in detail in order to revise the historical approach to this subject matter, and to construct a reading of the material that stresses – like Brownjohn, quoted above – that the environment was read through graphic statements.


  • Helen Kearney
  • PhD


    School of Humanities


    Critical & Historical Studies, 2012–2017

  • MA Degree


    School of Humanities


    MA History of Design, 2012

  • Helen Kearney is an historian specialising in histories of urban environments, graphic design, and architecture. She is interested in exploring how the practice of history and the practice of design can intersect. Helen is a member of the experimental design history collective, Fig. 9.

    She received her MA from the V&A/RCA Programme in History of Design. She also has a BA degree in Ancient and Modern History from Christ Church, University of Oxford.

    Helen works in urban design for the City of London Corporation. She is currently the project manager for a scheme to design the public realm across a new cultural district in London, centred around the Barbican and Smithfield areas. Previously she worked as a project manager at the Barbican Centre, leading work to regenerate an underused building and bring it into public use as an arts education resource.

    For her PhD, Helen was awarded an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award with the Royal College and the Postal Museum. Her PhD thesis is titled 'Mapping Modernity: The London Postal Map'. It uses the vast map archives at the Postal Museum to consider the history of communications infrastructures in London in the Victorian period, questioning in particular what the effects of the postal map were, both in terms of the physical fabric of the urban space, and on the psychological experience of that urban space. Now the PhD thesis is complete, her thoughts will turn to publishing the research as a book, and to new projects exploring hidden histories in cities.    

  • Degrees

  • BA (Oxon), Ancient and Modern History, Oxford University, 2007; MA, History of Design, Royal College of Art & the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2012
  • Experience

  • Project manager, City Public Realm team, City of London Corporation, 2016–present; Project manager, Barbican Arts Centre, London, 2010–2016; Royal College of Art, Visiting lecturer in programmes: Critical and Historical Studies; MA Design Interactions; MA Global Innovation Design; MA History of Design, 2013–14; Policy officer, City of London Corporation, 2007–2010
  • Exhibitions

  • Making Enhanced Exhibition for Collect, Saatchi Gallery, London, 2015
  • Awards

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded PhD