Historic maps

This is an outline of the history of mapping in the British Isles, concentrating on the use of maps for building history. For links to online collections of historic maps by region see image finding aids. Old Maps Online is a search engine for historical maps with a map interface. It indexes a huge number maps made available online by archives and libraries, including major online map sources mentioned below.

Itinerary maps

Ogilby's 1676 map of the route from Towchester to Lichfield. Click to enlarge in pop-up windowSome of the earliest maps were designed to aid the traveller. So few survive that one might imagine that the Romans, for example, did not know what a map was. Instead we have written itineraries along the roads of Britannia. In fact the Romans did use maps, and a medieval copy of the Roman Tabula Peutingeriana, gives us an idea of what they were like. The decline of literacy after the fall of Rome meant that few would able to read either a written itinerary or a map. If any were created for merchants and pilgrims, then heavy use and the hazards of travel presumably disposed of them long ago. Only a precious few medieval maps exist today. Among them are the Gough Map of Britain (now searchable online) and the remarkable series of maps created c.1250 by the studious monk Matthew Paris. His five-page strip map of the route from London to Jerusalem includes crude sketches of important buildings along the way.

This type of map was produced more widely in the age of printing. John Ogilby's road maps of England and Wales in Britannia (1675)are the best-known. Although decorative, the focus of the map itself is strictly on getting from A to B. A few landmark buildings are shown in elevation, but built-up areas in plan - a combination typical of the transition from bird's eye views to modern maps. A later series of strip maps by Emanuel Bowen appeared in John Owen, Britannia Depicta or Ogilby Improv'd .. (1720). Similar strip maps for Ireland appeared in Taylor and Skinner's Maps of the Roads of Ireland Surveyed 1777 (1778). Although such maps are not the best source for a building historian, some provide the first indication of the size of a settlement that happened to lie on a much-travelled highway.

Bird's-eye town views

Plymouth from harbour chart c.1539 (British Library) Early town maps were bird's-eye views, showing buildings in elevation, with varying degrees of accuracy. They were not surveyed to modern standards and should not be taken as perfect scale drawings. There are very few maps of any kind for the British Isles before Henry VIII commissioned maps of English coasts and harbours (right). Throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods map conventions were in a state of flux and varied from one surveyor to another. In general urban surveyors gave closer attention to prominent buildings than to the mass of ordinary dwellings. Churches would be drawn individually, while houses might just be indicated by rows of identical roofed boxes. A county surveyor such as Saxton on the other hand might indicate villages and towns by a conventional church symbol, identical from place to place. But no assumptions should be made, as there is so much variety.

Hooker's map of Exeter 1587. Click to enlarge in pop-up windoWThe Particuler Description of England 1588 [by William Smith], ed. H.B.Wheatley and E.W.Ashbee (1879), has bird's-eye and perspective views of a number of cities and towns, such as Bristol. Some of Smith's work was used by G.Braun and F.Hogenberg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572-1618), facsimile edn. (Amsterdam 1966), which has engraved bird's-eye views of: Bristol, Cambridge, Canterbury, Chester, Cork, Dublin, Edinburgh, Exeter (shown here), Galway, Lancaster, Limerick, London, Norwich, Shrewsbury, and York (and perspectives of Oxford and Windsor). All can be viewed online at the link above, courtesy of the Department of Geography, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A new survey was a major event throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. It was far more common for maps to be reprinted or copied (sometimes inaccurately) time after time, becoming increasingly out of date. For instance Braun and Hogenberg's views of Dublin, Lancaster and Shrewsbury were derived from John Speed's Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (1612), which has bird's-eye views of major towns inset in the corners of his county maps of England and Wales, his single sheet for Scotland and maps for each of the Irish provinces. Cambridge University has a set of hand-coloured proof copies of Speed's maps, which it has put online.

Maps could be commissioned for military reasons, for property owners or as evidence in legal cases, for example these interesting maps of the Plantation of Londonderry by the London Companies. The value of accurate maps for planning purposes became increasingly obvious. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, a measured survey of the devastated city was made by John Leake and others and engraved by Wenceslaus Hollar. It set new standards. Notice that buildings undamaged by the fire are shown in bird's-eye view, but the fire-damaged area in plan.

James Millerd's map of Bristol in 1671 was also based on a measured survey, but still used the familiar bird's-eye view. It had vignettes of major buildings around the border, as did some other 17th-century town plans. A few significantbuildings were marked on the map by letters, with their names given in a key. The use of such keys was quite common and can be seen more clearly in this zoomable map of Edinburgh c.1647 by James Gordon of Rothiemay.

The start of modern mapping

Perth, from the Military Survey of Scotland (British Library)In the 18th century more accurate surveys began to appear in the flat ground plan we know today as maps. Still they tended to show some significant buildings in elevation, like the ward plans of London in Strype's 1720 edition of Stow's Survey of London. There was a rise in the publication of local history and guidebooks, often illustrated with a fold-out map.

Estate and parish maps, like the Baker/Fosbrook map of Painswick (1820), were drawn up for landowners, often on a scale large enough to show each building with reasonable accuracy. Many can be found in the local county record office. Hundreds of maps were created in conjunction with land enclosure acts, which may provide clues to the dating of farms.

The Military Survey of Scotland was the forerunner of the Ordnance Survey, as a State-produced series of high-standard modern maps. It was launched in 1747 response to the Jacobite rebellion and completed in 1755 under the direction of William Roy. Drawn up at a scale of 1 inch to 1000 yards, the Military Survey provide the first detailed maps of Scotland. The originals are in the British Library, but are online at The National Library of Scotland: Roy Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755.

In the first half of the 19th century, maps continued to be produced by independent surveyors, such as Greenwood's plan of London in 1827. However local authorities increasingly commissioned their own official surveys, and State surveyors crept slowly across the whole British Isles. Subsequent maps and plans were mainly derived from official sources.

Ordnance Survey

Detail from the OS map of Bristol 2nd edn 1903.The Ordnance Survey was established in 1791 and gradually mapped Great Britain at a scale of one inch to the mile. 351 of the original preliminary drawings for this survey are in the British Library and available online. They cover most of England and Wales south of a line between Liverpool and Hull. Drawn on a larger scale than the final printed maps - two inches or six inches to the mile - they show more detail.

As early as 1824 it was decided to to survey Ireland at six inches to the mile.The Irish Survey was so successful that the six-inch scale was adopted in Great Britain in 1840. Even more helpfully for building historians, a scale of 25 inches to the mile was initiated in 1854. By the end of the century all cultivated areas were mapped at the 25-inch scale, which showed every building in outline ground plan to a high standard of accuracy.

The 6-inch and 25-inch OS maps of all Ireland can be viewed free on the OSI's Mapviewer; the 6-inch maps for Northern Ireland only can be viewed on the Northern Ireland Environment Agency Map Viewer.All County Series maps of Great Britain at 25-inch and 6-inch to the mile scales published between 1843 and 1939 are available to those in UK higher education online at EDINA Digimap. The 6-inch scale OS maps of England, Scotland and Wales (1846-99) are also online at British History Online, Old Maps and The National Library of Scotland. The latter also has a range of OS maps including large scale maps of Scottish towns (1847-95), London 5 feet to the mile (1893-1896), and the 25-in to the mile maps of all inhabited areas of Scotland. British History Online makes available large-scale maps of Birmingham, Cardiff, Chester, Chichester, Colchester, Coventry, Durham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lichfield, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford, Portsmouth, Salisbury, Southampton, Winchester, Worcester, York and much of central London.

Tithe Maps

The wonderfully useful tithe maps were drawn up for each parish in England and Wales following the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836. Not all are to the standard the Act envisaged, but the ideal was an accurate large-scale map, which showed every building in outline ground plan. The colour pink on was used to indicate an inhabited building, while outbuildings are coloured grey. The associated apportionment gives a brief description (such as 'farm house and barn') together with the names of the owner and occupier. Online examples include that of South Stoneham, Hampshire. One copy of each was lodged with the Crown; these can be found in the National Archives. A second copy went to the appropriate bishop and a third to the parish authorities. You are likely to find either the diocesan or parochial copy (or both) in the relevant county record office. Online collections of tithe maps are listed under the relevant county in image finding aids.

Fire insurance plans

Detail of Goad's Insurance Plan of Leeds (1886). Click to enlarge in pop-up window Fire insurance plans were were first drawn up by fire insurance companies in the late 18th century. Charles E. Goad began a fire insurance map-making company in Canada in 1875. From 1885 the company had a London office and is still mapping British urban centres, though it ceased making fire insurance plans in 1970. The Goad insurance plans were usually at 1 inch to 40 feet, with a wealth of detail on industrial building use and construction. Brick and stone buildings were shown in red, iron and wooden buildings in yellow, and glass skylights in blue. A standard notation showed the number of storeys, the state of party walls and location of doors and windows. Many can be found in local studies libraries, while the British Library holds a comprehensive collection.

For Valuation Office Maps see taxation.

Bomb damage maps

In September 1940 the British government started to collect information on damage sustained during bombing raids. This was the start of the Bomb Census survey 1940-1945. The resulting bomb census maps are in the National Archives HO 193. Those for London have been used to create an interactive map at Bomb Sight and are also available as a book: Laurence Ward, The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945 (Thames and Hudson 2015). Local archives may have their own sets of bomb damage maps. Those for Bath are available on CD from Bath Record Office. The Liverpool Echo has created an online map of the May Blitz 1941. The maps for Hull were scanned by Rob Haywood and are online at The Hull Blitz.

Modern maps

A modern map or aerial photograph can be a good starting point. Seeing the building in its topographical context may trigger ideas - why was it built in that location? What is the relationship to other buildings around?