Maps and views blog

28 October 2015

British Town Maps

British Town Maps: A History by Roger J.P. Kain and Richard J. Oliver is published by the British Library and available to purchase online, and we are pleased to host this guest blog by one of its esteemed authors.


Towns present map-makers with the most complex and challenging of all landscapes to depict. Buildings within a town tend to be of different ages, styles (vernacular or designed) and functions. They are arranged on their plots along streets in different ways; streets may be broad and ruler-straight, or narrow and irregular, or may be formally created terraces, crescents, circles or squares. Towns also contain a range of land uses – residential, commercial, industrial, ecclesiastical, recreational – which contribute to land differentiation. They might be situated on hilly or on relatively level terrain. And underlying everything, invisible in the landscape but a key to the urban texture, is the pattern of property ownership.

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John Hooker’s Map of Exeter, engraved by Remigius Hogenberg c. 1587, British Library Maps C.5.a.3.  Publicdomain

Just as varied as townscapes are the cartographic types or genres subsumed within the term ‘town map’. Two maps drawn from this variety illustrate this fact. The first is a late sixteenth-century manuscript bird’s-eye-view map of the city of Exeter – not drawn to a strict scale, highly decorated, topographically generalised yet rich in transient detail (fishing and ships are shown sailing on the River Exe, woollen cloths are hung out to dry on tenterhooks). As well as being a representation of topography, this map is also in many ways a celebration of the wealth and power of this town in early modern times. John Hooker’s portrayal of the city has been studied from many angles and analysed for what it can tell us about Exeter’s architecture and townscape, but important questions remain. Why was this map made at all? What was its purpose, and why was a considerable sum of money expended on it?

There are no straightforward answers to these questions, but we can be certain that Hooker’s map is more than a factual, topographical description of the walls, streets and buildings of a cathedral city. It tells us something of the economic importance of the place, and its iconography conveys much deeper messages. The coats of arms of the City of Exeter and the Bishop of Exeter pictured in the upper corners of the map doubtless acknowledge Queen Elizabeth I’s patronage. In this sense the map is a celebration of the wealth and power of this important town under her government.

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Ordnance Survey 1:500 Lancashire sheet 104.6.19, surveyed in 1888 (Maps OST 15 – Manchester sheet CIV.6.19). Publicdomain

The second example is a small part of Manchester as depicted by the Ordnance Survey on its very large-scale, highly detailed, printed late nineteenth-century map series, maps which mark the high point of detailed urban topographic mapping in Britain. Almost every town of more than 4,000 population was surveyed and mapped at this scale. These maps meant the effective eclipse of privately sponsored original mapping of owns, other than for very specific engineering purposes and the like. They can trace their inception to the growth of interest in public health reform following the issue of Edwin Chadwick’s report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain in 1842. After 1894 the ‘town scales’ were largely superseded by the smaller 1:2500; the ‘occasion’ of sanitary reform and the backlog of infrastructure improvement was passing.

These maps are among more than 150 illustrations – some well known, others that have languished in obscurity – discussed in our new book, a history of urban mapping in Britain based on twenty years of research deep in archives by a British Academy Research Project. The book accompanies an online Catalogue of British Town Maps.

Roger J. P. Kain