Maps and views blog

3 posts from October 2015

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.

11-Hooker Exeter_065688

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.

12. G70118-28

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

21 October 2015

Revelatory Rivers in Germany – Part 2

Following a previous blog post concerning the so-called (at least in the 1829 catalogue) “Map of the Rivers in Germany” by Carl Heinrich von der Osten, the King’s Topographical Collection cataloguing project continues to “go with the flow” by examining subsequent river maps, all from the same volume (88) within the K.Top, with some additional facts and discoveries to report.


An example of one of the K.Top guard volumes with its distinctive green spine. The insignium of George III is shown at the top of the spine and the volume number “CXXIV” (74) and shelfmark numbers within (1-51, in this instance) are also given.

Many of the maps and views within the collection are housed within these guard volumes (illustrated above) which are numbered 1 to 124, but comprise some 246 in total because they are presented in multiple parts. Thus Volume 88 has three parts: shelfmarks 1-25 in the first, 26-33 in the second and 34-67 in the third. The physical bindings were created by the British Museum during the 1950s and 1960s, but the volumes follow the more historic organisation of the collection whereby the content is presented in a coherent geographical order and with shelfmarks in sequence. Volume 88 (1-25) contains maps of the rivers of Germany. The volume opens with general maps of the rivers, then presents individual rivers including the Rhine and the Danube, amongst others.

Maps K.Top.88.13. is a map of the River Rhine and environs, oriented with north to the right of the map. It is a copper engraving, printed on three sheets, joined. The map is based on the work of Caspar Vopel in 1555 and illustrates the importance, both strategically and with trade in mind, of the Rhine and its environs.

Theodore de Bry, [Map of the River Rhine], [Frankfurt: 1594], Maps K.Top.88.13. (detail of Cologne and environs)

The map bears a printed message (perhaps the title, in lieu of any other) within a decorative cartouche at upper right that reads, “Benevole lector, haec tabula eo praecipae fine facta est, ut tum Rheni amaenitas tu urbes ad eu sitae oculis spectatiu subijciantur. Itaquae si quid in dimensionibus erratu est, excusatis, quod urbes aliqua magnitudine fuerut delineandae ut ad viuum experimeretur”.

Theodore de Bry, [Map of the River Rhine], [Frankfurt: 1594], Maps K.Top.88.13. (detail of title)

The K.Top example of the map is a scarce edition. In fact, although it is comparable with map number 79/8.5 listed in Robert W. Karrow’s Mapmakers of the sixteenth century and their maps, it is not an exact match and only one other seemingly direct comparison has been located thus far – an example sold by Sotheby's in London at their Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History sale, 15 November 2011, lot 46.

Titled (and not incorrectly) "The Course of the Rhine from its source to its Mouth, by T. d. Bry. Three small sheets" in the British Museum’ s Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Drawings, etc., forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George the third, etc. (London: 1829) this title had become the rather more misleading "(Rheni tricornis et Widi nova et germana descriptio ... Description nouvelle et vraye du Rhin et de ses trois embouchures avecque les fleuves ... Dess berühmten und herzlichen Flusses eigentliche und warhafftige Beschreibung.) Auctore T. d. Bry” by the time the map reached the British Library’s online catalogue. This online title more accurately relates to Maps *27060.(15.) – a separate and later edition of the map with additional letterpress text and with the name "Overadt" added to the title cartouche. Listing both maps together, despite their different dates of publication, on one catalogue record and with just one (of two) titles can cause confusion. The maps, published in disparate years with different persons associated, now have separate catalogue records as a direct result of the K.Top cataloguing project.

Kate Marshall

07 October 2015

Drawing Lines across Africa - from the War Office Archive

Most of today’s international boundaries within Africa derive from the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, when the colonial powers divided the region between themselves in order to provide a framework for their own political administrations and for the regulation of trade. Many boundaries were drawn through regions where the detailed geography was unknown, explaining why around thirty per cent of the boundaries in Africa are straight lines. The artificial way in which they were allocated has been criticised for creating arbitrary divisions between communities on the ground, or for preventing the free movement of indigenous nomadic groups, but most of the boundaries have come to be recognised by the African community and persist to this day.

In the years following their initial allocation, a number of the boundaries were surveyed and demarcated on the ground by boundary commissions sent from Europe. While the boundary lines were often finessed to accommodate local geographical features, the locations of population groups were rarely taken into account, though this was not unknown. Among the material held in the War Office Archive is a file which documents a British agreement to hand over territory in order to respect the wishes of the local population.

At the Berlin Conference the region now occupied by Rwanda and Burundi was incorporated into German East Africa and became a single province in the north-west of the colony. After the First World War it was handed to Belgium as a League of Nations mandate, while the rest of German East Africa became a British mandate re-named Tanganyika. The newly-created boundary between the British and Belgian territories was surveyed by the ‘Anglo-Belgian Boundary Commission (Ruanda-Urundi) 1922-1924’, which created field sheets, fair drawings and a sheet index, all now preserved in the archive at reference BL Maps WOOS/4.


Detail of WOOS/4/1/3


Detail of WOOS/4/1/7

The field sheets record regions of mountain, swamp and thick forest, and are in a good state of preservation considering the conditions in which they were made. Some of the ink drawing is highly skilled, with half-erased pencil workings still visible.

The commission started survey work in the north, on the tripoint with Uganda and moved southwards as far as Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika. The sheet index gives an overview of the serpentine route they followed, which is marked in green.



The agreed boundary followed the traditional tribal boundaries of the kingdoms of Ruanda and Urundi that had been incorporated into the former German province. However, in the northern portion the British had negotiated a shift of the line westwards to accommodate the planned construction of a British railway connecting Tanganyika to Uganda - marked ‘POSSIBLE […RAILWAY ROUTE]’.


Detail of WOOS/4/4

But soon after the boundary commission had passed through the area, Belgian missionaries in Rwanda made a formal protest to the League of Nations at ‘the social, political and economic harm caused by the imposition of this arbitrary boundary’, and proposed moving it back eastward ‘to the “natural frontier” of the Kagera River’. The British government subsequently agreed that the imposition of the boundary had had harmful effects on the resident population, and since by this time an alternative rail route existed between Uganda and Tanganyika they had no objection to the re-location of the boundary. The agreement was made in 1923, and is shown on the index sheet in red hatching labelled ‘Area to be handed over to Belgium’.


Detail of WOOS/4/4

The Times of 21 January 1924 reported that the Belgians ‘expressed their deep gratitude for the spirit of equity and the sincere desire to respond to the wishes of the native population manifested by Great Britain in these negotiations’. But a more recent study has concluded that, ‘far from being a natural cultural divide, the new boundary did still cut across four small culture areas – Ha, Hangaza, Haya and Zinza’.

The Belgians surveyed the new portion of the boundary shortly after the transfer was made, but the precise definition and demarcation of its course through wide papyrus swampland was not finally settled until 1934, when the sale of tin mining concessions in the area made it imperative to establish the boundary once and for all. In the present day it remains unchanged as the boundary between Rwanda and Tanzania.


Nicholas Dykes

The British East Africa portion of the War Office Archive is being conserved, catalogued and digitised with generous funding from the Indigo Trust.

Further Reading:

Adekunle Ajala, ‘The Nature of African Boundaries’, Africa Spectrum, vol. 18, no. 2 (1983)

Ian Brownlie, Ian R. Burns, African Boundaries: A Legal and Diplomatic Encyclopaedia (1979)

Ieuan Griffiths, ‘The Scramble for Africa: Inherited Political Boundaries’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 152, no. 2 (Jul., 1986)

United States Bureau of Intelligence and Research, International Boundary Study, no. 69 (May 2, 1966), Rwanda-Tanzania Boundary

H.B. Thomas, ‘The Kagera Triangle and the Kagera Salient’, The Uganda Journal, vol.23, no.1 (March 1959)