Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

11 March 2021

Crowdsourcing in schools: The Land Utilisation Survey of Britain

Crowdsourcing has become a popular and efficient way for projects of all kinds to involve wide audiences, and to harness the resources and expertise of the general public - the BL Maps Georeferencer platform is a fine example! Nowadays many such initiatives leverage the speed and ease of online communications, but the practice long predates the digital age.

The Land Utilisation Survey of Britain was a far-sighted triumph that realised the benefits of crowdsourcing during the 1930s, and became arguably one of the great cartographic achievements of the twentieth century.

Land Utilisation Survey of Britain

The Land Utilisation Survey of Britain, Sheet 114 Windsor, 1932. BL Maps 1190.(89.)

The survey was the brainchild of (Laurence) Dudley Stamp, a geographer of international renown based at the London School of Economics. Reading a paper to members of the Royal Geographical Society in early 1931, he summarised the project that had recently begun -

‘The primary purpose of the Survey is to make a complete record over the whole of Britain of the uses to which the land is put at the present time. Six different categories are recognised for the purpose: meadow and permanent grass, arable land including rotation grass, heathland and moorland or rough hill pasture, forests and woodlands, gardens, and land agriculturally unproductive’.

The methods employed to carry out this enormous survey were unique. Stamp secured the cooperation of the Board of Education and county councils up and down the country, and through them enlisted the help of around 250,000 volunteers, consisting mainly of schoolchildren, their teachers and others involved in education.

Six-inch Ordnance Survey maps, showing the boundaries of every local field and parcel of land, were distributed to schools - there, tracings were made which were taken into the field by the students, who marked them up with capital letters to show the land-use category of each area. Stamp predicted that around 22,000 of these sheets would need to be completed.

Land Utilisation Survey of Britain

Stamp, L. Dudley. “The Land Utilization Survey of Britain.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 78, no. 1, 1931, pp. 40–47. Image courtesy JSTOR

The results were assimilated at county level by further teachers and university lecturers before being transferred and overprinted onto sheets of the Ordnance Survey ‘Popular Edition’ series at the smaller scale of one inch to the mile. The whole process was overseen by Stamp himself, who often toured around the country, making spot-checks from the family car with his wife at the wheel.

Land Utilisation Survey of Britain

Detail of The Land Utilisation Survey of Britain, Sheet 114 Windsor, 1932. BL Maps 1190.(89.)

Survey work was completed with the Isle of Arran sheet in 1941, though remarkably, the majority of the survey had been carried out by the end of 1934. And although funds were never found to publish 57 sheets covering upland areas of Scotland, all 169 sheets covering the remainder of Great Britain were successfully published by 1948.

From the outset Stamp had highlighted ‘the educational benefit of the work itself being carried out by schools and other educational institutions...’, in addition to ‘the permanent value of the results obtained..., forming a sure foundation for such important work as Town Planning and development schemes generally’. But it wasn’t until 1943, after publication of the sheets ran into financial difficulty during the Second World War, that the Ministry of Agriculture finally stepped in to provide official governmental support for the project, in recognition of the maps’ great value in wartime and post-war planning.

In 1948 Stamp marked the completion of the project with publication of ‘The Land of Britain: Its Use and Misuse’ (BL General Reference Collection 10368.s.13.), for which he received the founder’s medal from the Royal Geographical Society - a just and clear vindication of his visionary approach.

Nick Dykes

Further reading

Stamp, L. Dudley. “The Land Utilization Survey of Britain.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 78, no. 1, 1931, pp. 40–47. [BL Maps 159.]