Maps and views blog

17 posts categorized "Current Affairs"

17 December 2020

Pandemic maps: science, size and simplicity

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2020 has certainly been a year for maps, though not one for which any of us will feel grateful. I’m referring to the proliferation of often doom-laden public maps illustrating the spread (and receding – more of this please) of Covid-19 across the UK. Throughout the year, interactive maps have appeared on online media outlet pages, and most prominently, maps have featured along with graphs and charts in daily government briefings into the official response to the virus.

Geographical spread of Covid 19 in England 09-20
Geographical spread of Covid-19 in England, 15 September 2020. Taken from the Coronavirus daily briefing slides of 21 September 2020

Data visualisations have played an important role in keeping the public informed, and for demonstrating the scientific evidence behind the adoption of measures to combat the pandemic. Occasionally the quality of data visualisation has not been to standard. Professor James Cheshire of UCL Geography has written about this, providing some cardinal rules such as ’explain your working’ and ‘keep it simple.’

This latter rule has been well understood by the makers of public maps for centuries. Before the computer screen, maps had to work hard in order to be legible and intelligible by large groups of people from potentially large distances away. From the 1840s in the UK, large maps were specifically designed with bolder lines and reduced information in order to function, for example, in large elementary school settings.

Maps STE 167
George Frederick Cruchley's school room maps were large and specifically bold productions for use in large spaces. Cruchley's enlarged Map of Europe. Compiled for the use of Colleges and Schools. London, 1851. Maps STE 167


Large maps were also used as backdrops for large gatherings and meetings. Remember those?

Sifton-Praed Ltd., 'The German scheme of Mittel Europa.' London, 1916.
This large map of 1916 showing the projected Berlin-Baghdad Railway, almost 3 metres wide, was used as the backdrop for public lectures on subjects such as 'Why Germany Wanted War.' Sifton-Praed Ltd., 'The German scheme of Mittel Europa.' London, 1916.

If you want your map to be seen and understood by a lot of people, make it as clear as possible.  Of course, this isn't always practical: nobody wants to be accused of ‘dumbing-down’. And there is no getting away from the fact that geography is complicated and maps can be misleading, particularly when it involves mapping people who are neither static nor evenly spread. Thus the map of the UK divided into counties or regions and coloured by numbers of Covid cases per 100,000 people is falsely reassuring: large, rural and comparatively Covid-free counties dominate visually over smaller, more concentrated and consequently more affected urban areas (tools such as inset maps, and more arresting colours and tones, each of them subjective in their own way, have helped).

Though there were earlier attempts, it was only really towards the end of the 20th century that algorithms enabled population figures (such as UK census data) to be visualised spatially in digital maps. For some examples, see the cartograms from Danny Dorling’s ‘New Social Atlas of Britain (1995) and also ‘Worldmapper’ Tina Gotthardt and Benjamin Hennig’s terrific up-to-date world cartograms where the size of a state is visualised in human terms, such as the relative size of its population or, as here, its proportion of confirmed Coronavirus cases over a particular period. 

Worldmapper, 'Covid-19/Coronavirus cases (January-August 2020)
Worldmapper, 'Covid-19/Coronavirus cases (January-August 2020). ©Worldmapper 2020

Maps need to be clear and understandable. But of course there’s also a lot to be said for complexity. People like scientific data, and this year has been big year for science and its associated debates. Historically, there are no shortage of maps whose creators have clearly delighted in cramming as much scientific content into them as possible, even to the point of confusion. We might call this the rhetorical use of science in maps, the deployment of science an alluring device to emphasise the accuracy, seriousness or reliability of what is being shown, or even as a self-promoting device used by a mapmaker to demonstrate his or her scientific acumen.

Adam Zurner goes to town with a variety of hemispheres and scientific diagrams of the earth and cosmos. Planisphaerium Terrestre cum utroque Caelesti Hemisphaerio, sive diversa Orbis Terraquei ... Amsterdam: Pieter Schenk, around 1735. Maps K.Top 4.15.


ADD MS 69459
Isaac Causton's 1719 estate map of part of Suffolk lays it on somewhat heavy with the grid. 'A map of Madm Margaret Bonnell's land lying in the parishes of Brent-Eligh and Preston in the county of Suffolk surveyed by Isaac Causton'; 1719. Add.MS 69459.


03 December 2020

Bushfire maps of Australia

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Last week another temperature record was set in Sydney, Australia – the overnight minimum temperature of 25.4 degrees Celsius was the highest ever for November, higher even than the historical daytime average for the month. This is one of a string of new records set there over recent years.

Three-day Heatwave Forecast

BBC weather forecast

Graphics courtesy of Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology, above, and BBC, below.

With heat comes the risk of bushfires, which have once again started to burn across the region, reminding us of the catastrophic fire season that was experienced last year - now known as ‘Black Summer’. In total an estimated area of between 18 and 24 million hectares burned - comparable in size to the area of Great Britain - with the loss of 34 lives, over 3,500 properties destroyed, and estimates ranging from one to three billion mammals, birds and reptiles killed.

This map depicts the state of fires in the region around Sydney on one of the worst days of the crisis, and was issued to the public through the New South Wales Rural Fire Service website to encourage evacuation from areas under immediate threat. The British Library imaging studios made a large format print from the file to be kept in the maps collection.

Potential fire spread prediction map

Detail of fire spread prediction map

Potential fire spread prediction for Saturday 21 December 2019, NSW Rural Fire Service. BL Maps X.17367.

The area shown extends around 150 miles from north to south. In particular the map indicates the plight of towns along the Great Western Highway in the Blue Mountains, to the west of Sydney, which are caught between bushfires to the north and to the south. The prediction shows the highway being cut off by fire to the north-west of Katoomba, and the outskirts of Katoomba, Leura and Wentworth Falls falling under threat from ember attack, which forced large numbers of inhabitants to evacuate eastwards to Sydney.

Detail of fire spread prediction map

Fortunately the worst did not come to pass, and over the following days back-burning operations – where controlled fires are started ahead of the oncoming blaze to deprive it of fuel – kept the fire fronts largely at bay. Some of these can be seen in irregular dark areas of burning to the north-east of Katoomba on a screenshot of the Rural Fire Service’s ‘Fires Near Me’ mobile site.

Fires Near Me app

Screen shot of Fires Near Me mobile webpage, NSW Rural Fire Service, 25 December 2019.

It was not until torrential rains fell in early February that these fires were finally extinguished.

Debate continues around what caused the fires to be so extreme. By June of 2019 record high temperatures and longstanding conditions of drought had led experts to warn of an extended fire season to come, and many attribute these underlying conditions to climate change.

Others also point the finger to an alleged reduction in the use of fire management techniques learned from, and still practised by, Indigenous people. This map of Arnhem Land in northern Australia shows the results of a collaboration between scientists and Indigenous people, where the frequency of ‘hot fires’ has been reduced in areas deliberately burned during the previous cold season.

Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia

Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia, Macquarie, 2005, fig.3.17. BL Maps 234.b.40.

Whichever factors led last year's fires to be so extreme, most agree that bushfires are an inevitable part of Australian life. An ambition harboured by many, perhaps, but that is yet to be achieved, is expressed by the author of a 1976 study, 'Bushfire: history, prevention, control' (BL HMNTS X.322/8372) - ‘Fire has been part of the Australian environment for a very long time. I hope that... this book conveys the sense that fire and man must live together, not in a master/servant relationship, but as co-habitants in a finely balanced environment.’

Only yesterday, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, declared, ‘Our planet is broken. Nature always strikes back and is doing so with gathering force and fury’. We can only hope that the fire season to come is not like the last.

05 November 2020

Greenham Women Against Cruise Map

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As we consider the future of Anglo-American relations, this striking poster map from November 1983 provides a compelling snapshot of the past; a time of Cold War tensions, nuclear proliferation and civil protest. It appeared on the eve of the arrival of American cruise missiles on British soil, and is associated with the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp movement.

Greenham Women Against Cruise Map

Greenham Women Against Cruise take President Reagan to court in the USA, 9th Nov '83. BL Maps X.17363.

The women-only movement was set up in 1981 to protest against the British Government’s decision to allow nuclear weapons to be stored in Britain as part of a widespread deployment by NATO of nuclear arms throughout Western Europe. Protesters maintained a permanent presence outside Greenham Common Air Base, 50 miles west of London, at times blockading entrances and cutting down perimeter fences. In December 1982 over 30,000 women joined hands around the base at an ‘Embrace the Base’ event.

The poster advertises the date when Greenham Common women would take US President Ronald Reagan to court in the US, asserting that the deployment of nuclear weapons on British soil violated international law and the US Constitution - ‘Cruise threatens peace and breaks the law’.

The locations of all 102 American military bases found in Britain at that time are indicated on the map, and large American flags reinforce the impression of a Britain in thrall to the United States, and of sovereignty lost. The poster acts as a call to arms, inviting participation in protests at every one of the bases.

The image below shows one of these posters in use at the time. In the lower right corner contact details of regional organisers have been added, with an invitation to ‘Please visit your local Peace Camp on the day’. Perhaps the copy held in the British Library is an early proof print, awaiting these further details.

Photograph of Greenham Women Against Cruise Map

Image courtesy The Danish Peace Academy.

Almost a year later, a federal judge dismissed the court case in the US, holding that the courts were not empowered by the Constitution to decide the case. Then in 1987, US President Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev signed a non-proliferation treaty, which led to the removal of all nuclear missiles from Greenham Common by 1991. The Women’s Peace Camp remained there, however, to continue protests against nuclear weapons, until finally leaving the base in September 2000.

This map is only a very recent addition to the collections. Further articles focusing on women’s activism can be found at the Women’s Rights webpage of the current major BL exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights.

16 June 2020

Runnymede - a history in maps

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Magna Carta, one of the world’s most significant legal documents, was 805 years old yesterday. The charter, which addressed the feud between the crown and rebel barons, was signed by King John on 15 June 1215 in the Thames meadow of Runnymede near Windsor.
American Bar Association tribute to Magna Carta at Runnymede

Today this meadow is known as the ‘birthplace of modern democracy’ and steeped in history and significance. Yet the historic site of Runnymede makes only a limited appearance in historic maps. The issue is partly, of course, one of scale; it's not easy to show something as small as a single field in a map of Britain, or even a county map. But even then, important sites will find their way onto maps if they are significant enough. 

So what happened to Runnymede? It doesn’t appear on the Matthew Paris itinerary map of Britain produced only 35 years after the event. It doesn’t appear in any 16th or early 17th century printed county maps, and it is particularly strange for Runnymede not to appear in John Speed’s 1611-12 county map of Berkshire. Speed wasn’t so much a mapmaker as a historian and antiquarian following in the footsteps of his mentor William Camden in unearthing Britain’s early history. Speed’s atlas The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine was stuffed full of historical images and references, but there is no mention of Runnymede on the map or in the text.  (Speed's sources included manuscripts in the Library of Robert Cotton, now part of the British Library, which would acquire two of the four surviving copies of Magna Carta shortly after Speed’s death in 1629).

John Speed, Barkshire detail
Detail of John Speed's map of Berkshire, 1611-12 (around 1690)

The absence of Runnymede from Speed's map certainly doesn’t mean that Magna Carta was not important in the 17th century. On the contrary, the charter was extremely prominent, used and interpreted in public life. This may be the key to why Speed didn’t mention it: because it was wielded by opponents of Speed’s patron, King James I, as proof against the divine right of monarchs. The issue of divine right would ultimately lead to the execution of James's son Charles I in 1649.

Bowen kitchin
Detail from Thomas Kitchin, Berkshire, from the best authorities... c. 1747.

The continuing significance of Magna Carta did not transfer to its place of signing, which continued to be absent from 18th century maps such as the compendious Berkshire map from Bowen and Kitchin’s Large English Atlas from the late 1740s.

However, the establishment of a minimum ideal scale for maps - one inch to the mile - as set by the Society of Arts and their competition aimed at encouraging high quality county maps from 1759, provided the necessary level of detail for Runnymede to appear. It appears on Lindley and Crossley's large map of Surrey of 1793. And in the 2 inch to the mile drawing of 1811 by one of the early Ordnance Surveyors, Runny Meade is marked, as is Magna Charter Island. They are described with typical OS dryness, in the same way as every other island and meadow.
Detail from an Ordnance Surveyor Drawing of part of Surrey, 1811 (Maps OSD 153)

It was only in the early 20th century that Runnymede acquired a distinct identity, when the requirement for a site-specific memorial to Magna Carta emerged. The National Trust acquired it in 1929, and from around that time it began to appear on maps which explicitly referenced its significance. It appeared particularly in pictorial maps and tourist maps, following the rise of mass tourism in Britain and from the United States. Runnymede became, like the surviving copies of the original charter, emblematic of keenly held 20th century principles of democracy and liberty.

MacDonald Gill
Detail from MacDonald Gill, Country bus services map - London and vicinity. London, 1928.
Bullock 1961
Detail from J.G. Bullock, Historical map of England and Wales, 1961.

There is certainly nothing unusual in Runnymede only acquiring significance many centuries after the event that made it significant occurred, just as there is nothing unusual in the principles contained in Magna Carta being modified to provide historical reassurance for successive eras. History is constantly being rewritten in order to fit the circumstances of the present. Objects such as charters, maps, even buildings and statues, are focal points for this shifting sea of history that doesn’t flow around them, but carries them along with it.

04 June 2020

The history of cartography: shining a light

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The University of Chicago Press’s History of Cartography project reached another milestone in its 40-year history a few weeks ago, with the publication of volume four: cartography in the European Enlightenment. Congratulations to its editors and contributors.

Cover image of the History of Cartography volume four (University of Chicago Press), published in 2020

Devised in the late 1970s by the historians JB Harley (1932-1991) and David Woodward (1942-2004), the project envisaged a six-volume history of maps and mapping. Volume one (European prehistory, Classical and medieval mapping) came in 1987, followed by Volume two, the cartography of non-European societies (1992), volume three, the European Renaissance (2007), and volume six, the twentieth century (2015). The final volume, covering the nineteenth century, is in production.

What was so ground-breaking about the project was its aim to understand maps in their contexts, treating them as social objects created by, and in turn influencing, the people and societies who made and used them. This was a ‘between the lines,’ critical history of maps. Shining a light on them. Calling them to account.

With the exception of volume four, the History of Cartography is available as free online PDFs. So if you have the time and space to educate yourself, particularly with reference to the current protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, it’s a good place to start.

For example, you might like to look in colonial maps of the 17th centuries and beyond at the issue of what Harley termed ‘silences’ in maps. Often what is absent from a map can be as insightful as what is actually shown. This is nowhere clearer than in maps of British India and North America, the latter including little or no indication of the slavery upon which colonial institutions were built (I recently referenced this in a discussion of Farrer's map of Virginia, below).

Virginia Farrer, A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills.... 1651. British Library 278.a.3.

You might also wish to look at the Cartography in the Twentieth Century to see how the use of maps by the powerful and privileged often led to greater levels of injustice and inequality.

For example, Jeremy Crampton’s essay on maps and the social construction of race (pages 1232-1237), and particularly Amy Hillier’s summary of the insidious 20th century practice of redlining (pages 1254-1260). Redlining was US location-based housing discrimination which figuratively and literally drew red lines around urban districts that were deemed undesirable to provide housing insurance or mortgages to due to the racial composition of their borrowers and owners. The effect was to drive these areas and the people living in them into the ground.

Home Owners' Loan Corporation map of Philadelphia, 1936 (Penn University)

Redlining map of Philadelphia, 1936

The practice was outlawed in 1977. But the impact of it, and the racist attitudes at the heart of it, remain prevalent in 2020.

Tom Harper

10 December 2018

Accuracy? Do me a favour!

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'Atlas: a world of maps in the British Library' is a different sort of atlas to, say, the Times world atlas or the AA motoring atlas, because you would never use it to find your way from A to B or peruse potential venues for your next holiday.

This is largely because the maps in it are mostly pretty old and do not all conform to our modern idea of accuracy.

The most common question people ask me about an old map is “is it accurate?” On such occasions I would like to be able to sound one of those alarms like in the BBC quiz show QI. But to be polite I tend to answer that “it is as accurate as it was possible to be” or “it is accurate for its time.”

Detail of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea from a sea chart of 1339.

Angelino Dulcert (atrib.), [A portolan chart of the Mediterranean Sea (detail)], c. 1339. Add.MS 25691. 

Accuracy is relative and incredibly subjective. For example, 14th century 'portolan' sea charts look freakishly accurate because although they are really old we can recognise familiar coastlines in them. Yet if we look more closely, we see that each cape, bay and inlet is exaggerated and distorted in size because – guess what? – the map had to be legible for its user.

The Trossachs, from William Roy's map of Scotland of between 1747 and 1755,

William Roy, [A map showing the Trossachs, part of the fair copy of the military survey of Scotland], 1747-55. Maps CC.5.a.441., sheet 15 (part).

William Roy’s map of Scotland of 1747-55 looks very accurate, and indeed is regarded by some as one of the first modern maps and a precursor to the Ordnance Survey, but it hasn’t been geodetically measured, and the sweeping hill forms sit more in the realms of landscape art.

A map showing the position of the Indian tribes to the north-west of South Carolina from around 1719.

Anon. [Map showing the position of the Indian tribes to the north-west of South Carolina, copied from a painting on deer-skin by an Indian chief, and presented to Sir Francis Nicholson], c. 1719.  Add. MS 4723.

The 1719 Native American map of Carolina is woefully inaccurate by these standards, but more accurate than anything else in its description of the complex interrelations between tribes (shown as circles) and European colonial powers (squares).

Few maps produced before the 19th century will pass muster if judged by contemporary standards of mathematical accuracy. But if we judge old maps by contemporary standards we can miss the genuinely insightful perspectives they provide on the periods and people they concerned.

They can also help to shine a light back onto ourselves. For who would have thought that a modern and ‘accurate’ map such as a motoring atlas would exaggerate and distort features such as roads in order for users to read them more clearly?

'Atlas: a world of maps from the British Library' is out now.

Tom Harper

23 February 2017

Maps and women

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“This is all very manly, isn’t it” a visitor said to me a while ago as I was showing a group around our current exhibition Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. And the visitor (whose own work explores identity and gender in society) was right – there is something apparently rather masculine about cartography, particularly 200 maps in a big room all shouting for attention, forcibly promoting their world-views.

Mapping has historically been portrayed a male pursuit, like many professions, but particularly given the active and even aggressive role of maps in empire and militarism (maps are never ‘submissive’, an outdated perception of femininity). So too the use of maps has been seen as a male pursuit. Note the lack of women on the covers of Ordnance Survey maps, except where they are passengers. Note the cliché of the terrible reluctance of many men to ask for directions when lost.

Over the past few decades we have  begun to question established norms (as we have many established world views) and gender is one of the many key narratives of the 20th century. Van den Hoonaard’s ‘Map Worlds: a history of women in cartography’ (2013) was jst one of a number of works to ‘recover [the involvement of women with map-making] from history’. Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line was curated specifically to engage with themes and aspects of history which have been hidden from sight, and this includes shining a retrospective light upon the role of women in cartography. Here are some of them. 

Mary Ann Rocque


Anonymous (after Mary Ann Rocque), [A map showing part of the road from London to Luton Park], London, 1767. Add. MS74215

Mary Anne Rocque inherited a map business from her husband John Rocque, who died in 1762 (Laurence Worms has produced some important research on this role of female business people in the British map trade). Not simply content to maintain the business, she published new and significant maps such as ‘A set of plans and forts in North America’ in 1765. This watercolour map of part of the road from London to Luton, based closely on Rocque’s work, was produced for the earl of Bute in 1767.

Phyllis Pearsall

GeographersAtlasofGreaterLondonGeographersAZMapCompanyCourtesyoftheBritish Library

Geographers’ Atlas of Greater London. London: Geographers A-Z Map Company, 1956. Maps 198.f.37. 

Pearsall is regarded as one of the most successful business people of the 20th century through her creation of the London A-Z (by the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company) in 1936. Compact and convenient maps of cities have a history which goes back centuries, but Pearsall’s was a marketing success in its clean, simple and efficient design and cover. It became the unofficial map of London which even Londoners were not ashamed to own.

Gertrude Williams

96b77f49-d920-4917-8229-5bc8a7ff09bc-1354x2040Otto Neurath & Gertrude Williams, 'Occupation of women by regions, 1931', from Women in work. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1945. W.P.8741/3.

Lady Gertrude Rosenblum Williams was an economist and social strategist whose research and writing impacted on the foundation and development of the Welfare State in the United Kingdom from the 1940s. Of Williams’ books of the ‘New Democracy’ series, the 1945 publication on ‘Women in Work’ contains some of the most distinctive infographic maps to make statistics more intelligible. These infographics were by Otto Neurath’s Isotype Institute. ‘The occupation of women by regions’ using 1931 census data is one of the best. Williams’ social mapping sits in a tradition begun by Booth and Webb, and continued into the 21st century by, for example, Bethan Thomas and Danny Dorling.

 Marie Tharp

6a00d8341c464853ef01b8d23592df970cHeinrich Berann, Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp, Atlantic ocean floor. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Magazine, June 1968. Maps CC.5.b.42.

Marie Tharp was a geologist and mapmaker whose research and observations were instrumental in the production of detailed maps of the ocean floor, produced for the US Navy after World War II. These maps, particularly the ocean floor maps illustrated by Heinrich Berann which were published in National Geographic magazine in 1968 did much to popularise the theory of continental drift. Because she was a woman Tharp was not permitted to go on research vessels.

These are just some of the female contributions to cartography which you can see in our map exhibition. It is particularly fitting that the British Library should be able to contribute to the recovering of this part of the 20th century experience. After all, the first Head of Maps of the British Library as it was created out of the British Museum in 1973 was Dr Helen Wallis OBE. Wallis was a key figure in the emerging discipline of the history of cartography throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and instrumental in bringing the British national map collection to the attention of the world. 'That monstrous regiment of women’, was how a (female) former employee remembers the Map Library being referred to during that time, but thanks to Maps we can continue to balance the scales.

17 February 2017

Soviet Military Mapping of the Cold War Era

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In this exclusive guest post, map historian John Davies introduces one of the most enigmatic of 20th century map genres.

 'The story of Soviet military mapping is the story of a massive secret project, spanning the fifty years of the Cold War period – from the 1940s to the 1990s – and involving thousands of people. It’s the story of the world’s largest mapping endeavour and, arguably, the world’s most intriguing maps.

 The story of this amazing enterprise has never been told in full in print and the maps themselves have rarely been publicly displayed. One of them, however, the city plan of Brighton on England’s south coast is on show in Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line.

 Topographic Maps

The full extent of the project will probably never be known, but it is safe to say that almost the entire land surface of the globe was captured on topographic maps at scales of 1:1 million and 1:500,000. Huge areas of the Americas, Europe and Asia were mapped at 1:200,000 and 1:100,000, whilst maps at scale of 1:50,000 (the same as the familiar Ordnance Survey Landrangers) cover much of Britain and continental Europe. On top of that, the vast territory of USSR itself was mapped at 1:25,000 (the scale of Ordnance Survey Explorer maps) and much even at 1:10,000.

 The topographic maps have sheet boundaries corresponding to lines of latitude and longitude. This means they are non-rectangular, the two sides narrowing towards the top in the northern hemisphere. The sheets are non-overlapping and are identified by a reference number that uniquely identifies the global location and scale of every sheet.

 It works like this: each 1:1 million map is a quadrangle which covers an area of the globe four degrees of latitude deep and six degrees of longitude wide. The latitudinal bands are alphabetic, starting with A at the equator and increasing as you head north; the longitudinal zones are numbered 1 to 60. The Greenwich meridian (longitude 0) defines the boundary between zone 30 and 31; London, at latitude 51, lies in band M (the 13th band, spanning latitudes 48 to 52). London west of Greenwich, therefore lies in quadrangle M-30 and east of Greenwich in M-31.


International Map of the World nomenclature adopted by Soviet Union, with lettered bands of 4° latitude and numbered zones of 6° longitude

 This convention, known as IMW – the International Map of the World – nomenclature was devised originally by Albrecht Penck at the end of the 19th century and was adopted in 1913 for a proposed international cooperative mapping project.  Although that project fizzled out, the USSR made use of the same convention and did succeed in mapping the whole world by the mid-20th century.

 As you zoom in on a 1:1 million sheet, you get 4 sheets at the larger scale of 1:500,000 (numbered 1-4); 36 sheets at scale 1:200,000 in a 6 by 6 grid (numbered 01-36), and 144 sheets at 1:100,000, in a 12 by 12 grid, (001-144). Zooming further in, for each of these you get 4 sheets at 1:50,000 (numbered 1-4).



Part of sheet M-31, scale 1:1 million, compiled 1969, printed 1975, showing the non-rectangular edges, aligned to lines of latitude and longitude.


Part of sheet M-31-1, scale 1:500,000, compiled 1978, printed 1985.


Part of sheet M-31-01, scale 1:200,000, compiled 1982, printed 1986. Road distances in km are overprinted in purple.



The reverse side of the 1:200,000 series sheets has a comprehensive essay describing the physical, social, economic and industrial importance of the locality, together with a geological sketch map.



Part of sheet M-31-013, scale 1:100,000, compiled 1976, printed 1982. Note the M25 under construction.


Part of sheet M-31-013-3, scale 1:50,000, compiled 1974, printed 1981. This is the SW quarter of M-31-013. Note the A2 road is also labelled E107 (upper left), a European road number that did not appear on British maps.

 The projection used is the Gauss-Krüger (G-K) projection, based on a regular system of Universal Transverse Mercator projections that each cover a zone 6 degrees wide, with central meridians (axial lines of longitude) at 3 degree intervals. The advantage of this is that it simplifies the depiction of the globe as a flat surface for relatively small areas and allows the use of a rectangular grid within each zone. The grid provides accurate geographic co-ordinates to facilitate precise artillery targeting.

 The security classification depended on the map scale; small-scale maps (1:1 million and 1:500,000) were unclassified; 1:200,000 maps were classified as ‘For Official Use’, as were 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 maps of non-USSR territory. Maps of USSR territory larger than 1:200,000 were classified ‘Secret’.

 City Plans

Even more remarkable than the topographic maps are the city plans. These are known to exist for about two thousand cities worldwide, and there may have been many more. City plans are to a large scale, either 1:25,000 (two-and-a-half inches to the mile) or 1:10,000 (about six inches to the mile), and show an altogether much greater level of detail, including street names and listings of factories and their products, public buildings and transport facilities – even relatively unimportant (certainly non-military) objects such as bus stations and post offices. They are classified ‘Secret’.

 City plans are rectangular, being based on G-K projection with a central meridian near to the city. The sheets themselves vary in size, but are typically about 1,000 mm by 800 mm, and may be oriented as portrait or landscape layout to suit the terrain to be covered. Many cities require several sheets (in Britain, typically two or four; in USA, Los Angeles requires 12 sheets and New York 8). Unlike the topographic maps, in which the coverage is continuous and non-overlapping, city plans are individual, specific sheets, centred on a particular city; in some cases, such as the conurbation of West Yorkshire, the plans of several cities overlap. 

 About 100 British and Irish cities are known to have been mapped in this way, several of them more than once. Halifax, Luton, Cambridge and Cardiff are just some of the places for which maps of the 1970s and again of the 1980s exist. The later editions are entirely new productions, rather than revisions of the originals.

 The coverage of British cities includes not only the major industrial and commercial centres and important seaports and naval bases, but relatively rural and less strategically significant places such as Gainsborough and Dunfermline (although Rosyth Royal Naval dockyard is not far from Dunfermline, it is not included in the map coverage).

 The information depicted on city plans is derived from a wide variety of sources and includes detail not normally seen on local street atlases. For example, the 1990 Brighton 1:10,000 plan seen in Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line shows signals alongside the railway line, annotates the shoreline as having a mean tidal range of 4 metres, differentiates the vegetation types in parks and open spaces and identifies the ownership of facilities such as motor repair depots.

 City plans have a street index, a descriptive essay and a list of ‘important objects’. numbered and colour-coded on the map – purple for administrative buildings. black for industrial and green for items of military importance.


Part of 1:25,000 plan of London (sheet 1 of 4, compiled 1980, printed 1985) showing colour-code and numbered ‘important objects’. These are listed in the index as:

  1. State Archives [actually Public Records Office]
  2. Treasury
  3. Foreign Office
  4. Ministry of Defence
  5. Government offices
  6. Courts of Justice
  7. Police – Scotland Yard
  8. General Post Office
  9. Radio station BBC
  10. Residence of the Queen and Prime Minister [actually Her Majesty’s Theatre]
  11. Greater London Council
  12. University of London
  13. HQ of the US Navy in Europe [actually American Embassy]
  14. HQ General Staff

 Note also the depiction of tube stations (symbol M), arrows showing direction of flow of the Thames and direction of tides, Kingsway tunnel and symbols indicating lawns in Hyde Park. The river name is in upper case lettering, denoting that the river is navigable. None of this information appears on contemporary Ordnance Survey maps]


Part of 1:10,000 plan of Thurrock (compiled 1974, printed 1977) showing Tilbury docks and the Dartford tunnel

 All the maps described above, the topographic maps and the city plans, were produced by VTU, the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army and are headed ‘General Staff’.  They carry in the bottom right-hand corner a print code, defining the map type, when it was printed and at which of the twelve print factories spread across the USSR.  

 How and Why

Two obvious questions spring to mind when looking at these maps. How did they do it? And why did they do it?

Neither has a simple answer.

Copying from Ordnance Survey maps, for example, is an obvious possibility. However, the wealth of information shown far exceeds what could be derived from these.  Analysis of the information shown on Soviet maps and plans proves that the compilers and cartographers had access to a huge range of published maps and guides. They include commercial street atlases, geological maps, transport maps and timetables, trade directories, tourist guides Admiralty charts and many other sources. Although these would have been freely available in Western cities, it is surprising to see just how wide the net was cast and intriguing to consider the process by which material was gathered and transmitted to USSR.

Even more surprisingly, the sources include items which had been published many years previously, resulting, for example, in the maps depicting ferries alongside the bridges that superseded them and long-disused railway lines being shown as operational.

After the launch of Zenit satellites in 1962, aerial imagery became a significant component in the data sources and can be seen in many cases where new roads and housing estates, for example, which had not yet appeared on Ordnance Survey maps, are shown on Soviet maps. Often these have the street names omitted, indicating that the cartographer had only the aerial image to hand and not the latest street directory.

As to why so much time, effort and money was expended on this gigantic project for over fifty years, we can only speculate. The concentration on depicting civil rather than military information suggests that these were intended not as invasion maps, but as necessary tools to manage and control the economic and industrial activity of Western cities after their eventual peaceful conversion to communism. But who can say?

Wasn’t the West doing the same thing during the Cold War?

Of course, mapping the territory of a potential enemy was nothing new and not restricted to the Soviet Union. But during the Cold War, the West, generally, was far more selective about where they mapped and what they showed. Whereas the Soviet Union produced huge numbers of city plans, each of which shows minute detail of all aspects of a city (regardless of military significance), the West tended to focus on places of particular interest – and included on their maps only what was relevant to the purpose.     




Two views of Maribor, Former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia).

Top, A typical Soviet military city plan, showing as much information as possible (1:10,000, 1975). Below, A greatly simplified plan, produced by USA military, concentrating on the major features. (1:20,000, 1993).]

John Davies is editor of Sheetlines, the journal of Charles Close Society for the Study of Ordnance Survey Maps ( and is co-author with Dr Alex Kent of The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World, to be published by University of Chicago Press in September 2017 (