Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

Introduction

Our earliest map appears on a coin made in the Roman Empire and our latest appears as pixels on a computer screen. In between we have the most complete set of Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain, the grand collection of an 18th-century king, secret maps made by the Soviet army as well as the British government, and a book that stands taller than the average person. Read more

20 May 2021

New Digital Maps available on Reading Room Terminal

As the maps reading room is now open again to readers, we’d like to point you in the direction of the digital maps viewer. Before you read on please note that the viewer is only available on-site in the maps reading room, you must book a space in advance of your visit by following the instructions here. 

The digital maps viewer allows readers to browse maps and geospatial data that the library has collected over the last twenty years using a ‘slippy’ maps interface similar to Google, Bing or Apple maps. Snapshots of Ordnance Survey Great Britain Master Map and Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland Large Scale mapping are added every year and the 2020 versions are now accessible to readers in the viewer alongside older versions.

Whilst the library has been closed we have been busy gathering new data and we’re happy to announce that 36 new environmental and heritage datasets are now available to view. These include British Geological Survey open datasets and heritage datasets from Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland, Northern Ireland Department for Communities, the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and CADW.

Antares
Screenshot of an Antares chart on the digital maps viewer. Data courtesy of Antares charts.

Furthermore 523 charts of the Western Isles of Scotland published by Antares (http://www.antarescharts.com) are also now accessible. These beautiful, very large scale charts and related pilotage information are created by yachtsmen. Antares tell us that:

‘All our charts have been compiled from our own surveys. Surveys are made by criss-crossing an area in an inflatable boat equipped with an accurate gps (+/- 2m), depth sounder and data logger.  Soundings are fed into surveying software, reduced to chart datum by deducting the height of the tide and then plotted to make the chart.’

For more information on the fascinating process used of creating the charts please see http://www.antarescharts.co.uk/index_files/Making_the_charts.htm

Please note that a booking is required to use the viewer. To book speak to reading room staff on arrival in the maps reading room. Do please be aware that at busy times there may be a wait or you could be asked to come back on another day.

Gethin Rees, Lead curator of digital mapping

16 April 2021

Maps and the Canals

Although the concept of waterways as a means for transportation has been known for centuries, canals still play a vital role in trade – as highlighted by the recent obstruction of the Suez Canal when a wedged vessel disrupted international trade for nearly a week causing havoc and massive financial losses. 

In the British Isles since the medieval times trade relied on natural hydrography with its limitations as to where the routes were available which halted economic development in other regions. The advances in civil engineering and technology in the late the 18th century lead to a canal construction boom. These canals became a permanent feature of the British landscape and the canal network was gradually developed and expanded through the 19th century and, of course, appeared on many maps. This evolution can be traced in the maps found in the British Library’s extensive collections.  

Maps_k_top_6_38

A Plan of the Navigable Canals, from Birmingham, to the Junction of the Canal, from the Rivers Trent & Severn, at Autherley, near Wolverhampton ... laid down from Actual Surveys, by William Wright. London, about 1791. Maps K.Top.6.38. 

The construction of canals allowed for the transportation of much larger quantities of goods, raw materials and coal supply to factories, in comparison with the traditional methods of land transport by carts. The canals transformed the trade, completely changed the landscape of various industries and boosted the economy which hugely contributed to the Industrial Revolution

The construction of a network of canals was an enormous engineering undertaking and posed many technical challenges. It required extensive surveys which were carried out by teams of surveyors and engineers who through their work gained experience and became experts coming up with some incredible (and expensive) designs. The end results however proved to be so profitable that they still attracted investors.

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Plan of a Canal proposed to be made between the River Clyde, at the City of Glasgow, and the Harbour of Saltcoats, with a branch to Paisley: surveyed under the direction of John Rennie, Civil Engineer, by John Ainslie. London, 1803. Maps K.Top.48.81. 

By the first decades of the 19th century the canal network covered most of England with the new grand scale projects submitted for approval by Parliament. The proposals were often accompanied by detailed plans and maps, which contained details on the technical difficulties and provided ingenious solutions such as navigable aqueducts, lifts, tunnels and cuttings giving insights into this enormous enterprise.

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Plan of the Proposed CRINAN CANAL, between the LOCHS of CRINAN and GILP, in the County of Argyll. London, 1792. Maps K.Top.48.79.

The grand projects were associated with names of well-known civil engineers such as Thomas Telford, William Jessop, John Rennie and others. They often worked together and were involved in many projects such as the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct built in northeast Wales (to Telford’s and Jessop’s design), or the Crinan Canal connecting Loch Fyne to the Atlantic Ocean (originally planned by John Rennie with construction supervised by Telford).  Jessop was also in charge of the construction of the Grand Junction Canal (opened in 1805) which served as the main link between London and the industrial centers in the North and the Midlands. The Grand Junction Canal extension project which connected the Thames at Limehouse with the Paddington arm – the Regent’s Canal, took place between 1812 and 1816. 

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A Plan of the Grand Junction Canal with the Branch to Paddington, by Christopher Smith. London, about 1801. Maps K.Top.6.53. 

Maps OSD 152 detail1

Detail from the Surveyors' Drawing (sheet 152) showing section of the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington before the construction of the Regent's Canal. William Hyett, 1807. Maps OSD 152

Insurance_Plan_of_London_West_&_West_North_West_Vols._A_&_B;_Key_Plan_(BL_152483)crop

Detail from Goad's Insurance Plan of London West & West North West showing section of the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington with the Regent's Canal branch. London, 1891. Maps 145.b.24.

Although ultimately surpassed by rail the reliance on the canals had declined by the 1840s, but they still remained a part of the British landscape, often associated nowadays with scenic routes, wildlife and tranquil surroundings, it is easy to forget the significant and important role the canals played in the past.   

31 March 2021

Maps on the British Library's Online Gallery: update

The British Library’s ‘Online Gallery’ was first created in 2004, and over the years a number of galleries containing thousands of maps have been added to it, from the earliest Ordnance Survey maps to Tudor mapping. Each map has its own page with a full description and cataloguing information, a downloadable image, and a larger – though not downloadable - ‘Zoomify’ image.

However, at the end of last year, Adobe ceased to support Flash player and Zoomify became inoperable. For anyone who likes to zoom into a map (about 100% of people who use maps), this is an issue. This is what we’ve done to solve the problem. Firstly, we’ve removed the Zoomify links from the map pages in order to avoid confusion (you can still download a -full-size’ though under 1 MB image for your own use).

For the more heavily used galleries, we’re happy to say that the maps are available – and downloadable - from Wikimedia Commons.

For the Ordnance Surveyor Drawings, the still-active Zoomify link will redirect you straight to the same map on Wikimedia.

Online Gallery Maps OSD 256 screenshot
Maps OSD 256, Birmingham, on the Online Gallery
Maps OSD 256 Wikimedia Commons screenshot
Maps OSD 256 on Wikimedia Commons

The Goad fire insurance maps are all there also.

Only 2,500 George III Topographical Collection maps and views were on the Online Gallery, but you can now enjoy 18,000 of them on Flickr, with even more on the way (you can link through to these images via our catalogue Explore the British Library).

And don’t forget that all of the Online Gallery maps are also available on our Georeferencer (have a go at Georeferencing a few).

The Georeferencer
Map collections on the Georeferencer

Have a look at this and this blog post to discover where else you can discover British Library maps online for free.

For the other galleries such as the Crace Collection of maps of London, we are working to find a way of getting the larger images to you (you can still download smaller images from the existing pages). In due course also, these maps will all make their way onto the Library’s Universal Viewer.

Thanks again for using the Library’s online map resources. And if you get the chance, do drop us a message about the interesting things you’re doing with them.

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.]

22 February 2021

A roadmap of understanding the term 'roadmap'

The use of the term ‘roadmap’ to refer to a recognisable action plan or strategy has become firmly embedded in our everyday language. A 'roadmap to peace', a 'roadmap of financial recovery', for example, is used to describe something that has been coherently formed rather than scribbled on the back of an envelope.

Although the origins of the use of the phrase ‘to map’ in a planning sense is obscure (as indeed is the word ‘map’ itself as Matthew Edney has recently reminded us), its use does seem to have increased in recent decades in politics and the media. But how does the idea of a ‘roadmap’ (to recovery, peace etc.) align with the act of actually using a road map to get from, say, Milton Keynes to Ullapool in a car?

The earliest ‘road maps’ we know of were probably not originally intended to accompany an actual journey, though the information collected from first-hand travels would almost certainly have contributed to their compilation.

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tabVLA ITINERARIA ex illustri PEUTINGERORUM BIBLIOTHECA... Jan Jansson. Amsterdam, c. 1652. Maps K.Top 2.9.III.

One of the earliest surviving road maps, The Roman Tabula Peutingeriana or Peutinger Map (a 13th century copy of a lost 4th century original, now in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna) shows the network of roads across the Roman Empire between south east England and India. It was more likely to have been used to plan, strategise and even commemorate, than to physically accompany a journey. 

Matthew-paris-itinerary-map-f2
Matthew Paris, [A section of the road between England and Palestine]. St. Albans, c. 1250. Royal MS 14 C VII, ff. 4r-5r

In a similar way, Matthew Paris’s famous itinerary maps of Britain, Europe and the Middle East from the mid-13th century were probably intended to commemorate or record journeys rather than facilitate further ones. However, they would also have enabled people to perform ‘virtual’ journeys by using them in association with a form of mental pilgrimage.

Maps_K_Top_5_84
The Roads of England according to Mr. Ogilby.s Survey. London: George Willdey, 1712. Maps K.Top 5.84.

The practical British ‘road map’ we recognise today can be said to have emerged from the second half of the 17th century, when a genre of increasingly compact books emphasising routes (mainly today's 'A' roads, mostly following the work of John Ogilby) began to be published.

By the early 20th century, thanks to the burgeoning level of mobility and map literacy, (discussed at length in our 2016 exhibition on mapping the 20th century and this book) the road map became one of the most recognisable and functional maps available.  

The politician's use of the word 'roadmap' is therefore perfectly consistent with the probable original use of road maps to plan and strategise, before they came to be used for actual wayfinding. However, how 'roadmap' came to be adopted in this way is probably more likely attributable to the modern ubiquity of road maps rather than an implicit understanding of their original purpose.

12 February 2021

Münster’s Cosmographia

While dealing with an enquiry I came across this beautifully coloured copy of Münster’s Cosmographia. This monumental publication is one of the most important works of the Reformation era and considered one of the earliest modern descriptions of the world. The first edition was published in Basel in 1544 containing twenty four double-page maps with numerous woodcut views and illustrations. The work proved to be so popular that it was followed by a further 35 complete editions and reprints in five different languages. 

1297.m.6.World1

General Tafel Begreifend der Gantzen Undern Weldt Beschreibun from Cosmographia by S.Münster. Basel, Heinrichum Petri, 1545. BL 1297.m.6. 

Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was a true versatile scholar described as a cosmographer, geographer, linguist, historian, Hebrew scholar, theologian, mathematician, you name it! His Cosmographia is a compendium of historical and geographical knowledge compiled from information gathered as part of Münster’s personal research, international collaborations and editions of the classical authors. The work was based on up-to-date knowledge and provided the geographical and historical overview of the world, natural history, topographical features, boundaries and administrative division of the described lands, their inhabitants, flora and fauna. Divided into six books it contains a series of maps which advanced the cartographical knowledge of the time. 

1297.m.6.Asia

Neuw India, mit vilen anstossenden laendern, besunder Scythia, Parchia, Arabia, Persia etc. from Cosmographia by S.Münster. Basel, Heinrichum Petri, 1545. BL 1297.m.6. 

Münster not only was the first to introduce separate maps of four known continents, he also produced regional maps many of which were the first printed depictions of a given region. His vision and surprisingly modern thinking embraced many concepts familiar to an average 21st century person. He recognised that in order for his ambitious project to be successful it required reliable information which he as much as he wanted to was unable to collate all by himself. He realised that collaboration is the key and in his correspondence invited fellow scholars to send in information about their lands. His appeal had an enthusiastic response and Münster received contributions from all over Europe, in fact Cosmographia is a product of what we would nowadays consider a crowdsourcing project. 

1297.m.6.Silesia

Schlesia nach aller gelegenheit in Wässern Stetten Bergen und anstossende Lenderen. Map of Silesia published in Cosmographia also included in later editions of Münster's Geographiae Claudii Ptolemæi... BL 1297.m.6.

Not only a great scholar Münster was also a good businessmen – for example instead of commissioning new woodblocks he re-used some of the blocks (a number of which were created by artist such as Hans Holbein the Younger) from his earlier published works including his edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia (first issued in 1540). He then borrowed some of the woodblocks cut for Cosmographia and used them in his later editions of Geographia (for example the map of Silesia). Now, that’s what I call recycling!
He also recognised the potential of publishing in common languages including the rare Czech edition of Cosmographia issued in 1554 thus making knowledge more accessible by reaching wider audiences. 

1297.m.6.views

Depiction of German cities from Cosmographia by S. Münster. Basel, Heinrichum Petri, 1545. BL 1297.m.6.

This incredibly influential work had a huge impact on the contemporary scholars, it was used as a geographical source by famous cartographers like Mercator or Ortelius and inspired publications such as Civitates Orbis Terrarum the popular city atlas published by Braun and Hogenberg a few decades later. 

29 January 2021

New volcanic islands: where science and politics meet

When a new volcanic island emerged from the waters south of Sicily in 1831, its strategic location at the gateway to the eastern Mediterranean aroused more than a scientific interest. Geopolitical forces descended upon this tiny isle, and though its brief existence above the waves lasted just six months, four separate nations claimed it as their own.

A short volume held at the BL, ‘Views and Description of the late Volcanic Island off the coast of Sicily’ (held at BL General Reference Collection 10163.d.10. – digital version here) provides a summary of events.

Chart of Fernandea

Chart Shewing the Position of the New Volcanic Island of Fernandea, in Views and Description of the late Volcanic Island off the coast of Sicily, [1832]. BL General Reference Collection 10163.d.10.

The first report of volcanic activity came on 10 July from Captain Corrao, of the schooner Theresina, who approached to within two miles of...

‘a column of water rising perpendicularly from the sea, to the height of fifty or sixty feet, having a circumference of four hundred fathoms: smoke issued from it, which strongly impregnated the atmosphere of its vicinity with a sulphurous odour: dead fish were observed within the circle of agitated waters, and a violent thunder, proceeding from the same spot, added to the grandeur and the novelty of the scene!’

The Volcanic Island of Fernandea

The Volcanic Island of Fernandea, in Views and Description of the late Volcanic Island off the coast of Sicily, [1832]. BL General Reference Collection 10163.d.10.

Commander C.H. Swinburne of the Royal Navy arrived in the area a few days later –

‘I saw flashes of brilliant light mingled with the smoke, which was still distinctly visible by the light of the moon. In a few minutes, the whole column became black, and larger; almost immediately afterwards several successive eruptions of fire rose up among the smoke... At five am, when the smoke had for a moment cleared away at the base, I saw a small hillock of dark colour a few feet above the sea.’

Views of the New Volcanic Island of Fernandea

Views of the New Volcanic Island of Fernandea, in Views and Description of the late Volcanic Island off the coast of Sicily, [1832]. BL General Reference Collection 10163.d.10.

The opportunity to claim the island was too good to miss. On 3 August, in a lull between eruptions, Royal Navy Captain Senhouse landed there to plant the British flag, and named it Graham Island after Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty. This act prompted representatives from Sicily, ‘highly excited by this achievement within sight of their shores’, to embark from the nearby port of Sciacca and plant their own flag, that of Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies. They named the island Ferdinandea, shortened to Fernandea on the chart above.

Over the following weeks French and Spanish claims were added to the list, but all such attempts to gain geopolitical advantage proved futile. Eruptions ceased from the middle of August, and by the end of the year the island, whose maximum extent was a mere two miles in diameter and 160 feet high, had slipped back beneath the waves. From that point it appeared on British charts as Graham’s Shoal, a bank lying eight meters beneath the surface.

More recently, in 2002, volcanic activity was recorded there again, and it was thought the island might re-emerge. In a bid to avoid being beaten to the mark a second time, Italian divers planted their national flag on the seamount beneath the surface. However, activity soon ceased and the shoal remained where it was.

Modern-day volcanologists agree that the descriptions of volcanic activity at Graham Island conform to what is known as ‘surtseyan’ activity – named after a more recent undersea eruption, which produced the island of Surtsey (from Surtr, the Norse God of Fire) off the southern coast of Iceland.

This eruption is thought to have begun in early November 1963 at a depth of 130 meters, but by 15 November a crater had become visible above the waves. The event caught the imagination of the televisual age – a number of clips on YouTube show footage made at the time.

Eruption of Surtsey

Image of the eruption of Surtsey, courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Wikipedia.

The BL holds a map of the island made by the National Survey of Iceland using aerial photographs taken in October 1964 (BL Maps X.12169.). Eruptions continued until 1967, by which time the island no longer conformed to the map, but the sheet provides a fascinating snapshot of the island’s formation a year after it first emerged.

Surtsey Map

Surtsey, Landmælingar Íslands [National Survey of Iceland], 1964. BL Maps X.12169.

A block of text in Icelandic and English provides a summary of the different phases of eruption, and the map itself gives significant detail of the island’s contours and constituents.

Detail of Surtsey Map

Detail of Surtsey, Landmælingar Íslands [National Survey of Iceland], 1964. BL Maps X.12169.

Unlike Graham Island, and most others of their type, this example has persisted above the waves. It is estimated that roughly a quarter of the island has now been lost to erosion, and its maximum height has reduced to 155 meters, but it is likely to survive above the sea for another hundred years.

In this case there were no diplomatic squabbles over ownership, and its affiliation to Iceland is undisputed. But its persistence has made it especially valuable to science - 69 species of plant have been found there, 12 species of birds, and numerous other animals, including earthworms and slugs. In recognition of its value as a centre for the study of biocolonisation UNESCO declared the island a World Heritage Site in 2008.

12 January 2021

A medical man maps Kent

Mapmaking is a highly exacting profession, as the scrutiny of current pandemic mapping demonstrates. Yet the fascinating thing about mapmaking is that everybody is capable of creating a map, and throughout history 'amateur' mapmakers have brought something new to the table.

Christopher Packe (1686-1749) was a local physician based in the area of Canterbury in Kent, who during his 'many otherwise tedious' medical  journeys around the area was struck by the similarities between the  landscape, features and processes of the natural world and those of the human body. Most notably, and unsurprising for a physician, the synergy between hydrology (specifically streams and rivers) and the flow of blood through the arteries and capillaries. As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s a strong history of thought positioning the human body as a microcosm of the universe. Packe's 1743 Philosophico-Chorographicall chart of East Kent is the Gunther von Hagens of maps. 

Maps_k_top_16_24_11_tab_end (1) resized
Christopher Packe, A new philosophico chorographical chart of East-Kent... Canterbury: C. Packe, 1743. Maps K.Top 16.24.11.Tab End.

Looking closely we can see the tremendous series of lines of thousands of tiny watercourses connecting to streams and thence to rivers, flowing out into the sea. So many of them, in fact, that we might be looking at a map of the English Fenland. 

Maps_k_top_16_24_11_tab_end detail 2
A detail of Packe's new philosophico chorographical chart of East-Kent.

Maps_k_top_16_24_11_tab_end detail 3

That's not all that Packe's map shows. Shading and spot heights communicate the relative heights above sea-level which Packe measured using a barometer. This has led to the map being described as the world's first geomorphological map. And finally there is the series of concentric circles demarking the map's co-ordinate system. These emanate from Canterbury and the cathedral, from which  Packe used a theodolite to survey the county and form his aesthetic and philosophical vision (see Michael Charlsworth for an in-depth study). 

Maps k.top 16.32.2
Christopher Packe, A specimen of a philosophico chorographical chart of East-Kent. London: J. Roberts, 1737. Maps K.Top 16.32.2

Packe wrote a treatise in support of his work, and even produced a 'specimen' sample of the larger map six years earlier, a sort of taster which was presented to the Royal Society. A copy of the specimen is in the Topographical Collection of George III, published 'at his own expense.' Indeed, Packe put so much into his map that it is possible to imagine life in it, the culmination of a creative act. Something, if you will forgive the further analogy, created from the heart.