Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians


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

29 June 2018

The Virtual Mappa Project and DM: Online Editions of Medieval Maps and More

 After a long journey and much hard work from a lot of very dedicated people, it is time to get excited about medieval maps again! The Virtual Mappa Project has been officially released as an open access publication, with an incredible collection of digitised medieval world maps from the British Library and beyond, all online, annotated and waiting to be explored.

Back in 2013 I was hard at work in the BL Maps department, tasked with marking up some marvellous medieval mappaemundi. At that time I documented my work and the project’s progress in a few blogs posts, including this overview available here. To recap, the British Library has lent its medieval manuscripts, imaging studios and hive-mind of expertise to the DM project, to help create a corpus of digital editions of medieval world maps in a visually navigable, text-searchable, translated format, that makes their intricacies much more accessible to modern minds. A full history of DM and everyone involved can be found here and it is fair to say there have been some technical hiccups along the way (hence the slight delay in publication), but we are now ready to unveil the finished product and I must admit I'm very excited.

New Addition to Virtual Mappa
DM workspace showing two British Library mappaemundi more recently added to the project, and introductory information for the Virtual Mappa project as a whole.

The selection of mappaemundi that we annotated come from the British Library's extensive collections and a handful of external sources, namely Hereford Cathedral, Corpus Christi College Cambridge, and St John's College Oxford. Six of the maps are from the BL itself, including the tiny Psalter Map and the List Map on its reverse page. Also included are the unique Royal Higden map (you can read much more about it here) and a smaller example of a Polychronicon map on its reverse. The starkly diagrammatic Peterborough Computus Map, labelled in both Greek and Latin, offers a different view of medieval cartographic culture and cosmology. And finally, one of the oldest manuscript maps in existence, the Anglo-Saxon World Map or Cotton Maphas been beautifully rendered and annotated; it is a key reason why this project came about in the first place.  

Six Paradises
DM workspace showing different depictions of Paradise on six maps from the British Library and beyond.

Of the maps from outside the British Library, from Oxford we have the Thorney Computus Map, from Cambridge another 'Higden Map' in a very stylised format, plus the fascinating Sawley Map and an unfinished version of a computus map from Worcester. The manuscripts are available to view digitally at Parker Web 2.0, but if you want your Latin text transcribed and translated, I would take a look at our online editions instead! Last, but by no means least, we have the world's finest surviving example of an ornate medieval mappamundi, the Hereford Map. Measuring five feet high, this amazing map is on display at Hereford Cathedral, and I am overjoyed that it has been included in the Virtual Mappa Project, as it is mostly to blame for me getting involved in making digital versions of medieval mappaemundi

So those are the maps, and they are ready to explore. Just open the webpage, (use Chrome or Firefox browser for best performance) click on Virtual Mappa Project from the dropdown menu at the top right and load the map(s) you are interested in. If you want to make the most of your experience, consult the help guide. The flexible layout means you can open one image at a time or have a few onscreen side-by-side for comparison, and you can use your mouse or trackpad to navigate the map image, as you would with any online map.  Annotations, whether text or image, will have a blue outline, and if you hover your cursor over this outline a pop-up box will appear with more information – e.g. a translation of the text, or a description of the image – which can be opened in a new window in the workspace. There are in-depth guides embedded in the resource, plus specific notes and further reading for each map, so all the information you might need is built in.  

Three North Winds
Virtual Mappa workspace with three depictions of wind roundels from the northern edges of maps.

If you are reading this blog then there is every chance that you will be interested in exploring some medieval maps yourself, so go ahead and take a look around! But who else could make use of this resource? It really is groundbreaking in presenting such visually complex medieval materials in such an accessible format. For this reason, we think it would make a great teaching tool, and I plan to integrate it into my own undergraduate teaching. For students who are new to studying medieval history, it gives a real sense of the richness of the artistic output of this era, highlighting key medieval cartographic principles like the all-encompassing Christian cosmology, and is maybe a bit more interesting to look at than texts in translation. It could be used by postgraduate students practising their palaeography skills, or anyone looking to incorporate more medieval visual materials into their work. The maps themselves contain so much interlinked information that their research applications for the era are almost endless. And if you are a scholar working on a particular medieval map, the project also invites you to become a Virtual Mappa editor and contributor – this is a collaborative, open access scholarly publication hosted by the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, and every editor receives a byline and authorial credit for their published scholarly work. For more information see the "Becoming a Contributor" guide inside Virtual Mappa for more information.     

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 16.39.39
A section of the Hereford Map showing all sorts of strange creatures and monstrous men

On a personal note, I'm particularly interested in the 'monstrous men' who inhabit the edges of these maps, and so I'll be incorporating this resource into my PhD research. The content is text-searchable, making it straightforward to check if a map is home to a particular creature, and I can easily gather high-resolution screenshots to use in my research. In general, Virtual Mappa should open up these maps to a much greater number of interested readers, thus stimulating contributions to our collective knowledge of these magnificent materials. Maybe you aren't a medievalist or a map specialist, but if you like Harry Potter or other books and films inspired by the magic of the Middle Ages you should seek out some of the fascinating mythical creatures found lurking in Virtual Mappa, especially on the Hereford Map, which also has its own stand alone version to explore...

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 16.00.30
The Bonnacon, from the Hereford map - a very strange beast with an effective method of self-defence.

While you are checking out Virtual Mappa, there are two other projects at the Schoenberg Institute available to view, which showcase how DM software can be used for any type of digital object. They also make good use of another digitised BL manuscript, Cotton Vespasian D xv. We can see from the other projects – the Four Anglo-Carolingian Mini-Editions, and the Anglo-Latin and Old English Belltokens – how the DM  tools can be applied to other types of medieval manuscript materials, and maybe you can picture how the software could be used for sources that you work with. I have discussed the annotation tools before here, and it is now possible for users to set up their own DM servers and host their own projects. There is even a public sandbox available to try out ideas for projects, and the future DM2.0 release will make new project creations simpler and swifter. To find out more about the DM resource in general, just go to

Old English and Anglo-Latin Belltokens Project: Latin and Old English manuscript images, with transcriptions and translations

Myself and everyone in the British Library maps team are so happy that the Virtual Mappa Project is ready for you to explore. There is much more to come from DM in future, and I can't wait to see how other projects might use the tools that DM have developed. I'm looking forward to a whole new generation of medieval map experts emerging on the back of Virtual Mappa. Thanks to everyone involved in producing these fantastic resources, and I hope you enjoy exploring the medieval world through our online mappaemundi.


        Cat Crossley 


All images in this blog post are taken directly from Virtual Mappa (eds. Martin Foys, Heather Wacha et al. Schoenberg Institute of Manuscript Studies, 2018: except Old English and Anglo-Latin Belltokens image, taken from 

04 April 2018

Shipwrecks and Piracy: John Rocque’s 1750 Map of Rome, part two

In my last blog I noted how John Rocque’s 1750 map of Rome could be considered both a personal memento for the grand tourist who likely commissioned it – Sir Bourchier Wrey – as well as a useful map for travellers.


John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), British Library Maps K.Top.81.22.

My post today will look at events surrounding the production of Rocque’s map of Rome. The ensuing story reveals this London mapmaker to be a rather ruthless opportunist…



Giambattista Nolli, detail of Nuova Pianta di Roma , (Rome, 1748), British Library Maps K.Top.81.21.8.TAB.

In 1748 the Italian cartographer Giambattista Nolli produced a landmark map of Rome. It came in two sizes: a monumental twelve-sheet map entitled Nuova Pianta di Roma, and a reduced single-sheet version called La Topografia di Roma. Scholars sometimes refer to them respectively as the Pianta grande and the Pianta piccola for short, and copies of both can be found in King George III’s Topographical Collection.


Giambattista Nolli, La Topografia di Roma , (Rome, 1748), British Library Maps K.Top.81.21.a.

The incredible detail of Nolli’s Pianta grande ensured that it was still being used in some form for over 200 hundred years.[1] The story abroad, however, was another matter entirely: in terms of sales, it was a bit of a flop. Among the reasons for this disappointing turnover, at least in Britain, was the quick-witted John Rocque.[2]


Giambattista Nolli, detail of Nuova Pianta di Roma , (Rome, 1748), British Library Maps K.Top.81.21.8.TAB.

As was common in the eighteenth century, Nolli and his associate Girolamo Belloni attempted to raise funds for the project by seeking advance subscribers.[3] Nolli handled the domestic sales (i.e. the Papal States), while Belloni was responsible for international sales. To this end Belloni travelled across Europe from 1747 to 1756.

Before publication Belloni procured a meagre 59 subscribers abroad. Though we don’t know exactly how many of those came from London, the figure for Paris, by comparison, was 6. By the end of 1756 Belloni recorded that he had sold a grand total of 459 copies abroad. This was a rather disappointing return for a project so long and so dear in the making.

Despite this, the popularity of the map in London was high, relative to other European cities, perhaps reflecting Rome’s status in Britain as the Grand Tour capital. It might have sold even better still, were it not for John Rocque.

Among the first shipments sent out around May 1748 was a batch of 48 maps (or 56, according to a second note) en route to London that were lost in a shipwreck.

Belloni, it seems, did not react quickly enough to this setback, but Rocque did. For in 1750, after a fairly brisk turnaround, Rocque published his own map of Rome, a compilation of the Pianta grande and the Pianta piccola.[4] Even though Rocque did credit Nolli in his title, this was bare-faced plagiarism designed to capitalise on Belloni’s slowness in supplying the London map market.

Seeing an example of Nolli’s map in 1750, the artist Canaletto, in London at that time, remarked: “many gentlemen have already been provided with it by another hand”.[5] Though it is far from explicit, Canaletto was surely referring to Rocque, since he was the only mapmaker who had made a copy by this date.

Thus with a keen eye for an opportunity, John Rocque stole a march on his rivals: what was Nolli and Belloni’s loss was his gain. The eighteenth-century map market could be a ruthless place.


[1] In fact, it formed the base of plans of the city by the Italian government until the 1970s, see Ceen, Allan, ‘Nuova Pianta di Roma Data in Luce da Giambattista Nolli l’Anno MDCCXLVIII’,

[2] The details of the history of Nolli’s map come from Bevilacqua, Mario, Roma nel Secolo dei Lumi: Architettura, erudizione, scienza nella Pianta di G.B. Nolli «celebre geometra», (Naples: Electa Napoli, 1998), especially pp. 49-52.

[3] For more information about the subscription model, see Pedley, Mary Sponberg, The commerce of cartography: making and marketing maps in eighteenth-century France and England, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 84-90.

[4] There is some uncertainty among map historians concerning how long it took to prepare copperplates for printing, with estimates ranging from a few days to many months. Contrast, for example, Pedley (2005), pp. 53-56, and Carhart, George, ‘How Long Did It Take to Engrave an Early Modern Map? A Consideration of Craft Practices’, in Imago Mundi, Vol. 56, No. 2 (2004), pp. 194-197.

[5] “essendo già stati provisti molti Signori Personaggi da altro mano”. My translation; see Bevilacqua (2005), p. 52.

29 March 2018

A Malawian mystery tour

The British Library, with generous funding from the Indigo Trust, has recently conserved, catalogued, digitised and made freely available online a further 1,100 images of maps and associated documents relating to East Africa.  The material represents part of the War Office (now Ministry of Defence) Archive of cartographic and topographic material produced in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries to support British interests overseas.

Malawi Figure 1

Figure 1. The Nyika Plateau, British Central Africa (present-day Malawi). (Extract from WOMAT/AFR/BCA/23/1)

Figure 1 is typical of such mapping. A carefully prepared manuscript in coloured ink and watercolour on tracing linen, it also represented an interesting challenge for the Library’s cataloguers.  Despite the lack of title, Lake Nyasa quickly establishes the location as north-eastern Malawi (or British Central Africa Protectorate as it was in 1904, the date revealed by a marginal note).  But to understand the map fully, and you certainly need to do that to catalogue it, it is also necessary to determine why it was produced.  Frustratingly, this attractive little map offers few clues.  The Nyika Plateau, a large area of rolling rough grassland, is portrayed in some detail together with an expedition route.  The distances involved are large – the entire march would have been over 250 kilometres, some of it at altitudes of 2,000 metres.  Was it perhaps an exploratory trek into an area hitherto unknown to ascertain the potential for British colonial control?  It is here that the research must start, and an article in a forty-year-old journal (Boeder, 1979) provided the answer.

Malawi Figure 2

Figure 2. Enlargement of Figure 1, showing the village of Ekwendeni, the seat of the indaba between Alfred Sharpe’s administration and the Ngoni tribal chiefs. (Extract from WOMAT/AFR/BCA/23/1)

Figure 2 is an enlargement of the southern portion of the map, and in particular the seemingly anonymous village of Ekwendeni. It was here in September 1904 that Protectorate Commissioner Alfred Sharpe (1853-1935) signed a major administration agreement with the leaders of the powerful Ngoni tribe.  The Ngoni had settled the plateau and its surrounding area in the 1850s and soon assumed control over the local Tumbuka and Tonga tribes.

Sharpe was a character of boundless energy. Born in Lancaster and educated at Haileybury College, he embarked on a career in law, training with a firm of solicitors and being admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-three.  But Sharpe was soon restless.  In 1883, in a joint undertaking with a cousin, he established a sugar plantation in Fiji, but a beet sugar crisis the following year put paid to the endeavour.  Sharpe’s next venture was to central Africa where he would spend much of the rest of his life.

Initially engaged as a professional elephant hunter and ivory trader, Sharpe met Harry Johnston, Protectorate Consul-General and later Commissioner. Johnston, recognising the usefulness of Sharpe’s legal training, quickly employed him to make treaties with tribal chiefs.  Sharpe soon established himself as a talented diplomat, and was appointed as Johnston’s deputy in 1893.  Three years later Johnston, by now Sir Harry, vacated the post with Sharpe eventually succeeding him as Commissioner.

Part of Sharpe’s remit was to continue Johnston’s establishment of administrative control within the Protectorate. This included the imposition of Hut Tax, an unpopular household levy that became even more so in a polygamous society where each wife had her own hut that attracted an additional charge.  Sharpe trod carefully, purposely deferring until 1904 when the Ngoni were at their most vulnerable.  The death of Chief M’mbelwa had created a power vacuum, order was deteriorating and a local famine had triggered overgrazing, out-migration and tensions with neighbouring tribes. In late August Sharpe’s party took a steamer from Fort Johnston (now Mangochi) up the west coast of Lake Nyasa to Florence Bay.  From here they climbed 800 metres to the Livingstonia Mission on the edge of the Nyika Plateau.  An indaba (gathering) was arranged with the Ngoni at Ekwendeni, to which Sharpe and his party walked the 160 kilometres across the plateau.

Thousands of Ngoni had gathered at Ekwendeni, and although Sharpe had brought soldiers it was his intention not to use them; indeed, they wandered unarmed among the thankfully peaceful crowds. Sharpe met the Ngoni chiefs on 2 September, with a mission teacher acting as interpreter.  Sharpe explained that the tribe’s expansion into neighbouring lands had contravened an earlier pact with Johnston, the agreed penalty of which was subjugation to colonial control.  The chiefs conceded this, and so negotiations began on the terms of the administration. While Hut Tax would have to be paid, the Ngoni still drove a hard bargain, with Sharpe agreeing that the tribal constitution could remain, the local police could be staffed by Ngoni tribesmen and that taxation could be deferred until 1906.  The chiefs would assist in the collection of the taxes in return for stipends of up to £30 (about £2,500 today).  The deal was signed, sealed and delivered by sunset.

That the agreement was signed so quickly may have been down to both side’s preparedness to negotiate. Johnston had been a tougher type than Sharpe, frequently resorting to military force and offering little by the way of indigenous self-governance, and understandably affairs had often been strained.

Sharpe, by now Sir Alfred and Governor of the newly-created Nyasaland, retired in 1910 yet the relatively good relationship between the administration and the local population continued. By 1914, however, life for the Ngoni had become more difficult.  Overgrazing and poor soils had once again led to famine and out-migration, and in turn the Hut Tax became unaffordable for many.  Ngoni chiefs clashed with new governor Sir George Smith over a refusal to reduce taxes for the most disadvantaged.  Relations reached a low point with the onset of the First World War and calls for tribal enlistment and the requisition of food from areas already suffering shortages.  Smith tightened his control, and the powers of the tribal chiefs diminished.

While this is a fascinating story, it is nevertheless one that the map alone cannot tell. The map itself is neatly compiled – certainly the hand of a trained draughtsman, probably a non-commissioned army officer or mid-ranking government official.  However, there is also a second, larger and more cursive script demarking the expedition route (Figure 2).  Somewhat blithe alongside the draughtsman’s more painstaking work, this addition in generously laden, broad-nibbed fountain pen is very much the hallmark of a senior officer.  It was a long shot but worth a punt, and ten minutes and an internet search later a collection of Sharpe’s personal correspondence was unearthed.  The handwriting appeared identical but, as tempting as it is, cataloguers must work in certainties, and the creation of a Library record for Sharpe as ‘cartographer’ will have to wait for another time.

The Ekwendeni map is typical of many in the War Office Archive, portraying the challenges encountered by indigenous populations in the face of colonialism. The archive can be accessed from the Library’s War Office Archive webpage or downloaded from Wikimedia Commons; there is also a Google Map index marking the central point of each map sheet and providing links to the catalogue records and images.

Nick Krebs

Map Cataloguer, War Office Archive


Further reading

R.B. Boeder, ‘Sir Alfred Sharpe and the Imposition of Colonial Rule on the Northern Ngoni’, The Society of Malawi Journal, 32 (1979), 23-30.

Alfred Sharpe, The Backbone of Africa (London: Witherby, 1921).

16 March 2018

Georg Wilhelm Schimper in Abyssinia: a new online resource

We are pleased to introduce this guest blog post by Dr Dorothea McEwan.

Ethiopia is the product of a long historical process, from the Aksumite empire 2000 years ago, then the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century, the political expansion of various ethnicities, the centuries-long artistic development of rock churches, followed by Portuguese military and Roman Catholic religious intervention in the 16th and 17th centuries, and finally the unification of the country under emperor Tewodros ll (reigned 1855-1868).

Europeans have travelled in the country and written about their experiences adding to this geographical knowledge by drawing maps of the  routes of their travels, like the Scotsman James Bruce, who published his account in 1790. In 19th century Europe the growing importance of geography as an academic discipline led many travellers to create maps, which they sometimes complemented with potted histories of the lands, the turbulent political times and customs and mores of the populations.


Map of Axum und Adoa. Add ms 28506, f. 17. This is the Aksum and Adwa Region in Tigre, concentrating particularly on how far the clay plateau extends and on its configuration (shown here in red which is also more or less its natural colour ‘).

One such traveller was the German botanist Georg Wilhelm Schimper (1804-1878), who lived and worked in Ethiopia from 1838 to his death in 1878. He witnessed upheavals and wars, the coronation of Emperor Tewodros II in 1855, married and had children with Ethiopian women, but most notably, he criss-crossed the country to research the flora of the country. He sent the dried botanical specimens back to Germany and France and made a living out of it courtesy of travel associations like the Esslingen Reiseverein which advanced money to Schimper and recouped it from the sale of his dried plant specimens to European herbaria.

When this income dried up, he was lucky enough to be appointed as regional administrator in Enticho, Northern Ethiopia, until 1855. In the 1860s he was engaged in something totally new: because of his detailed knowledge of the plant life in various regions, dependent as this was on the differing soils and rock formations, he proceeded to integrate geological information onto maps that he drew himself, accompanying the maps with plentiful and detailed botanical, geological and geographical observations.

He produced four manuscript maps, held by the British Library at Add. MS 28506. The maps and accompanying commentaries by Andreas Gestrich, Dorothea McEwan and Stefan Hanß have been published by the German Historical Institute London, and are online here. The database presents 221 folios of the original German pages, transliterated in modern German and translated into English, with a fully annotated bibliography and biography of Schimper.  


(BL Add ms 28505, f. 86r) This folio is wonderfully illustrated with little sketches of parasols and rain ‘coats’ worn by local people together with the following explanation:

'The Scirpus and Juncus, known as Saddi, usually growing on the banks of brooks or otherwise in quite marshy places, and some slender Cyperus, called Gadima, which grow there too, are used for parasols and shepherds’ cloaks. The parasols are made from the stems of these plants in the following manner: A few inches below the thicker end of a normally three to three and a half ft. long stick or reed, four thin rods are first attached as spokes. Their thickness and length are more or less the same as the whalebone of the parasols of European ladies. Then the stems of these plants are used to weave a small flat disk around these four spokes lying right up against the stick. Next a number of other spokes are woven into this disk, which, in the gaps, gets double stem reinforcement. Now the whole framework is tightly interwoven, snake-like with these stalks.

These stalks are first stripped of their green outer skin, making the whole thing look like a white shade. These parasols are called Zelal here, meaning ‘shade’, and are very much in use by women as well as by men. As these parasols cannot be folded they have to be carried around even when it is cloudy or in the evening at dusk. These parasols are the same size as the parasols carried by European ladies, but they are not slightly curved. They have an almost completely flat, horizontal parasol top.

Typha, and the larger Cyperus (Doguale) are also used, just like the Scirpus and Juncus stalks, for this purpose and for making shepherds’ cloaks. It would be impossible to find a better or simpler coat to protect you from the rain. The green outer casing of the stalks of these reed-like plants are left on, and then they are woven into a shape like the guardhouses of European soldiers on individual sentry duty. This kind of reed coat, like a roof, reaching to the knees and repelling rain quite well, is called Gassa, and is only used by shepherd boys. In the cold highlands of Semien, shepherds often wear sheepskins, like other adult country folk.'  

You can access George Wilhelm Schimper in Abyssinia: Observations on Tigre, go to

Dorothea McEwan

08 March 2018

International Women's Day: Helen Wallis OBE (1924-1995)

International Women's Day 2018 provides the opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of Helen Wallis OBE (1924-1995) head of the British Museum and later British Library's map collections between 1967-1986, and to promote a research fund set up in her memory. 


Helen Wallis was one of the leading figures in map librarianship who pioneered the study of cartography. She was the first woman to hold the position of Map Librarian, following on from her predecessor R.A. Skelton (1906-1970) in 1967. Over 19 years she made the British Library the centre for map studies through research, publications and exhibitions including the Cook bicentenary exhibition of 1968, the American War of Independence exhibition of 1975 and the Francis Drake exhibition of 1977.

Wallis was a geographically-trained historian, a gifted and enthusiastic communicator, and a prominent member of professional and academic organisations. Among her wide research interests were historical globes. She was the first to unearth the significance of the earliest English-produced globes the (Molyneux Globes of 1590), and was the first to research the Jesuit-produced 'Chinese' globe of 1623 which was donated to the nation during her tenure. Once, when transporting the globe on an aeroplane to Berlin where it was to be exhibited, she famously had a seat reservation made out to it in the name of 'Mr Globe'.


Mr Globe

In honour of the memory of Helen Wallis, an annual award of £300 is available to a scholar  from any field, whose work will help promote the use of the British Library's cartographic collections in historical investigation. The award also offers the convenient working environment of the British Library with extended privileges. The fellowship may be held as a full or part-time appointment, but would normally be for one or two periods totalling a minimum of 6 months with the maximum period being one calendar year.

To apply please send a letter of application, indicating the period you intend to be in London and outlining your proposed research project, together with a full curriculum vitae and the names of three referees to or by post to The British Library, Map Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, UK. The closing date for each annual award is May 1st. For further information on the award please contact

Tom Harper 

29 January 2018

The Ultimate Tourist Souvenir: John Rocque’s 1750 Map of Rome

For many of the thousands of British men and women who ventured abroad during the eighteenth century, travelling to Italy was the highlight of the trip. To some it was even considered an essential activity for any aspiring socialite or person of culture. In the words of Dr Samuel Johnson, “A man who hath not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see”.[1]

Sir Bourchier Wrey (1714/15–1784), who travelled around Europe in the mid-1730s – including a sojourn in Italy – came up with a novel way of commemorating his time there: he decided to commission a map of Rome.[2]

The map in question is John Rocque’s A plan of Rome… (see fig. 1) published in 1750 – of which there is a fine copy in King George III’s Topographical Collection.[3]

Fig 1

Fig. 1: John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), British Library Maps K.Top.81.22.

We can tell that Wrey was involved in the production as there is a decorative cartouche dedicating the map to him in the bottom-right corner (see fig. 2).

Fig 2

Fig. 2: Detail of John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), showing the decorative cartouche that dedicates the map to Sir Bou[r]chier Wrey.

With an eye for sales, Rocque catered his map to potential grand tourists: he has highlighted certain buildings and sites that had architectural or antiquarian interest with deep scoring, so they stand out in black (see figs. 3 and 4).

Fig 3

Fig. 3: Detail of John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), showing the title and the area around St Peter’s Basilica.

Fig 4

Fig. 4: Detail of John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), showing the urban centre of Rome.

This innovation would have made the map immediately more useful and alluring to travellers. These highlighted areas, which comprise the numbered locations of the index, are far more easily identifiable than if they simply were marked with numbers.

Rocque was one of London’s most successful mapmakers of the eighteenth century and this plan of Rome followed in the wake of his other city maps, such as those of Berlin (1745), London and Westminster (1746), and Paris (1748).[4]

On another level, however, this map speaks of the immense personal and societal impact of the Grand Tour.

Wrey had returned from travelling over a decade prior to the date of publication. This interval demonstrates that the effects of Wrey’s experiences abroad did not conclude when he first set foot back on English soil. Rather, his Grand Tour still had powerful enough meaning for him to want to assist Rocque in publishing this map.

But aside from seeing this map as a personal memento for Wrey, we can also recognise its wider social value. With this map Wrey was making a carefully constructed public expression of his own identity. By patronising a map of Rome, the traditional pinnacle of the Grand Tour, Wrey was showing off both his cultural and historical sensibilities and his appreciation of the science of mapping. 


Fig. 5: Sir Bourchier Wrey’s portrait for the Society of Dilettanti, by George Knapton, 1744, showing him dishing up some punch from a classicised bowl inscribed with Horace’s phrase “Dulce est Desipere in Loco” – “It is delightful to play the fool occasionally”. (Wikimedia Commons, Source/Photographer: J. Paul Getty Trust)

What’s more, Wrey was an active member of the Society of Dilettanti, whose objective was to promote knowledge of classical antiquity (and the members certainly had fun whilst doing so – see fig. 5).[5] Finally, as this map marks an important update on the cartography of Rome for a British audience, we can detect Wrey’s intention to make Rome more accessible to grand tourists.

What better way is there to remember your own travels than to put your name on the map?

Jeremy Brown

Jeremy is undertaking an AHRC collaborative PhD with the British Library and Royal Holloway University of London on Maps and the Italian Grand Tour. 


[1] Boswell, James, Life of Johnson (London: Oxford University Press, 1965): 742.

[2] Some biographical information on Sir Bourchier Wrey, sixth baronet, can be found at: Handley, Stuart, ‘Wrey, Sir Bourchier, fourth baronet (c.1653–1696)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008) [, accessed 4 Jan 2018].

[3] Maps K.Top.81.22.

[4] For more information of Rocque’s life and work see Varley, John, ‘John Rocque. Engraver, Surveyor, Cartographer and Map-Seller’, Imago Mundi, 5 (1948), 83-91.

[5] For an overview of the activity and achievements of the Society, see Redford, Bruce, Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England, (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008).

09 November 2017

Captain Wellby and his 1,000-mile march

Captain Montagu Sinclair Wellby (1866-1900) was already a veteran of several exploratory expeditions when he set out from the Abyssinian (now Ethiopian) capital Addis Ababa on his marathon journey in December 1898. Along the way he produced a series of nineteen manuscript maps, devotedly compiled in coloured inks and watercolour.

Wellby’s aim was to extend British influence in the largely uncharted area of southern Abyssinia. However, this was a delicate task. It was only two years since the Abyssinians, under the charismatic Emperor Menelik II, had defeated the Italians at Adwa to become the first and only African nation to overcome an invading European power. Britain was clearly wary and ‘preferred to cultivate friendly relations with Emperor Menelik than to have him as an unfriendly adversary’ (Ram 2009, p. 243). This was to be an expedition of collaboration rather than colonisation.


Figure 1. Captain Montagu Sinclair Wellby (From Wellby 1901, photographer unknown)
Figure 2. Emperor Menelik II (Wikimedia Commons, photographer unknown)

 To smooth his passage, Wellby met with Menelik in a somewhat bizarre tented encounter at which the Emperor was played a personalised phonograph recording from Queen Victoria. Menelik immediately ordered an eleven-gun salute and gave Wellby permission to travel his kingdom at will in return for a set of the maps (Wellby, 1901). He even recorded a return message which, according to her journal, the Queen listened to at Osborne House on 18 August 1899. The recording still survives in the Royal Collection and reveals a strong, resonant voice and diction not dissimilar to a modern Amharic speaker (Demoz, 1969). Indeed Menelik was a fervent supporter of new technology. On the arrival of the first car in Addis Ababa in 1907, he talked with its owner for almost two hours before progressing to traction engines, railways and phonographs, while his wife discussed the possibility of repairing their home cinema equipment (Nicholson, 1965). Indeed it was this readiness to embrace innovation that was key to Menelik’s success in effecting a period of unprecedented progress in his nation’s development. During his reign he oversaw the founding of a new capital city (Addis Ababa succeeded Entoto in 1889), road and railway construction and the introduction of electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, a national currency and bank, a central taxation system and a postal service.

Having secured Menelik’s advocacy, Wellby assembled a caravan that comprised forty-three locally recruited labourers and an entourage of well loaded mules, ponies, donkeys, camels and sheep. Also included was the highly capable Daffadar Shahzad Mir, seconded from the Survey of India and with whom Wellby had worked on an earlier expedition from Tibet to Peking (now Beijing). Mir gathered map detail by plane table survey, a technique that utilized an alidade attached to a small, horizontally-set and tripod-mounted drawing board; latitudes and altitudes were determined by Wellby himself using a theodolite and hypsometer respectively.


Figure 3. Extract from Wellby's map of Mount Zuquala, to be filed at BL Maps WOMAT/AFR/ABY/8.

The party left for Mount Zuquala, approximately 50 miles south-west of Addis Ababa; Wellby’s map is shown in Figure 3. The extinct volcano, complete with crater lake, was considered sacred both by local Christians and the indigenous Oromo. Wellby observed that water boiled here at 91º Celsius and calculated its height as 9,569 feet; modern surveys put it 237 feet higher, although not a bad first estimate considering the rudimentary equipment.

Continuing through the Great Rift Valley the company arrived at Lake Gallop (named after the local Gallopa tribe, and shown in Figure 4). This was a name generally unfamiliar to the British establishment (Europeans usually referred to it as Lake Rudolf, after the Austrian Crown Prince, although today the preferred name is Turkana, from the indigenous Kenyan community). Wellby, though, insisted on retaining the local toponymy. Indeed he was particularly renowned for his respectful treatment of the local population. Aware that the sight of his sizeable convoy might cause alarm, he invariably halted it at least a mile from any village, preferring to continue on foot with just a couple of gift-laden men. He was always eager to trade with the villagers too, much preferring to pay for goods rather than accept them in exchange for the presents (Wellby, 1901). In fact his consideration towards the indigenous people – sadly not always the case with many Europeans – was so well regarded by his colleagues that Lieutenant Colonel John Harrington, Her Majesty’s Agent and Consul General in Abyssinia, was sufficiently moved to write that his ‘unfailing tact … won him [their] confidence and affection’ (Harrington 1900, p. xviii). Wellby also had concerns for their future: ‘I wondered what would be the fate of the contented and harmless and naked tribes I had met who are so far independent and free.’ (Wellby 1900, p. 303)


 Figure 4. Extract of the southern shore of Lake Gallop (now Turkana), to be filed at BL Maps WOMAT/AFR/ABY/8.

The expedition continued around the southern shores of Lake Gallop, and it was here, almost 1,000 miles from the nearest hospital, that Wellby was dealt a cruel blow. Having cut his finger on a food tin, he contracted blood poisoning, and for the remaining 400 miles he marched, hand held upright, in considerable pain. Never one to fuss, his account (Wellby 1900, p.295) nonchalantly records, ‘my only misfortune was losing a finger’. And to compound his woes, half the animal transport succumbed to anthrax, and a surviving sheep was eaten by a crocodile. Yet the party continued northwards, eventually reaching the Anglo-Egyptian fort at Nasser on the Sobat River in present-day South Sudan (Figure 5).


 Figure 5. Extract of Nasser and the Sobat River, to be filed at BL Maps WOMAT/AFR/ABY/8.

Wellby’s maps are just a small sample of what is available in the War Office Archive. Conservation, cataloguing and digitisation of the maps and associated documents have been generously funded by the Indigo Trust, and Phase 1 of the project, comprising British East Africa, was completed a year ago. Phase 2, covering Abyssinia, British Central Africa, German East Africa and Mozambique, is currently in progress, with the mapping due to be available freely online from early 2018. A talk on the War Office Archive mapping, Have Theodolite, Will Travel: Mapping Africa’s Magnificent Landscape, is scheduled for 27 November 2017 as part of the British Library’s Feed the Mind series, and places can be booked at the link above.

So what of our protagonists? Emperor Menelik II is now generally considered one of Ethiopia’s greatest leaders and often regarded as the ‘founder of the modern Ethiopian state’ (e.g. Pankhurst 1998, p. 201); he died in 1913. Shahzad Mir continued his distinguished career in the Survey of India and was awarded the Order of British India; he died in 1924. Wellby’s story though does not have a happy ending. He returned to England in 1899, shortly to rejoin his regiment in South Africa at the start of the Second Boer War. He survived the Siege of Ladysmith but was shot at Merzicht, dying from his wounds at Paardekap on 5 August 1900.

Whether Menelik ever received his maps is not clear, but undoubtedly Wellby had impressed him. The Emperor recorded (Emperor Menelik II, 1899) that he was was ‘glad’ and ‘pleased’ to accept Wellby’s dedication of his posthumously published expedition account (Wellby, 1901). However, it is more difficult to gauge whether Wellby’s untimely death adversely affected Anglo-Abyssinian collaboration. A status quo remained until 1906 when the death of Menelik’s cousin left the Emperor, now aged 62 and in declining health, with no obvious successor. Sensing an impending power vacuum, Britain, France and Italy signed a Tripartite Convention that, following any ‘change in the situation’ (Foreign Office 1906, Article 1) (while not specifically stated, Menelik’s death is clearly implied), would divide Abyssinia into three spheres of influence, yet still respect her independence. In other words, the Europeans would protect their interests but not intervene militarily. The document, compiled without Menelik’s knowledge, was later presented to him. Ever the diplomat, he thanked the three nations for their time and consideration politely adding, almost as a by-the-way, that the document was in no way binding to him or his country. (Pankhurst, 1998).

Nick Krebs

Cataloguer, War Office Archive


Further reading

Abraham Demoz, ‘Emperor Menelik’s Phonograph Message to Queen Victoria’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 32(1969), 251-56.

Emperor Menelik II, Letter to Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) Harrington (Addis Ababa: 1899)

Foreign Office, Tripartite Agreement, December 13, 1906 (London: H.M.S.O., 1906)

J.L. Harrington, ‘Introduction’, in ‘Twixt Sirdar and Menelik: An Account of a Year’s Expedition from Zeila to Cairo through unknown Abyssinia, by M.S. Wellby (London: Harper & Brothers, 1901), pp. xv-xix.

T.R. Nicholson, A Toy for the Lion (London, 1965)

Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopians (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998)

K.V. Ram, Anglo-Ethiopian Relations 1896 to 1906 (New Delhi: Concept, 2009)

M.S. Wellby, ‘King Menelek’s Dominions and the Country between Lake Gallop (Rudolph) and the Nile Valley’, The Geographical Journal, 16(1900), 292-304.

M.S. Wellby, ‘Twixt Sirdar and Menelik: An Account of a Year’s Expedition from Zeila to Cairo through unknown Abyssinia (London: Harper & Brothers, 1901)

16 October 2017

Shoreditch according to Goldfinger

A remarkable new acquisition has arrived! Planning your neighbourhood  is a proposal on twenty display boards for post-war reconstruction produced by an architect Ernő Goldfinger and Ursula Blackwell in 1944 for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs.

1. Title page low res

Planning Your Neighbourhood. Title page. British Library Maps C.49.e.82.

Goldfinger, educated in Vienna and Paris, played an important part in the development of the modernist movement in Britain. His appreciation for the Brutalist style and unconventional designs (including the Alexander Fleming House at Elephant and Castle, Balfron Tower at Poplar, and Trellick Tower in west London) often upset the general public. Allegedly, the author Ian Fleming, who was Goldfinger’s neighbour in Hampstead, was so opposed to the design of terraced houses in Willow Road, that he named one of the James Bond novel villains after the architect.

Planning your neighbourhood captures an air of optimism in which the designer presented the utopian vision of improved post-war city life. The district of Shoreditch in East London, heavily damaged through enemy actions and “overcrowded and disfigured by slums”, was a perfect candidate for post-war reconstruction. The proposal incorporates maps, aerial photos and diagrams to visualise the concept of comfortable modern housing that caters for all. The idea was that anyone, young and old across different social classes, would enjoy living in the “vertical city”.

2. Shoreditch low res

Aerial view of the damaged site in Shoreditch. Board 11. Planning Your Neighbourhood. British Library Maps C.49.e.82.

The set opens with a comparison of country and city life stating that in towns “the advantage of neighbourliness is lost”. The solution suggested by Goldfinger is the creation of neighbourhoods composed of residential units, in line with principles of planning concept introduced by Sir Leslie Patrick Abercrombie and John Forshaw in their Greater London Plan, which promoted development of self-contained communities.

Goldfinger’s scheme advocates vertically built cites over traditional outward expansion. He compared a footprint of a tower block against a street of terraced houses, demonstrating the advantage of the modern approach.

  3. Footprint low res

Board 10. Planning Your Neighbourhood. British Library Maps C.49.e.82.

The importance of planning is strongly emphasized, with the planner having to carefully consider a design which allowed for different sized apartments, depending on individual family needs, and appropriate amenities located nearby. Goldfinger also thought about green spaces and recreational facilities such as local cinemas and swimming pools, playgrounds, cricket and football grounds – all conveniently situated in the centre of the neighbourhood within an easy reach from home. Also, with safety in mind, he introduced the idea of segregated traffic with high speed roads exclusively reserved for heavy vehicles (including buses and trucks), and slow roads for horse carts, bicycles and pedestrians providing safe access to nurseries and schools with no crossing of traffic required.  

  4. Traffic low res

Board 8. Planning Your Neighbourhood. British Library Maps C.49.e.82.

The reconstruction of post-war Britain was less ambitious than Goldfinger estimated and his Shoreditch scheme was never built. One could argue it was realised on a ‘mini scale’ as Trellick Tower Cheltenham Estate in west London completed in 1972 with its own doctor surgery, nursery, school, laundrettes, and shops. Loved or hated, it became one of London’s landmarks and has been given Grade II listed status by English Heritage.

By the mid-1970s concrete tower blocks were no longer perceived as a model for urban regeneration. What originally was intended to provide a solution to the housing problem and growth of a healthy strong community in reality became the main factor for social alienation, crime and creating serious safety hazards.

Unfortunately Planning your neighbourhood was acquired too late to be included in our Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line exhibition held in November 2016 to March 2017 but the set is available for ordering through the online catalogue.