04 July 2020
World maps are amazing things for their ability to conceptualise the earth and capture it in miniature. Of course, this comes at a price. World maps, perhaps more than any other 'image,' are powerful and subjective. Each one contains a particular world view, and throughout history they, or rather their makers, have tended use them to impose their views upon others. Who is at the world's centre? Who is relegated to the margins? Who is shrunken in size, and who is removed from the map all together?
So it's a strange quirk of history that during the 20th century, that most antagonistic of eras, the world map came to be seen as a symbol of co-operation, togetherness, shared heritage and environmental awareness (thanks in no small part to NASA's famous 1968 Earthrise photograph of our vulnerable planet hanging in the void). As a result, a world map is now capable of saying “we’re all in it together”. It’s World Population Day on Saturday 11 July, so let's attempt to reclaim some of that spirit.
I'd like to invite you to help us choose the British Library’s favourite world map. Over the next week I’m going to introduce sixteen of the most extraordinary and groundbreaking world maps from between the 11th and 20th centuries, carefully selected from the British Library’s collection of over 4 million maps.
The maps will be arranged into 4 groups, with one Twitter poll per day (Monday to Thursday) deciding which two maps from each group will go through to the quarter finals on Friday. The semi finals and final poll will happen on Saturday, and we’ll think up something special for the winner. Follow us @BLMaps, hashtag #BLWorldMapWorldCup.
What selection criteria might you use? Well, did the map capture some signal shift in civilisation? Is it unique, beautiful, technically accomplished or cleverly made? Or do you just like it because you like it? That’s valid too.
Hopefully through this just-for-fun competition it will be possible to appreciate the history of a world of multiple viewpoints; and, though it won't be easy, to begin to rediscover ones which have been erased.
28 April 2020
In a previous blog I described the best free-to-access digitised British Library maps available on the Library’s own site. But there are more. Lots more!
Where we’ve worked with other institutions, organisations and individuals on digitisation, we’ve been pleased for those institutions to host the resulting content on their own sites. Often, the maps we’ve provided form a subset of a wider collection drawn from a range of other sources. So it isn’t just about the spirit of collaboration, but the enormous research benefits to be drawn from a broader and more integrated picture.
In the fullness of time you can expect to see this content also hosted on the BL's Universal Viewer. For now, here are some of the riches and where to find them.
Wikimedia Commons Collections
There’s a ton of British Library content on Wikimedia Commons which is great because of the open access nature of the site and its clear usage terms. Maps are included in a range of categories, including the Off the Map videogame competition and Images Online (the British Library’s commercial imaging site). But the main category, labelled maps collections, contains 28,000 images. Three main ones are
Ordnance Surveyor drawings - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Ordnance_Survey_Drawings
These 321 maps are some of the earliest works by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain, which was formally established in 1791 to map southern England in response to the threat of invasion from France. The phrase ‘scope-creep’ is something of an understatement when applied to the OS, whose work continues to the present day. These large ‘fair drawings’ are the maps produced by the earliest Ordnance Surveyors of parts of England and Wales from the 1790s to the 1840s, and it’s from these that the one inch to the mile ‘Old Series’ printed maps were derived. The maps were received in 1958. For close, local work, there’s really nothing better than these for the period.
Goad fire insurance maps - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Goad_fire_insurance_maps_from_the_British_Library
Charles Goad’s maps are incredible windows into Britain’s urban past – stupidly detailed late-19th and early 20th century maps of various towns produced in order to assist the calculating of fire insurance risk. To do this, the maps included not only tell us the shapes and forms of buildings, but what they were made of, and who was using them and for what. Over 2,500 here for you to savour. Goad mapped other world cities including a large number of Canadian towns.
War Office Archive - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:War_Office_Archive_%E2%80%93_East_Africa
Thanks to the Indigo Trust, over 1800 East Africa maps and materials from the wider WOA have been digitised and placed here for your study and enjoyment. They’re also georeferenced. Hurrah!
Maps of Qatar and the Middle East
Through the Library’s partnership with the Qatar National Library, over 1300 maps of the area, drawn mostly from the India Office Records, have been catalogued and uploaded onto their digital library portal.
American Revolutionary War Maps
In collaboration with the Norman Leventhal Map and Education Center at Boston Public Library, 377 maps of North America and the West Indies from the American Revolutionary War Era were digitised and placed on the Center’s educational site. Ten other partners including the Library of Congress also contributed material. The British Library's contribution includes maps from the King’s Topographical Collection and Royal United Services Institute, which itself contains maps from the collection of Jeffery Amherst (1717-1797), commander-in-chief of British forces during the Seven Years’ War.
Japanese produced historic maps
We digitised all of our pre-1900 maps of Japanese origin thanks to a wonderful collaboration with Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. And what a collection – over 300 maps drawn from the Map Collection, the Western Manuscripts Collection, and Asian and African Studies Collection. Some of these maps arrived from earlier private libraries including the Engelbert Kaempfer and Philipp Franz von Siebold Collections. Some of them are very big indeed. You can access these maps through the Ritsumeikan University MapWarper portal.
Maps of Singapore and South East Asia
The five-year project between the British Library and National Library of Singapore, generously funded by William and Judith Bollinger, enabled us to digitise and upload 300 maps onto the NLB Singapore’s web portal. These cover Singapore and its wider geographical context.
In 2013 the British Library Labs’ Mechanical Curator project placed 1 million British Library images onto Flickr. They are images drawn from books digitised as part of the Microsoft Books project, and include an enormous wodge of maps (‘wodge’ in this sense meaning tens of thousands of maps). See this individual album containing over 25,000 maps https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/albums/72157648036792880
These are the maps which are currently being Georeferenceed via the Library's Georeferencer tool http://britishlibrary.georeferencer.com/start
The Roy map of Scotland
And finally, just one map, but a very large and important one. This is the fair copy of General William Roy’s (1726-1790) map of Scotland produced between 1747 and 1755. The map is a landmark in British mapping for applying military surveying methods to a very large area, and is regarded as the precursor to the Ordnance Survey. It’s also highly regarded artistically, since it includes the hand of celebrated watercolour artist Paul Sandby (1731-1809). The map is part of the Kings Topographical Collection, having formed part of the collection of the Duke of Cumberland.
We’re delighted for the National Library of Scotland to host this map on their website, given its signal national importance. And they do a very good job of it too, with a superb interface and numerous layers, including a 3D one.
I hope you find something here to interest and inspire you – and I’d be very glad to learn of any comments or questions you have, either by commenting here or on Twitter at @BLMaps.
10 December 2018
'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.”
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.
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.
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.
04 April 2018
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. 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.
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. 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. 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”. 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.
 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’, http://nolli.uoregon.edu/nuovaPianta.html.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 “essendo già stati provisti molti Signori Personaggi da altro mano”. My translation; see Bevilacqua (2005), p. 52.
12 May 2017
The first atlas of England and Wales was published in 1579. It is a landmark in the cartography of Britain, containing maps of the counties of England and Wales by the mapmaker Christopher Saxton, engraved mostly by Dutch artists but also the odd Englishman such as Augustine Ryther.
The maps are believed to have been commissioned by Queen Elizabeth's secretary of state William Cecil Lord Burghley during the 1570s. Its purpose was security, defense and administration during a period of internal intrigue and international instability, notably tension with Catholic Spain.
Burghley's own copy of the atlas, held in the British Library (Royal MS.18 D.III.) contains his notes identifying Catholic families and potential justices of the peace. Shannon and Winstanley suggested the author of one of the atlas's maps of Lancashire to be none other than Francis Walsingham's cryptographer Thomas Phelippes.
England had enemies indeed during the 1570s, and war would break out with Spain in 1585. So why, by contrast to the atlas's larger scale county maps of snug and safe Monmouthshire and Leicestershire did Saxton provide only a puny small scale map for vulnerable south east England?
Christopher Saxton, Cantii, Southsexiae, Surriae et Middlesexiae comitat. London, 1576. British Library Maps C.3.bb.5.
In 1801 again under threat of war, this time with France, the Ordnance Survey made sure Kent was mapped before anywhere else.
William Mudge / Ordnance Survey, The county of Kent, with part of the county of Essex. London: William Faden, 1801 (1809). David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
Peter Barber pointed out that the elaborate decoration of Saxton's south east map could not distract from the fact that it wasn't really fit for purpose. Barber also suggested the most likely reason for the rather pathetic map: Saxton was skint, short on funds and economising on engraving and production costs.
War isn't really the best time to be scrimping and saving, and it is around the time of the south east map (dated 1576) that a new paymaster, Thomas Seckford, was drafted in by Burghley to see the production through.
The eventual Spanish invasion was defeated in 1588. Then there was plenty of money to commission extravagant celebratory copper engraved maps of the English victory over the Armada.
Robert Adams, [The British Isles with the route of the Spanish Armada] from Expeditionis Hispanorum in Angliam vera descriptio. Anno Do. MDLXXXVIII. R. Adamo authore. A. Ryther sculpsit. London, c. 1590. British Library Maps C.3.bb.5
A set of these Armada engravings is bound up with another of the British Library's copies of Saxton's atlas (Maps C.3.bb.5), believed to belong to James I. The rest is history.
26 February 2017
Maps improved in their technological power during the 20th century, and as a result became better able to meet the requirements of their time. Some of them even came to symbolise key themes of the age such as dynamism and modernity.
Harry Beck, 'Sketch for the London Underground map], 1931. Victoria and Albert Museum, E.814-1979.
Probably the best map to capture this sense of speed, efficiency, new-ness, was the new London Underground map of 1933 by Harry Beck. Here was a map which broke dramatically with the conventions of the old, dispensing scale and representational accuracy in order to be useful to its users quickly in the new rapid bustling urban environment (there’s also more than a passing similarity between the underground map and Mondrian’s noisy, bustling ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ of 1943).
Grazioso Benincasa, [Portolan chart of the North-West coast of Europe], 1473. Egerton MS 2855.
Beck’s Underground map may the pin-up map for the brave new 20th century world, but in one crucial respect it drew on a trait of mapping which is as old as maps themselves: simplification. In straightening and regularising and de-cluttering the underground lines, the map is no different to early ‘portolan’ sea charts, sailing maps which possibly originated during the 13th century, and which use the same technique of simplifying, straightening and de-cluttering coastline features in order to be easier for their users to use.
And that’s one of the lessons we can take from maps: that history is a sequence of changes and continuities.
23 February 2017
“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.
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.
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 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
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.
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’.
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:
- State Archives [actually Public Records Office]
- Foreign Office
- Ministry of Defence
- Government offices
- Courts of Justice
- Police – Scotland Yard
- General Post Office
- Radio station BBC
- Residence of the Queen and Prime Minister [actually Her Majesty’s Theatre]
- Greater London Council
- University of London
- HQ of the US Navy in Europe [actually American Embassy]
- 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 (www.CharlesCloseSociety.org) 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 (http://redatlasbook.com/)
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