England Early Maps, Ordnance Survey Maps (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Land and Property Records including Manorial Documents and Maps  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Early Maps[edit | edit source]

Maps showing trade and pilgrim routes were available by at least the 13th century, and later developed into the mediaeval road books, with Tudor topographers continuing the practice of entering distances between towns on main roads. Some significant developments in English cartography:

  • 1571 Leonard Digges published Pantometria which described his surveying instrument, the forerunner of the theodolite include:
  • 1574-1579 Christopher Saxton published 34 county maps of England and Wales in a variety of scales and with no roads shown. They were gathered into one volume, Atlas of England and Wales, in 1579.
  • Late 16th – early 17th centuries John Speed compiled a full series of county maps of Britain and Ireland, and included a map of the county town, and sometimes another, within each county map (see Nicolson).
  • Late 16th – early 17th centuries John Norden gathered material for many counties but only produced two in his lifetime, Middlesex and Hertfordshire. Notable achievements were the introduction of the grid reference system and a triangular distance chart, a still-used feature.
  • 1607 William Camden’s Britannia was a series of county maps largely based on the work of Saxton and Norden. See the book by Harley and its review in Genealogist’s Magazine vol 17 #10, page 554-5.
  • 1675 John Ogilby’s Britannia used the statute mile measured by his invention, the wheel dimensurator, for a series of coaching road maps in strips. This was used to erect milestones on main roads from 1740. Now also available on CD from Archive CD books.


Map: Strip Road Map (Ogilby 1675 London South to Kingsdown, Kent)

Strip Roadmap, Kent, England.jpg


  • Late 17thc Robert Morden updated many county maps using various scales and a variety of mile measurements. His edition of Camden’s maps has been edited by Harley.
  • 1720 Emanuel Bowen issued county maps and road maps called Britannia Depicta or Ogilby Improv’d.
  • 1724 Herman Moll produced a series of county maps in A New Description of England and Wales.
  • 1725 saw the first map based on trigonometry, Henry Beighton’s Warwickshire.
  • Mid-18th century John Rocque issued county and town maps and is best remembered for his large scale one of London and Westminster, and London and the area 10 miles around, both in 1746.
  • 1787 John Cary produced finely engraved county maps with accurate depictions of roads in his New and Correct English Atlas.
  • 1809 Charles Smith issued his New English Atlas, which was similar to Cary’s.
  • 19th century Christopher Greenwood produced an almost complete national set of 1" maps.

Some Points to Note about Early Maps

  • Contour lines depicting height only came into use in England in the mid-19th century. Prior to this, notably in the Old Series Ordnance Survey hachuring (hill shading) was used and this is why hilly districts look so very dark on those maps.
  • Nowadays maps are usually printed with north at the top of the sheet. It was not always thus – in mediaeval times, and later, east was at the top because of its religious significance.
  • A mile has been counted differently in different places and ages. The present English statute mile was established in 1593 but even long after that local maps were still drawn using the locally accepted mile measurement.


Examples and further commentary on early British maps can be found in John Brian Harley (Maps for the Local Historian.A Guide to the British Sources,1972), P.D.A. Harvey (Maps in Tudor England, 1993), Paul Hindle (Maps for Historians, 2002) and John Richardson (The Local Historian’s Encyclopaedia, 1975). The atlas by Hall and Haywood (The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History, 2001) is recommended to those wishing to gain an appreciation of British history through new maps and historical commentary.

The Ordnance Survey (O.S.)[edit | edit source]

In the second half of the 18th century the military need for countrywide, standardized, topographical maps became apparent. The army’s Board of Ordnance began triangulation work in 1784 and the Trigonometrical Survey, now the Ordnance Survey, was founded in 1791. Environs maps for the area around a certain city or town were first produced in 1710 by private firms; they concentrated on the town’s market area and ignored county boundaries and were in great demand. The O.S. was the first to produce a national series of maps not confined to county boundaries. Ordnance Survey maps are considered the standard source for the delineation of historical changes during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The 110 sheets of the First Edition (or Old Series) of 1" to the mile were produced between 1801 and 1873. Precise dating is difficult since:

  • Publication was up to 20 years after the survey date.
  • Revisions were made but still published with the original date.

Reprints of many Old Series maps have been made by the publishers Harry Margary (original 1st editions, in volumes, see Ordnance Survey reference) and David and Charles (folded form, with the addition of later railways etc., over 1,700 localities and dates now available from booksellers and on the Godfrey Edition website).

In 1840 work began on a New Series including 1", 6", 25" and some 50" scales; the three larger-scale ones allowing roads, fields, buildings and other features to be shown at their true scale rather than ‘larger-than-life’ in the 1" maps. Publication started in the 1870s and they have all been revised frequently since then, with the date of the field survey given in the bottom margin. The 25" maps showed civil and ecclesiastical boundaries which are of great use to the family historian. The 25" maps were accompanied by over 5,000 reference books called Parish Area Books (1855-1872) and Books of Reference (1873-1886) which showed the area of each land unit and its use, but they only cover about one quarter of England and Wales (Hindle’s Maps for Historians, 2001 has details). There was a national revision of this series in the period 1893-1898.

The survey for the Third Edition of the 1" was done 1901-1912 and published 1903-1913 in different formats, for example coloured, hachured and black-and-white. The survey for the Fourth Edition was done 1913-1923 and published 1918-1926 in both black-and-white and coloured formats. The Ordnance Survey maps were based on engraved copper plates up to, and including, the Fourth Edition.

Subsequent editions have been produced from drawings by photolithography, which has allowed speedier revisions to be made. All pre-WWII series (1", 6", 25", the more recent 2 ½") and the more detailed town plans are described by Harley (1964, 1975, 1979) who includes guide maps to the sheet numbers.

The Ordnance Survey has also published a 1" Geological Survey from 1835-1888, and several historical maps at various scales (see Richardson’s The Local Historian’s Encyclopaedia, 1985). Richard Oliver’s Ordnance Survey Maps – A Concise Guide for Historians, 1993 is the most up-to-date summary of what scales were published for what localities at what times and gives much interpretative material. Paul Hindle’s Maps for Historians, 2002 is the best reference for the family historian wanting more detail on O.S. maps. Some examples of Ordnance Survey and other publishers’ maps are shown in the maps below, and Barry Rideout (Rideout of Maps, 2002) describes his successes finding how his family lived, by using O.S. maps.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Land and Property Records including Manorial Documents and Maps offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.