Maps in the last 300 years

Photo:Evolution of an area of London - Shoreditch, 1740s, 1799 & 1829

Evolution of an area of London - Shoreditch, 1740s, 1799 & 1829

Alan Ruston handout, 2011

Photo:Evolution of an area of London - Shoreditch, 1888, 1930, 1940 & current

Evolution of an area of London - Shoreditch, 1888, 1930, 1940 & current

Alan Ruston handout, 2011

A talk by Alan Ruston to the Society, April 2011

Joyce Bunting

Alan Ruston spoke after the Society’s Annual General Meeting on 26 April 2011.

Why make maps?

Maps weren’t originally made to be helpful to travellers. Our speaker in April,  Alan Ruston, vice chairman of the Hertfordshire Association for Local History and collector of maps, described how they evolved and how old maps could assist research into local, and even family, history.

Modern maps have developed since the 19th century. Before that they weren’t really ‘way-finding’ charts. People didn’t travel much, so maps were more decorative than useful.

The earliest maps in Britain were produced in the 1590’s.  They were made by ‘walking’ and were imprecise.  Distances weren’t accurate and the paths of rivers guessed at. Seats of the gentry were shown rather than towns and villages.  Such maps would most likely have been made for the landowners themselves, to display their wealth and lands. Around 1670, maps still showed no roads and were not coloured. 

Commercial map-making

Copies of commercial maps of Hertfordshire from 1766 to 1832 are published by the Hertfordshire Records Society.  These are topographical maps indicating roads, lanes, churches, grand estates and noblemen’s houses.  Eight sheets cover the county. Copies may be ordered through local libraries.

Until 1811, Cary Mapmakers produced long strip maps which showed routes out of London - e.g. Great North Road. They were useful to travellers by stage coach, and marked the location of inns where a professional guide could be hired for the rest of the journey.


Surveys using triangulation are necessary to produce accurate maps. In Europe charts were produced by this method, but it was late in coming to UK. 

In 1801 the Ordnance Survey started to map Britain using triangulation.  It took 70 years to complete the survey, so was never quite up to date.  Small ‘pocket maps’ became available to the general public about 1850 – when people started using rail and getting around more.

Satellite mapping has developed during the last 20 years and revolutionised mapmaking– just look at ‘Google Earth’ on the world wide web!

Tithe maps showed fields and name tenants. Hertfordshire County Archives aims to put tithe maps online eventually.

Estate maps were made before 1550 up to fairly modern times. They were usually owned by the gentry.  Manorial maps are held in many places.

Street atlases & other sources

In 1850s, city councils were give the legal right to rationalise street names and numbers and make lists of streets, called ‘adoption lists’ which are useful to historians. By comparing old with later maps we can see how residential and commercial areas expanded, how roads were rerouted and renamed etc.

Cassini Online Historical Maps website has a superb range of old maps for sale.

Early maps of London from 1580 are searchable on the web - see the list of sources below, which you can download.

British Library and the National Library of Scotland possess extensive map collections - searchable, and free (see below).

John Stanford was a major mapmaker. Stanford’s shop at 12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden, WC2E 9LP is a wonderful source of maps, as well as online.  Search 'Historical' on

Ordnance Survey maps are copyright.  They were selective and left out sections on purpose - the ‘grey areas’ – for security reasons.  Not so with ‘Google Earth’ which shows some ‘banned sites’.

This page was added by John Wassell on 31/01/2012.

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