British Town Maps

British Town Maps: A History by Roger J. P Kain and Richard R. Oliver. British Library, London, 2015. ISBN 978 0 7123 57296. 256, 166 illus. STG £30.

Roger Kain and Richard Oliver can be congratulated on this long-awaited and very welcome publication of a majestic and comprehensive survey of British town maps. Over the last three decades the authors have collaborated on thematic surveys of enclosure and tithe maps and the present volume represents the culmination of this set of projects. Kain and Oliver thus bring us the benefit of a considerable track record in the systematic and exhaustive recording and evaluation of distinct series of maps.
As long ago as 1971 Brian Harley commented on the uneven local availability of town maps and the distinct lack of published finding aids. The present publication goes a long way to provide the researcher with a comprehensive list of what may be available and the scholarly context with which to appraise it.
British Town Maps is a beautifully produced and presented account of the genre. There are twenty substantive chapters covering all conceivable variants of town maps from c. 1250 to the present. The book is illustrated with 166 figures, many in colour. The large format of the book is particularly appropriate for the cartographic subject matter. The text is copiously referenced with 125 notes, some of which are very detailed allowing the reader to pursue points in greater detail. To mirror the comprehensive and inclusive treatment of town maps, the illustrations include views of towns and well as maps of varying degrees of sophistication and planimetric accuracy. Adding immeasurable value to the book is the accompanying free web resource: the Catalogue of British Town Maps (CBTM), a cartobibliography of over 7100 maps. The printed book also has a helpful list of towns in the online catalogue, with numbers of maps and date ranges for each, providing a nice overview before the reader delves into the detail on the Internet.
What is a town? This question is the starting point for this research, and the authors define the urban form and its cartography methodically in the first two chapters. Various chorographic and cartographic sources, such as Saxton’s maps and Samuel Lewis’s topographical dictionaries, are used to determine what has ever been considered urban within the time-frame of town map production in Great Britain. Thus, to an extent what is a town is arbitrary as there has never been a generally accepted definition. Town maps are taken to be those depicting all or significant parts of an urban area at 1:25,344 or larger scales; a sensible threshold as smaller scales cannot depict more intimate details characteristic of the genre such as street names. There are though exclusions. Maps of utilities, projected works and deposited plans are normally not included. Hence, though there are acknowledged exclusions, the CBTM and the accompanying map does provide a convincingly comprehensive trawl of town mapping without fraying at the edges with ephemeral depictions of urban spaces.
The chapter list confirms that all conceivably relevant kinds of town maps have been found, catalogued and analysed. Though many town maps are classified as ‘general purpose’ there is also a consideration of military maps of towns, boundary mapping, sanitation, fire insurance and town planning maps inter alia. Historical aspects of town maps are treated. The making and printing of town maps are examined. The earliest town maps as well as remapping are treated and survival and loss of town maps is analysed. The very comprehensive set of repositories trawled is listed. Furthermore, maps are sought in a variety of published and manuscript forms including maps made for other purposes than town mapping, such as estate, enclosure and tithe mapping. Maps in works of reference, directories, street maps, atlases and guidebooks are found, as are those included in margins of county maps such as the sixteenth-century pioneering county maps by Saxton. Maps from the most primitive and sketchy to the acclaimed high point of cartographic excellence – the Ordnance Survey 1:500 town plans – are enumerated and described.
The main value of the book is as a finding aid, particularly when used alongside the online catalogue. It is noted that the CBTM has not been updated since April 2008, and so one would hope that in due course newly discovered maps might be added. If one were, for instance, interested in the City of Ely a search would reveal seven maps made between 1610 and 1851. The CBTM first delivers a list; the user can then click on any entry for indication of the repository. Most of the Ely maps are described as ‘general purpose’ but there are also tithe and sanitary maps. A search for maps of Chester reveals one made in 1795 depicting elements of the contemporary manufacturing infrastructure of this crucial early stage in England’s industrial revolution, including metallurgical processing and a rope walk. More traditional occupations are also evidenced such as a salmon weir. There are miscellaneous pictorial descriptions including two ships ‘stern-on’ in the river (CBTM 19202). Using a standardised list of database categories to capture all significant map data, the CBTM is an excellent finding aid. Especially valuable features here are National Grid references, details of the mapmaker and production mode such as engraving [?]. A wealth of topographic description is catalogued such as tenement boundaries, sanitary and utility information, landowners and occupiers. There is even a record of arms and heraldry and of vignettes where these appear. Finally, the list of known copies with repository and shelfmark is an invaluable element, allowing the researcher to readily find the original in its repository and consult it if desired.
However, the book is rather more than mere finding aid. The context of maps is richly revealed and this is where the book acts as an invaluable accompaniment to the CBTM. For instance, the historical context for sanitation maps is provided, as too an historical account is given of the Board of Ordnance, responsible for most military town plans from the late-seventeenth century. The CBTM is used as the empirical basis for the isolation and differentiation of map genres. For example, Board of Ordnance mapping being recognised as having great uniformity of presentation and scale; and a ‘street-map style’ is discerned as a discrete category.
The book also finds items of incidental interest and curiosities, as well as enriching our knowledge of mapmakers. The ‘Circuiteer or Distance Map of London’ is depicted; this was meant to allay complaints about cab overcharging. Did it succeed? We also have the finding of a few military town maps of French origin, some which were published during the Seven Years War. Our understanding of the history of cartography is much enriched with biographical details of surveyors and their tasks. We are told of the difficulties facing Richard Horwood in mapping the much-expanded London from 1792 to 1799. We are also given rich details on John Wood who stands out as the most prolific maker of town maps, mapping at least 148 British towns in the early nineteenth century.
This beautifully illustrated and realised account of British town maps is well worth the £30 cover price; even more so given that the accompanying CBTM is free on the Internet. I would commend it to all serious map collectors and students.

David Fletcher, London Metropolitan University