My Love Affair with Ordnance Survey Maps

Close-up from popular edition Ordnance Survey map of Wimborne and Ringwood, 1925. Photo by author.

“After you left I sent down to Stamford’s for the Ordnance map of this portion of the moor, and my spirit has hovered over it all day. I flatter myself that I could find my way about.” – Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles

I first became acquainted with Ordnance Survey Maps during my years working at the English Place-Name Society. In the back room there was a large cabinet with a lot of wide, shallow drawers where the maps were kept, pristine and protected, ready for visiting scholars to pull out and spread on a big table for study. This was an important collection of older maps that reflected the names and topography of the historical periods relevant to place-name studies.

Ordnance Survey Maps were, and still are, produced by Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency for Great Britain. The origins of this agency go back to the Jacobite rising of 1745, when the forces of King George II lacked the detailed maps they needed to find and root out Scottish supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart). In 1747, military officers were charged by the king to make a survey of the Scottish highlands at a scale of 1 inch to 1000 yards. It was soon obvious that having good maps of all parts of Britain would be advantageous for a variety of reasons, so as surveying instruments advanced, the mapping campaign continued. The first maps of the southern counties were published in 1801; the other counties followed in succeeding decades. To allow my spirit to hover over Anglo-Saxon England, I like to use these Old Series or First Edition Ordnance Survey Maps, which show Britain before the changes brought about by the railways.  

The Old Series, as well as other series and maps, can be accessed freely on the internet via The resolution is very good, and you can zoom in closely to see the tiniest details. You can also toggle around onto different sheets of the series without having to exit and click on another file.

Sometimes, though, hovering in spirit over a virtual map is too distant a remove; you need to have a physical map spread out before you. Copies of old maps can also be downloaded and taken to a local printer to be printed on a large sheet of paper. Several years ago, my geography-loving son paid $6 of his own money to have a map of Dorset printed for me as a birthday gift. Isn’t it remarkable that we like to give and receive gifts that reflect a shared interest?

I also have a 1925 Popular Edition map of Wimborne and Ringwood that I found on Ebay. It is paper backed with cloth, one inch to one mile, printed in beautiful colors and incredibly fine detail.

It’s easy to take maps for granted. We forget that accurate maps bring together a wealth of different kinds of data. The Ordnance Survey maps used scientific measurements from an instrument known as a theodolite to accurately measure the land. However, the mapping also required crews of trained cartographers to record houses, churches, rivers, hills, swamps, farm fields, surviving Roman roads, and Iron Age tumuli in every corner of the land. They tramped out to remote villages before the age of rail travel to write down place-names according to local spellings. They did this in all seasons and weathers, year after year. Thanks to them, Sherlock Holmes and I can hover over our chosen parts of the country in spirit, and imagine what villainy might be lurking there.