Blog - News and Events

Posted - 17-05-2018

#LoveMaps / Collections / News and Events

Ten Heroes of Welsh Cartography

Tomorrow The National Library of Wales and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales will be holding the third annual Carto-Cymru – Wales Map Symposium at the National Library in Aberystwyth. Our theme this year is Charting the Seas, but for this blog I decided to take a look at some of the great names in Welsh cartography and their achievements.

1) Humphrey Llwyd – Cambriae Typus, 1573
Humphrey Llwyd is the father of Welsh cartography and produced the first printed map specifically of Wales

2) Robert Johnson Survey of the manors of Crickhowell & Tretower, 1587
Robert Johnson’s survey of the manors of Crickhowell and Tretower is the earliest known example of an estate survey created with maps as an integral part of the survey

3) George Owen Penbrochiæ comitatus, 1602
George Owen’s map of Pembrokeshire includes a number of innovative features such as the depiction of roads and an alphanumeric grid with a place name index giving coordinates

4) Gabriel Thomas – Pennsylvania and West Jersey, 1698
Gabriel Thomas was a Welshman who settled in Pennsylvania and wrote a book about the colony, this book included an early map of the colony produced by the London mapseller Philip Lea.

5) Thomas Taylor – The Principality of Wales exactly described, 1718
Thomas Taylor produced the first published atlas specifically of Wales

6) Emanuel Bowen – A New and Accurate Map of South Wales, 1729
Emanuel Bowen’s map of South Wales was the most detailed map of South Wales available when it was published and remained so for a generation.

7) Lewis Morris Plans of harbours, bars, bays and roads in St. George’s Channel, 1748
Lewis Morris was a polymath originally from Anglesey, he produced a set of detailed charts of the Welsh coast in order to improve safety for ships sailing around the Welsh coast. His work was later expanded upon by his son William

8) Lewis Evans – A map of the middle British colonies in North America, 1755
Lewis Evans was another Welshman working in America, his map of the British colonies is one of the most important and influential maps of the period, and was still being reproduced at the time of the War of Independence.

9) John Evans – Map of North Wales, 1795
John Evans’s map of North Wales did for that part of the country what Bowen’s map had done for South Wales, i.e. provide a detailed standardised portrayal of the area.

10) Robert Roberts – Darluniad y Ddaear, 1805
Robert Roberts was a Geographer from Holyhead; he produced some of the first maps to be published in the Welsh language. This map of the world was originally published in the Rev. Thomas Charles’s Y Geiriadur Ysgrythyrol (The Scripture Dictionary) and was reissued a number of times in this and other publications

Huw Thomas
Map Curator

Posted - 10-05-2018

#LoveMaps / Collections / News and Events

#LoveMaps – Bob Silvester

Dr Bob Silvester, FSA, Visiting Professor, University of Chester takes part in our #LoveMaps campaign.

A professional archaeologist for all of his working life, first in Devon and Somerset and later in Norfolk, he moved to Wales in 1989 when appointed deputy director of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust. He retired from CPAT at the beginning of 2016, and for research purposes he is now affiliated to the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester. His interest in all types of historic maps, but especially estate mapping, emerged during his time in the Norfolk fenlands where maps were a vital adjunct to the fieldwork that was unravelling the development of the historic landscape. Over the last twenty-five years his interest in mapping has grown, and now with retirement, he is able to spend more time immured in local record offices and, of course, the National Library, examining maps of east Wales and the adjacent border counties in England.

Mapblog 4 Tredegar Volume 1780 Map 1

Estate map coverage across the counties of Wales is distinctively uneven. Monmouthshire can boast some impressive and extensive surveys, now held in the National Library, from the second half of the eighteenth century by the likes of Robert Snell and John Aram. Radnorshire on the other hand is arguably the most impoverished of Welsh counties when it comes to estate surveys. Geographically between the two is Breconshire, a county that produced only two or three land surveyors during the course of eighteenth century, and whose estate map legacy is decidedly unremarkable.

One surveyor, though, whose work in the county is of particular interest was Edward Thomas who came from Margam in Glamorgan. The National Library has amongst the Tredegar archives, a fine volume of Thomas’s surveys of Charles Morgan’s holdings in Breconshire undertaken in 1780-1. A companion volume in the sense that it is very similar in its appearance and layout was prepared in 1780 for the Breconshire estates of Lord Camden, although direct comparison has to rely on digital images of the title pages, maps and schedules for this one is held in the Kent county archives in Maidstone. A third Thomas ‘atlas’ of estates in the county belonging to George Venables Vernon of Britton Ferry dates from 1776 and is now in the West Glamorgan archives in Swansea.

Collectively, these three surveys cover in excess of 14,000 acres and thus around 3% of the land surface of the historic county of Breconshire. This may not appear a particularly impressive figure but is rather more than many eighteenth-century surveyors will have achieved in any region of comparable size. And for the landscape historian Edward Thomas offers some unanticipated benefits. Many surveyors were content to map just the field layout, the watercourses and the roads and lanes passing through their patron’s estate, and the buildings within its bounds. Much less commonly, a surveyor incorporated incidental features that he came across in the landscape, features that add next to nothing to the agricultural picture that he was commissioned to depict and quantify, but which can be of considerable interest to us.

Take for instance the first map in the Tredegar atlas, reproduced here. A large and informative map, it was folded twice to allow its accommodation within Thomas’s volume. Close to the western edge is the town of Brecon. Charles Morgan’s holdings within the town were small although he did own the castle, and Thomas too depicted the priory church (now Brecon Cathedral) providing further context. Now if we were to combine this map with Thomas’ depiction of Lord Camden’s holdings in and around the town, we would achieve quite a useful representation of Brecon as it was in 1780. Further east, and almost central on the map, is Slough Tump. Interestingly, this had been surveyed twenty years earlier by the Brecon surveyor, Meredith Jones, whose map is also in the National Library. Jones portrayed Slough Tump as a simple field, albeit a curiously shaped one, and adjacent fields were shown in a similar manner, bereft of any detail. Thomas, however, chose to label it an ‘old fortification’ (quite correctly, as it’s an Iron Age hillfort) and also gave it the intriguing title of ‘Ginger Wall’, presumably courtesy of a local informant, but a name that I have not come across in any other source. North of the tump but not on Morgan’s land was St Eluned’s Chapel: there are no visible signs of the building today, but evidently at the end of the eighteenth century its ruins were visible. And to the north-west of the chapel were relict traces of the medieval open fields around the town, showing as narrow strips, again something that Meredith Jones failed to show. Edward Thomas’s attention to detail, just in this one small area, can be rounded off with depictions of an ‘old bank’ and the ‘remains of a hedge’, field boundaries that by his day had fallen out of use. Its regrettable that there are not more eighteenth-century surveyors in Wales who had a similar appreciation for the minutiae of the landscape.

 

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Posted - 07-05-2018

Events / News and Events / Reader Services

Family and Local History Fair

This Saturday 12th May the fifth Family and Local History Fair will be held here at the Library. It will be a great opportunity for anyone with an interest in starting their journey to discovery their ancestors or perhaps to research the history of a house or area of importance to them. There will be something for everyone, including two enthusiastic speakers in their field of excellence – Dr Reg Davies, who maintains the Welsh Mariners website and Richard Suggett, an expert in old buildings who work for the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments – remember to book your free tickets.

There will be an opportunity to talk to experienced genealogists from the Library and the county Family History Societies, who will be able to give you advice. We have all probably inherited collections of photographs over the years, there will be a photo restorer on hand to give advice on how to store and restore your photographs.

Many local history groups will be present as well as the History Forum of Wales and Ceredigion Local History Forum. To coincide with the 200th anniversary of emigration from Ceredigion to Ohio, the Cymru-Ohio Society will be sharing more information about their celebrations to be held at the end of June.

It is of course an opportunity for some to visit the Reading Rooms to extend their research and also to visit the Kyffin Williams exhibition in Gregynog Gallery. Plenty to do for the whole day here.

Posted - 03-05-2018

#LoveMaps / Collections / News and Events

#LoveMaps – Bob Silvester

Dr Bob Silvester, FSA, Visiting Professor, University of Chester takes part in our #LoveMaps campaign.

A professional archaeologist for all of his working life, first in Devon and Somerset and later in Norfolk, he moved to Wales in 1989 when appointed deputy director of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust. He retired from CPAT at the beginning of 2016, and for research purposes he is now affiliated to the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester. His interest in all types of historic maps, but especially estate mapping, emerged during his time in the Norfolk fenlands where maps were a vital adjunct to the fieldwork that was unravelling the development of the historic landscape. Over the last twenty-five years his interest in mapping has grown, and now with retirement, he is able to spend more time immured in local record offices and, of course, the National Library, examining maps of east Wales and the adjacent border counties in England.

Thomas Badeslade

You’re perhaps wondering why this blog is accompanied not by a map but by a topographical drawing from 1740 of Hawarden castle in Flintshire. Simply put, it’s a surrogate image. The National Library as far as I’ve been able to establish holds no manuscript surveys by Thomas Badeslade – those that he prepared in Wales are to be found in the Flintshire, Cheshire and Bangor University archives, others remain in the muniments of the families that commissioned them nearly three hundred years ago.

Badeslade, probably from a Godalming (Surrey) family and subsequently relocated in London, was one of several gifted individuals who in the first half of the eighteenth century ventured into different projects to make a living. Initially a map copyist, he turned successively to architectural drawing (in Kent and then further afield), a land surveyor, a fen drainage specialist and a producer of county maps. William Williams, a slightly younger contemporary of Badeslade who I’ve already highlighted through his map of Denbighshire and Flintshire, also diversified his efforts into different fields, and more famous than either now is John Rocque, of Huguenot lineage and also established in London, the creator of some of the eighteenth-century’s most important and distinctive maps.

Why then select Badeslade for examination here? Firstly, I think, because we know a little more about him than many other surveyors of this time. Of William Williams the man and his career, we know virtually nothing other than any incidental details that can be deduced from his maps, an impediment that holds true for a significant number of land surveyors operating in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But with Badeslade we have his testament, compiled a month before he died in 1744 (at Llandinam in Montgomeryshire) which amongst other things reveals that after a major altercation with his first patron Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton Hall, Norfolk – no surprise to those who are aware that our first prime minister was a notoriously difficult character – he had to seek patronage elsewhere, distancing himself in north Wales well away from Walpole’s influence.

Then there is the fact that Badeslade’s mapping style developed over the quarter of a century that he was active, yet remains distinctively recognisable throughout this period. His testament refers to a commission that he undertook at Newmarket (now Trelawnyd) in Flintshire and for which he had yet to be paid. A draft of this map has been tracked down in the Bangor University archives, attributable not because it was autographed but because of Badeslade’s distinctive style.

And finally there are the maps themselves. For the Grosvenor family of Eaton Hall near Chester, Badeslade mapped the upland commons of the various lordships they held in north-east Wales in the years 1738 to 1740. These are massive maps, one of them nearly three metres long. They are clearly delineated, the boundaries of the common closely defined, the settlements around their edges are shown and – a plus for the archaeologist and landscape historian – the remains of mining and other industrial activities on the commons themselves. These maps are outstanding representations of the extensive upland landscapes in north-east Wales, and so vital to the running of the Grosvenor estates that a century or so later, a Mold mapmaker was well paid to make precise copies of them.

Thomas Badeslade is not in the same league as John Rocque, but I’d like to believe that his considerable achievements place him above the general run of eighteenth-century land surveyors. For further information about Thomas Badeslade see:

R. Silvester.Thomas Badeslade: his life and career from eastern England to north Wales, in S. Ashley and A. Marsden (eds) Landscapes and Artefacts: studies in East Anglian Archaeology presented to Andrew Rogerson. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2014, pp. 217-229.

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Posted - 26-04-2018

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#LoveMaps – Bob Silvester

Dr Bob Silvester, FSA, Visiting Professor, University of Chester takes part in our #LoveMaps campaign.

A professional archaeologist for all of his working life, first in Devon and Somerset and later in Norfolk, he moved to Wales in 1989 when appointed deputy director of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust. He retired from CPAT at the beginning of 2016, and for research purposes he is now affiliated to the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester. His interest in all types of historic maps, but especially estate mapping, emerged during his time in the Norfolk fenlands where maps were a vital adjunct to the fieldwork that was unravelling the development of the historic landscape. Over the last twenty-five years his interest in mapping has grown, and now with retirement, he is able to spend more time immured in local record offices and, of course, the National Library, examining maps of east Wales and the adjacent border counties in England.

Edward Matthews’ map of Llanarmon Mynydd Mawr

Thomas Slaughter and Richard Richardson will be familiar names only to those who have a deep interest in eighteenth-century mining activity in Wales. Slaughter is a fairly obscure individual, but Richardson was more obviously eminent, a goldsmith, an alderman in Chester for many years, and in 1757 the city’s mayor. As mining entrepreneurs they commissioned mapped surveys of areas likely to have unexploited mineral deposits prior to leasing the land from its owner. Edward Matthews, the first generation of a family of surveyors based in Mold in Flintshire, seems to have been their preferred choice and his name appears on a number of maps including two from the 1750s of the Chirk Castle estate holdings of Llanymynech Hill near Oswestry and the less well-known Voel Fawr as it is termed on the map shown here, the most prominent hill in the parish of Llanarmon Mynydd Mawr, historically in southern Denbighshire but now in Powys. Slaughter, Richardson and Richard Myddelton, lord of Chirk all signed the map, presumably confirming it to be an accurate representation of this upland landscape.

Edward Matthews’ map cannot by classed as an estate map in the strict sense of the term. It shows only a very small portion of the lands owned by Richard Myddelton and indeed depicts the lands of other freeholders; it is better termed a property map, and for me this is one of its strengths. Had it just been a depiction of Myddelton’s farmed estate, the unenclosed mountain land that was Voel Fawr would have received little attention because of its limited agricultural interest. Here though it is the mountain that was important for its potential mineral reserves. Matthews shows the terrain as a series of humps, in a traditional fashion that had been adopted by Saxton nearly two hundred years before. He depicts the various slate quarries that had been opened on what was almost certainly still functioning as common land in the eighteenth century, and also old mine workings, seen as groups of black dots, which would have attracted the specific attention of Slaughter and Richardson, as they do the archaeologist of today.

Yet it is not the olive green wash employed for the mountain that attracts the eye, but the bright colours – brick red, yellow, slate green etc – adopted for the different freeholders’ lands, lying mainly to the south of a lane that tracked eastwards along the contours towards the hamlet of Llanarmon Mynydd Mawr. In particular it is the surprisingly mixed pattern of land holdings with strangely shaped fields which is of interest. And in this we are moving outside the province of archaeology and into that of socio-economic history, for the pattern is best explained as a consequence of the Welsh system of partible inheritance, whereby each of the deceased’s male heirs acquired an equal portion of his land. This contrasted with the English system of primogeniture where the eldest son normally inherited the entire estate. Matthews’ map unfortunately can’t provide the information as to when the fragmentation of the holding took place, and the irregular fields that show so clearly on his map are today barely visible in the landscape, having been swept away in a rationalisation of the field layout in the later nineteenth century.

A question remains unanswered. Why did the surveyor show the land of various farmers? The answer probably lies in the fact that Richard Myddelton was the lord of the manor and claimed the mineral rights across (or more accurately below) other men’s land. There is though no archaeological evidence to suggest that Slaughter and Richardson exploited this option.

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Posted - 19-04-2018

#LoveMaps / Collections / News and Events

#LoveMaps – Bob Silvester

Dr Bob Silvester, FSA, Visiting Professor, University of Chester takes part in our #LoveMaps campaign.

A professional archaeologist for all of his working life, first in Devon and Somerset and later in Norfolk, he moved to Wales in 1989 when appointed deputy director of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust. He retired from CPAT at the beginning of 2016, and for research purposes he is now affiliated to the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester. His interest in all types of historic maps, but especially estate mapping, emerged during his time in the Norfolk fenlands where maps were a vital adjunct to the fieldwork that was unravelling the development of the historic landscape. Over the last twenty-five years his interest in mapping has grown, and now with retirement, he is able to spend more time immured in local record offices and, of course, the National Library, examining maps of east Wales and the adjacent border counties in England.

William Williams’ Denbigh and Flint


As an archaeologist I have found little of interest in county maps. Almost invariably they were drawn at a scale too small to show details of the landscape changes that are significant for us in our studies. Over years of working in north-east Wales, however, I’d periodically come across references to William Williams’ New map of Denbigh and Flint, generally attributed to 1720 or 1721, in books and articles without encountering the map itself. What such references shared in common was the claimed connection with a handful of others from the early eighteenth century, together exemplifying a ‘new wave’ of county maps that succeeded those of Saxton, Norden and Speed from the end the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, with William Williams’ map the sole Welsh representative in a distinguished line-up .

William Williams himself had an interesting if relatively brief career, producing some elegant estate surveys in the mid-1730s for big landowners in north-east Wales and Cheshire, before succumbing to a ‘gout in his stomach’ in 1739. He is though better known outside Wales for his volume of architectural drawings entitled Oxonia Depicta published in 1732-33. It was inevitable that in studying his estate surveys, I’d look at Williams’ earlier cartographic work, and two perhaps not unrelated facts soon emerged. One was that little had been written about the surveyor, a recent writer on Oxford’s historic architecture terming him obscure, which is probably in the context of middle England a fair comment. And of his county map, the only comments of substance are in a paper compiled by the National Library’s Glyn Walters in 1968. More intriguingly, it was apparent in 1968 and even more so today that despite the fact that this purports to be a printed map, only one original copy is known – that housed in the National Library – which might go some way to explaining why so little has been written about it.

At first sight Williams’ map is rather different from its county predecessors. It is in modern parlance ‘very busy’. There is hardly a square inch of spare space because the compiler has packed in around the perimeter of the map a large number of armorial shields, each seemingly crossed referenced by number or letter to the houses of the aristocracy and gentry that are marked on the map itself. For the most prominent families – the Grosvenors, the Mostyns, the Wynns – the heraldry is accompanied by drawn elevations of their principal country residences. As if this were not enough blank areas around the mapped counties are filled in with prospects of Chester and Denbigh, two of the counties’ great churches – Wrexham and Gresford – though not we might note the cathedral at St Asaph, and the lead works or ‘workhouse’ at Gadlis near Flint. Yet evidence is accumulating, though it’s something I’m still working on, that Williams adopted elements of Saxton’s late sixteenth-century map or perhaps more likely one of its later derivatives for his own plan, rather than surveying the two counties anew. He then corrected or updated place-names, perhaps removed one or two buildings that had disappeared during the previous century and a half, but compensated by adding large numbers of mansions as well some major roads.

There aren’t as far as I have been able to establish many published maps which displayed the characteristic of a map encompassed by the arms of the region’s leading landowners, though perhaps a reader of this blog may be better informed than I am. One that has just been fully published by the Cambridgeshire Records Society is Jonas Moore’s Mapp of the Great Levell of the Fenns from 1658, another is John Senex’s A New General Atlas… published in London where the numerous subscribers to his world atlas are represented across numerous introductory pages by their coats-of-arms. The date of the General Atlas – 1721 – is significant in the context of William Williams’ work, not least because at the end of the title band on the county map is inscribed L Senex sculp.t

Digital version of this map

Posted - 12-04-2018

#LoveMaps / Collections / News and Events

#LoveMaps – Mark Whitehead

Professor Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University takes part in our #LoveMaps Campaign.

Centres of Cartographic Attention

Global maps present challenges to cartographers. In attempting to represent the entire world, perplexing practical and political decisions have to be made. Practically, there is, of course, the issue of representing a three-dimensional sphere in two dimensions. This challenge has given rise to numerous map projections of the world, ranging from Mercator to Cassini, and from Goode homolosine to Gall-Peters. Each projection has its own merits, perhaps related to its ability to avoid distortion, or its potential utility for navigational purposes. Politically, there is the question of what to place at the centre of the map, and what you relegate to its peripheries. Should the focus of the map be the Greenwich Meridian or perhaps the poles (as we see in the disorienting Cassini projection)?

This political question of what should occupy the centre of our global cartographic projections provides a segue in to the map I would like to discuss within this post. This map of The World was prepared for the National Geographic Magazine ca. 1922. It has a number of interesting features. It outlines early trans-Atlantic aeroplane routes, many of which had been authorised, but not yet used (Charles Lindberg’s first solo flight across the Atlantic was not until 1927). The map also marks out several ‘unexplored regions’ in the Arctic and Antarctic. The map is based on the Van der Grinten projection. The projection is interesting for two main reasons. First, this is a ‘compromise’ map projection, which seeks to preserve the basic outlines of a Mercator map, while minimising its distortions. Second, the projection was conceived by one Alphon J. van der Grinten. Van der Grinten was an American who developed his map projections in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Van der Grinten’s nationality may help to explain why the National Geographic Magazine (the magazine of the American National Geographic Society) may have commissioned a map based on this particular projection (van der Grinten projections are commonly found in the US). What is certain is that this particular projection accentuates the size and significance of Northern Hemisphere nations like the US, while diminishing the relative size of nations nearer to the Equator.

What most interests me about this map, however, is not its projection, but its central focus. The positioning of the Americas at the heart of the map should come as no surprise: this is, of course, common for maps produced for US audiences. However, giving the Americas pride of place has interesting consequences for other countries. Russia is cut crudely in half, with parts of Siberia in the eastern hemisphere and others in the west. India is unevenly dissected with the most easterly territories (today largely constituting Bangladesh) suddenly appearing on the far west of the world map. I have never been particularly comfortable with Britain being the centre of global maps, given the colonial ideologies this has historically supported. Nevertheless, the use of the Greenwich Meridian as the centre of a world map does appear to do the least amount of damage the cartographic representation of other states of the world (with the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean offering the edges of the map). But even then, Pacific Island states can often see their territorial integrities disrupted. Cartographically speaking, it appears that whatever projections and modes of division are chosen, world maps can never please all of the nations all of the time.

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Posted - 29-03-2018

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#LoveMaps – Mark Whitehead

Professor Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University takes part in our #LoveMaps Campaign.

The ‘last invasion of Britain’ and the and Ordnance Survey

My previous blogs in this LoveMaps Series have focused on the underlying geographical processes that maps can help to reveal, and the ulterior motivations that often inform cartography (maps are never innocent!) . These insights come together in my next choice of map, two Ordnance Survey sheets of Pembrokeshire. I initially chose to look at maps of Pembrokeshire because it is a county that holds special meaning to me. It is the site of my first holiday memories as a child, and the place I now take my own children every summer. When I was presented with these early Ordnance Survey maps of Pembrokeshire I was struck by their sophisticated simplicity. OS maps have the happy knack of being able to convey large amounts of useful cartographic information in an elegant and very readable form. If any maps were going to be “innocent” it was surely these. How wrong I was!

On first inspecting these maps in the National Library of Wales I learned that Pembrokeshire was the first area of the Wales to be mapped by the Ordnance Survey. The reasons for this were twofold. Firstly, from its inception in the 18th century the “Ordnance” Survey was an operation designed to support military operations in Britain. With revolutionary forces at play on the Continent, the Board of Ordnance was tasked with providing maps of England’s southern coast in case of invasion. The original Ordnance Survey was thus a survey focused on where best to locate military ordnance in the form of artillery in order to ward-off foreign invasion. Secondly, Pembrokeshire was the site of the most recent French invasion of Britain. The Battle of Fishguard was a short affair, which occurred on 22-24 February 1797. The French invasion of Pembrokeshire was actually a diversionary operation designed to distract Britain from a parallel invasion of Ireland, it failed spectacularly. Interestingly, it is now commonly referred to as the ‘last invasion of Britain’.

For me, these are two beautiful maps of a place I dearly love. But these are also maps with military purpose that can tell us something of the processes of state building and defence in 18th and 19th century Britain. The concern that these maps clearly show for elevated land, coastal details, and road and river routes were not designed to serve the travelling tourist, but the British military. These reflections may seem interesting (hopefully), but anachronistic: the OS is no longer in the service of the Britain military. This may be the case, but military interests will always shape national cartographic practices. Next time you pick-up an OS sheet, you may want to pay attention to the lack of detail they provide of existing military sites in Britain and what goes on there. Maps that once made things visible for military purposes can also assist in making things invisible when necessary.

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Posted - 22-03-2018

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#LoveMaps – Professor Mark Whitehead

Professor Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University takes part in our #LoveMaps Campaign.

There is no such thing as an innocent map

There is a popular misconception that maps merely reflect the territories that they have been drawn to depict. The idea of the map as a form of innocent representation has, however, long been challenged within more critical cartographic communities. Within human geography there is a popular, if somewhat counterintuitive, aphorism that maps precede territories, not territories maps (Pickles, 2012). I remember when I first read this statement thinking how radical it was. I knew that maps could not represent fully the complex territories they charted: the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, for example, emphasizes the representational limits of maps when he asks, ‘how many maps, in the descriptive and geographical sense, might be needed to deal exhaustively with a given space, to code and decode all its meanings and contents?’ (1991: 85). While only an infinite number of maps may be able to deal exhaustively with a territory, what if there was more to the representational limits of maps than the practical selection of which features to depict and which to exclude?

Over time I have come to appreciate, and be fascinated by, the political motivations that inform the construction of maps. These motivations are not necessarily about lying through cartography, in the sense of deliberate misrepresentation, they are often more subtle attempts to generate political power and influence. Cadastral maps were among some of the earliest attempts to chart national territories in countries like Sweden. But these maps were not just about descriptions they were a basis for the generation of land taxes to fund early national governments. Global maps projections have long been associated with the projection of political power. Translating a three-dimensional sphere on to two-dimensional paper will always involve aspects of cartographic manipulation. But many global map projections have tended to emphasize the power and influence of colonial powers by maximising their territorial area and minimising those of colonialized states.

It was while looking at different global map projections in the National Library of Wales that I was shown this arresting ‘League of Nations Map of the World’. The League of Nations was established in the aftermath of the First World War, in order to create a diplomatic structure in and through which national territories could be peacefully administered and future conflict avoided. The map contains some interesting features, including: the flags of the League of Nations Member States (note the absence of the US and the USSR); pie charts demonstrating the presence of ethnic minorities in European States; and even a graph indicating the relative height of tariff walls. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the map are the inserts that reveal the various Mandates through which Britain was tasked with administering territorially contested areas in Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific.

This ‘League of Nations Map of the World’ interests me because it embodies an overt instance of a map preceding multiple territories. This map is an attempt to cartographically project a vision of an ordered international space, based upon peaceful interstate diplomacy, but which ultimately supports the continuance of the colonial power of European states. This map is also compelling because it marks a failed geopolitical project. The territorial compromises it projected in Europe would ultimately lead to the Second World War, while the territory covered by the Asiatic Mandate in the Middle East continues to be a focus of conflict and violence today. There is nevertheless, something fascinating about a map that can appear so authoritative, complete, and settled, but which we know now would be shattered by the ensuing geopolitical upheavals of the twentieth century.

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Posted - 15-03-2018

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#LoveMaps – Professor Mark Whitehead

Professor Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University takes part in our #LoveMaps Campaign.

Why I don’t always love maps!


It is customary when writing a blog of this kind to begin with an account of one’s personal devotion to maps and the wider cartographic sciences (particularly when you are geographer by profession, as I am). However, if I am to be candid, I have never really been “in to maps”. I don’t collect Ordinance Survey sheets, nor do I spend a lot of time reading maps—I am even a little fuzzy about the particular virtues of different mapping projections. The invitation to write this series of blogs has thus involved a certain degree of soul searching, as I ponder why I am not always inspired by maps. Asking this question has inevitably also helped me articulate more clearly why at other times I find maps just about the most interesting things there are to read.

This blog focuses on a map sequence of the Birmingham and Black Country Conurbation. These three maps depict urban development in the West Midlands from the 19th Century through to 1962. When considered in isolation these maps are fairly unremarkable. The first map shows Birmingham as a small town, flanked on the north west by a series of isolated industrial communities including Wolverhampton, Bilston, and Walsall. Between these early industrial settlements are large tracts of open space and farmland. The second sheet shows Birmingham in the first half of the twentieth century, now much expanded and beginning to merge with Oldbury and Smethwick to the west and Erdington to the north east. By 1962 we find a fully-fledged, multi-centred urban agglomeration stretching down to communities as far south as Redditch and fully integrated with the industrial centres of the Black Country. These three maps chart the transformation of small urban communities (each probably no more than 2 miles in diameter) into a continuous agglomeration of some 15 miles in width. For me, this is when maps become most interesting.

I think one of the reasons I have never been a cartophile is because when taken in isolation maps can appear to offer very settled depictions of the human and physical worlds. As a Marxist geographer by training I have always been encouraged to think of the world, and its constituent parts, not as things, but rather as processes. This distinction between things and processes is captured nicely in the distinction between the individual maps of Birmingham and the Black Country and the sequence of three maps taken to together. In isolation, each map provides only a static snapshot of urban geography in the West Midlands. But in sequence these maps offer insights into the processes of urbanization. These are processes of geographical change that appear to be connected to the emergence of modern industrial capitalism in the West Midlands that attracted ever more migrants to the emerging economies of the area. They are also processes that concern the emergence of suburbs and the often overlooked, but increasingly powerful, land economy of cities.

Each year I take my third-year urban geography students to Birmingham. I begin the field activities atop the Library of Birmingham from where it is possible to get a sense of the vast scale of this modern conurbation. This year, as ever, I will encourage them to think of the city less as a thing and more as a set of ongoing processes. When understood in this way, it is possible to connect the processes of industrial urbanization that began in Birmingham with the historically unparalleled rates of urbanization that are now evident in China, India and Nigeria at the moment. Now that is why I love maps.

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.

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