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 1Estate 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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