Dr. Shaun Evans is Director of the Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates an all-Wales research centre based at Bangor University which explores issues relating to the history, culture and landscapes of Wales, through the prisms of estates and their cultural heritage collections. @YstadauCymru
Welsh estate maps 1: Property, Place and Power
In his influential book, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, the cultural geographer Denis E. Cosgrove (1948-2008) made the important assertion that:
‘Landscape constitutes a discourse, through which social groups historically have framed themselves and their relations with both the land, and with other human groups’.
This statement is entirely applicable to landed estates, which were dominant structures in the life of Wales from the late-medieval period, through to the early decades of the 20th century. From Mostyn, Penrhyn, Baron Hill and Nannau in the north, through to the sprawling Wynnstay lands, Powis Castle on the border, Trawsgoed and Gogerddan in mid-Wales and on to Bute, Tredegar, Cawdor and Plymouth lands further south – almost every corner of the Welsh landscape has at some point been influenced by the priorities of an estate. These estates came in all shapes and sizes, with their character and composition varying according to the interests, identities and influence of their owners and the nature of their geographical and community settings.
Estate maps which developed in England from the 1570s and became more widespread in Wales from the mid-18th century, formed part of the rich and varied accumulations of records which were generated by these estates over the course of their existence. Many of these records have survived in the hundreds of estate archives and solicitors’ collections which have been deposited in repositories such as the National Library, Bangor University Archives and local record offices across Wales.
These estate archives contain a huge variety of record types: title deeds, settlements, wills, surveys, rentals, leases, accounts, correspondence, receipts, legal papers, architectural plans, enclosure documents and official commissions – sometimes stretching across centuries. These records were produced as part of the acquisition, development and management of estates, and to ensure their transfer through inheritance.
Estate maps and surveys should not be considered in isolation from the corpuses of related records found within estate archives. Analysed within this context, they provide vivid insights into how the owners of Welsh estates appropriated, fashioned and inscribed the landscape in ways which communicated their self-identity: their social, political, religious and economic values; their status, tastes, power and wealth.
These maps were often created as working documents, displayed and used in estate offices and country houses to assist with the management of a landed patrimony, providing the owners of estates and their agents with visual representations of the territory subject to their control. Writing to Owen Meyrick of Bodorgan in 1725, the multi-talented Lewis Morris (1701-65) referred to his recently-completed survey of the Anglesey estate, boasting that ‘he can scarce believe that ever a gentleman hath such an insight of his estates as he is likely to have from these maps’. The use of maps as tools of estate management can be seen in the additions that were often made to them over the years: pencil marks denoting boundary changes, sales, new tenants or references to other records held in the muniment room.
For centuries, ownership of land constituted a primary signifier of status and power in Welsh society. The ability to retain control of this land, add to it and then pass it on to future generations of the same ‘blood and name’ framed the existence of those dynasties which dominated Welsh society up until the demise of estates in the early-20th century. Together with records such as valuations and rentals, estate maps and surveys can provide indications of the territorial extent of an individual’s influence; and if part of a long chronological series of records, can show how a family acquired, expanded, consolidated, ‘improved’ or indeed lost their landed interest over a succession of generations. The maps were often commissioned at points of change: at times of inheritance, purchase or sale, or indeed to provide blueprints for future works. Estate maps were therefore fully bound up in a consciousness of dynastic pride and territoriality, expressed most assertively through the display of coats of arms and other heraldic symbols on the face of the document.
As well as giving an indication of the extent of an estate (or part therefore) these maps also provide valuable insights into how their owners moulded their dominions to enhance their wealth and to imprint their identities – their power and status – within the landscape. It is no surprise that the plas or country house is usually the most prominent feature depicted on estate maps – reflecting its importance in the locality and its status as the primary architectural symbol of its owner’s influence over the surrounding community. Indeed, detailed depictions of country houses are often included in the margins of estate maps.
In addition to the country house with its outbuildings, gardens and parklands, estate maps can also depict farms, fields, roads, woodlands, mills, churches, towns, walls, ponds, trees, boundaries, bridges, industrial sites such as mines and quarries and occasionally even livestock or hunting scenes. All of these physical features were shaped by the priorities of the estate to which they belonged and served, in varying degrees, to inscribe certain values and concepts into the landscape. Some estate owners invested significant money and energy in creating Designed Landscapes, or in schemes of ‘improvement’. A printed map of the Hafod estate, produced to accompany George Cumberland’s Attempt to Describe Hafod (1796), gives some indication of Thomas Johnes’ (1748-1816) efforts to draw out the picturesque qualities of his landholdings, with numerous ‘walks’ and ‘viewing points’ marked out on the map. All estate maps suggest ways in which estates contributed to place-making.
They also provide snapshots of the theatre on which the landholding elites of Wales developed and negotiated those all-important social and community relations – with tenants, neighbours, local-clergy, servants and employees – which underpinned their position in local society. The names of tenants or tenements are occasionally inscribed on the maps or feature in adjoining documentation (often missing), sometimes with details of leases, rents and services. The estate landscapes depicted by maps were lived in, with cottages and farms providing housing and the wider activities of the estate sustaining a range of work and employment.
In this sense the maps provide unique entry points for exploring that discourse between power, people and place which underpinned the creation of the symbolic landscapes and social structures talked about by Cosgrove.
Notwithstanding the excellent work of Bob Silvester, research into Welsh estate maps remains slight, despite the numerous insights they can provide into Wales’ landscape history. At the Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates, we hope to play our part in addressing this deficit over the coming years.
Sarah A. Bendall, Maps, Land and Society: A history, with a carto-bibliography, of Cambridgeshire estate maps, 1600-1836 (Cambridge, 1992)
Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (2nd edn., Madison, 1998)
P.D.A. Harvey, ‘English Estate Maps: Their early history and their use as historical evidence’, in David Buisseret (ed.), Rural Images: Estate Maps in the Old and New Worlds (Chicago, 1996), 27-61
Colin Thomas, ‘Estate Surveys as Sources in Historical Geography’, National Library of Wales Journal 14, 4 (December, 1966), 451-69
Hilary M. Thomas, A Catalogue of Glamorgan Estate Maps (Cardiff, 1992)
R.J. Silvester, Mapping Montgomeryshire: Estate maps from 1589 to 1840’, Montgomeryshire Collections 100 (2012), 149-80.
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