#LoveMaps – Mark Whitehead

#LoveMaps / Collections / News and Events - Posted 29-03-2018

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

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