England Communication Maps, Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty, Cartographic Records, Road and Rail Networks (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Land and Property Records including Manorial Documents and Maps  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Communication Maps[edit | edit source]

Search out historical cartography books which show modes of transport accessible to your ancestors at different time periods. For example R.R. Sellman’s book (Illustrations of Devon History, 1962) on Devon includes maps of turnpike coaching roads, canals and railways. The researcher should note where the nearest market towns were, remembering that our ancestors frequently travelled by water as well as on land. Market towns were where goods were bought, sold and exchanged, clubs and societies met, spouses found, and hiring fairs took place. Older routes to search for include:

  • Early roads
    These were of-course the main reason for maps to be made from mediaeval times, including 13th century trade and pilgrim routes. Mistakes were sometimes made and as maps were freely copied the errors were perpetuated; Paul Hindle demonstrates the non-existent and impossible road in the Lake District that was first shown in 1749 and repeated by successive publishers until 1798! Larger-scale ones show the footpaths, bridleways and drovers roads. Rights of way are given on enclosure and larger-scale Ordnance Survey maps.
  • Carriers’ routes
    Common carriers’ routes can be ascertained from local directories and then plotted on contemporary maps.
  • Navigable rivers
    Most maps show navigable rivers, but their course may have changed over time either naturally or by man-made improvements during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Ferries will be marked on even smaller-scale maps. There are separate river navigation plans; survivals include some from the 16th century. With tidal water the distinction between these and marine charts is blurred.
  • Coastal and Maritime Charts
    These were made for mariners since Tudor times so land detail is shown only insofar as it assists navigation. Such charts can give a surprising amount of information about landmarks, ports, roads etc. within a few miles of the coast, since the British Isles has nearly 5,000 miles of deeply indented coastline, and inshore waters are often included. Coastal charts can be invaluable for locating long-silted-up harbours, parishes that have been eroded by the sea, churches now under sand dunes, coastguard stations or ancient lighthouses.

Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty[edit | edit source]

The Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty was formed in 1795 and took over production of various-scale maps from private cartographers. These are all precisely dated, (by date of production but not always by date of the content) and catalogued, unlike the O.S. land maps. John Brian Harley (Maps for the Local Historian. A Guide to the British Sources, 1972) should be consulted for further details, a map of coverage and chronology and bibliography.

Cartographic records[edit | edit source]

Cartographic records were made whenever a line of transport cut into an existing built-up area or through established agricultural fields and woodlands. These maps probably still exist as three copies were required by Act of Parliament for major undertakings. There are four major types of these routes to consider:

  • Canals
    The late 18th to early 19th century was the canal era, with over 3,300 miles constructed to connect with the 700 navigable miles of rivers. There are several series of maps of the canal network of Britain. Maps abound, for example there are maps for a proposed Weald of Kent Canal through Nettlestead, Hadlow and Tonbridge are on fiche 6073811(1). Note that this is one of many proposals which never came to fruition, but the maps and accompanying books of reference may still exist!
  • Roads
    Demand for new maps and road books was stimulated by successive developments in road transport:
  • The diversion and closure of highways, bridleways or footways during the Georgian period of estate improvement, as from 1773 the Quarter Sessions had to approve the changes and a map with proposed changes, field names, buildings and ownership was deposited with them, and should now be in the county archives.
  • Turnpikes and coaches, including mail coaches, horse posts and foot posts in the 19th century. Turnpike Trust documents are available from about 1700-1875 and plans are commonly included from 1792. They included details of bridges, toll houses, buildings, field names, names of owners, occupiers, trustees, contractors and those who leased the toll-gates. Turnpike records should first be sought at county archives but could still be in local solicitors’ offices, or have perished. Baron F Duckham (Turnpike Records #18 in Short Guides to Records edited by Lionel M. Munby) gives examples from the Carlisle to Brampton Turnpike Trust in the Lake District in 1828 which include:
Chairman Thos Ramshay and eight other named trustees
John Milburn of Great Corby, mason to build a bridge
Tho. Hilton and -- Armstrong, contractors to build a toll house

However, the individual accounts of the toll bar keepers have rarely survived. Turnpike trust records from 1760-1840 (the golden age of coach travel) contain the first really reliable road maps.
  • The road building work of Telford and McAdam in the early 19th century.
  • Bicycles in the late 19th century.
  • Motor cars from the early 20th century.
  • Urban and cross-country motorways from the 1960s.
  • Railways
    Railways were developed rapidly from the 1830s and each one had plans deposited with the authorities. The engineers usually extended their surveys for a quarter of a mile either side of the proposed line. In built-up areas and where a terminus was to be constructed, plans were on an even larger scale, with precise information on buildings that were to be demolished. These details are particularly useful if they pre-date the large-scale O.S. maps, and for periods between O.S. maps editions. C. J. Wignall(Complete British Railways Maps and Gazetteers 1830-1981, 1983) gives detailed maps and details about all lines and stations, including those closed, preserved and still in use.
  • Trams
    Trams ran on rails, at first drawn by horses or steam, and were introduced into London in 1870 from America. They were replaced by electric trams from 1904 but only operated in city centres as the rails (and later wires) were uneconomic elsewhere. Their use declined rapidly after 1950.
  • Trolleybuses
    These were also powered by electric overhead wires but ran on the roads not on rails. Invented in Germany in 1882, they were introduced into Leeds and Bradford in 1911 and extensively used to get to work, school and social activities in urban areas until 1972.
  • Omnibuses
    Omnibuses (omni = going everywhere) from the horse-drawn models of 1829 to modern diesel engines, were particularly useful in bringing rural dwellers into the towns for their weekly shopping, professional appointments and visits with relatives.

Road and Rail Networks[edit | edit source]

The development of cheap, efficient road and rail networks around cities meant that middle- and lower-class workers could now live in the suburbs away from their place of work. This had huge social consequences from the latter part of the 19th century. It is instructive for the researcher to study large-scale maps to discover how their ancestors might have travelled to work, church, school and sports and social activities.

All these new routes would have included plans for bridges, subways and tunnels. Study of such local maps reveals not only how they travelled and likely destinations, but if a new route impinged on their neighbourhood it may explain why your ancestors moved at a certain time. If your ancestors lived close to any new (or proposed) line of communication the chances of more detailed information on their dwellings and land holdings are greater because detailed plans in the proposals will show them.

Paul Hindle (Maps for Historians, 2002) has further details on transport maps, with many illustrations, and John Brian Harley (Maps for the Local Historian. A Guide to the British Sources, 1972) contains a good bibliography for communication routes. Closer to modern times there are maps of telegraph, telephone and air transport systems, which also come under the purview of communications, but they are not considered here.

The sheer magnitude of collections of maps, many of which are inadequately catalogued at present, tends to daunt the new researcher. Technology is assisting their description and find ability, but is not an overnight panacea. Persistence will uncover maps and plans of just about anything—from prisons to seaside bandstands, and dockyards to air-raid shelters! On a scanned map one can use image-editing software to insert labels onto a map to show places associated with ancestors, and the family movements. A much fancier method is the programme called GenMap UK which produces an endless variety of maps to complement your own family history.

The family historian is encouraged to obtain copies of a dated series of maps of their area to study the growth and development of communications relative to their family’s occupations. The Ordnance Survey maps are considered the authoritative source for public boundaries and administrative names at the date of publication.

The genealogist should be aware of why and how any map was made, was it from new field work, copied from previous work, cursory examination or oral testimony from others? The map should always be used in conjunction with its complementary descriptive material such as schedules, terriers or apportionments and with other contemporary classes of evidence so that checks can be made on accuracy. Good articles about maps appear regularly in genealogy magazines, such as that by Liz Carter (Using Maps for Family History. Practical Family History #32 page 35-36).


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Land and Property Records including Manorial Documents and Maps offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.