Your browser version is outdated. We recommend that you update your browser to the latest version.


Origins and History of Ordnance Survey Mapping

Anyone who has hiked abroad, as Brenda and I have done in Austria, Italy and France using local maps, can testify without fear of contradiction, that the U.K. Ordnance Survey mapping system is the finest in the world !!  It has been really interesting to delve into the past to see how the routes that Walk Leaders now use were originally established and mapped centuries earlier.

Our public footpaths are rights of way originally created by people walking across fields, hills and moors to work, to market, to the next village, church, or school.  Some footpaths were established as early as 5,000 BC, linking ancient Bronze or Iron Age encampments such as Carl Wark and Higger Tor overlooking Fox House, used by traders moving from tribe to tribe, or travellers to places of worship.  However, other pathways were created specifically to facilitate the exercise of power, with dykes dug to establish tribal boundaries and Roman tracks built to move armies.  A large number of paths had a strong spiritual origin, from prehistoric processional avenues to the tracks travelled by medieval pilgrims, for example the119 mile Pilgrim's Way from Winchester to Canterbury.  Many routes were used for the transport of goods, with packhorse trails, drovers' roads and miners' tracks helping fuel the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century.  

Nowadays footpaths have been frequently linked together, along with bridle paths and newly created footpaths, to create long distance trails such as the Dalesway from Ilkley to Bowness on Windermere, a distance of eighty miles, and the Pennine Way from Edale to Kirk Yetholm, just over the Scottish border, a distance of 280 miles which Mildred, a past member, completed during her lifetime

Our map making has its roots in military strategy, beginning with the mapping of  Scottish Highlands following a rebellion by Nichola Sturgeon’s ancestors in 1745.  Until then, maps had lacked the detail required for moving troops and planning campaigns.  It was an innovative young engineer called William Roy who was tasked with the initial small-scale military survey of rebellious Scotland.

Starting in 1747, it took him eight years to complete what was known as the Great Map at a scale of 1:36 000 (1.75 inches to a mile), with roads, hills, rivers, types of land cover and settlements all recorded.  William Roy himself described it as a, ‘magnificent military sketch rather than a very accurate map of the country’.  

Roy's surveying parties of eight relied on simple instruments to measure the angles and chains of up to 50 feet long to measure distance between important features.  Much of the rest was sketched by eye, the precursor I suppose to the fantastic hand-drawn work of Alfred Wainwright two hundred years later in the Lake District.  The fact that Roy was just 21 years old when he started the survey makes his achievements even more extraordinary.  His work paved the way for modern surveying, embracing the need for accurate maps, and at the time of his death in 1790 his vision of a national survey for Britain was in reach.

The first maps available to the public were on sale before 1830. These stunning ‘works of art’ weren’t cheap, but the owner was privy to a spectacular aerial view of the landscape until then only seen from a hot air balloon. The first map to bear the title of ‘Ordnance Survey’ wasn’t printed on a map until the1810 map of the Isle of Wight and Hampshire.  These early maps, with their elaborate hill shading and attention to communication routes, highlighted the emphasis given to military use.  However, place names often proved difficult as locals would argue over which names were actually correct !!

The maps took three years to complete, and surveyors worked to a scale of two inches to one mile, that was reduced to one inch to a mile when printed.  Maps were engraved ‘in reverse’ on copper plate which was used for printing, and separate legends appeared for the symbols since the maps were huge enough without them !! The first maps were sold at three guineas per county survey, which was between one and three weeks’ wages for the average person.  Their appeal was that they offered a bird’s eye view of the landscape, until then only the privilege of the rich in a hot air balloon.

Within 20 years, about a third of England and Wales had been mapped at the scale of one inch to one mile.  It was thought that 50 years would be long enough to map the country, but the entire first series of maps wasn’t published until 1870.

BUT, before then, in 1824, Parliament ordered Thomas Frederick Colby across the Irish Sea to accurately map Ireland for land taxation purposes. Thomas Colby was a major-general, a leading geographer of his time and director of the Ordnance Survey.  After travelling with his men, he’d help to build camps, and arrange mountain-top feasts with huge plum puddings at the end of each surveying season.  His survey of Ireland was completed in 1846 and the maps are now an unrivalled resource for studying the period before the Great Irish Famine of 1847.

Now there were calls for similar surveys back home.  Colby introduced height to Ordnance Survey maps by commissioning a survey in relation to sea level in Liverpool, using a tidal gauge. Surveyors needed greater access than ever before and so, in 1841, the Survey Act gave them a legal right to ‘enter into and upon any land for the purposes of making and carrying out a survey’.  Accurate maps of all scales were more in demand, and new methods of mapmaking, including photography, made the process easier.   Colour map printing was introduced to the one-inch map in 1887 while in 1902, Ordnance Survey employed women for the first time, to mount and colour maps as the 20th century brought more and more ramblers into the countryside. During the First World War, mapmakers were posted overseas and, under appalling conditions, made and printed millions of maps for the allies.  By the end of the First World War, Ordnance Survey had printed 20 million maps, and now thoughts turned to marketing the maps to engage a new wave of outdoor enthusiasts.  Several different scales of maps were agreed, including six inches to the mile for mountain and moorland, 25 inches to the mile for rural areas, right up to ten and a half feet to the mile for urban areas !!!

At the end of the second world war, work began on creating a new national map with a National Grid system now used on all Ordnance Survey maps to identify the position of any feature, breaking Great Britain down into progressively smaller squares identified first by letters and then numbers.

By 1962 up-to-date drawing and printing techniques were introduced and computers used to simplify updating future map editions.   Electronics transformed surveying with laser technology and automatic data recording equipment leading to much faster data collection, and in 1971 digital mapping was introduced to large-scale map production. 

In 1995, Ordnance Survey launched its website and digitised the last of about 230,000 maps, making Britain the first country in the world to complete a programme of large-scale electronic mapping.   By the end of the 1990s, all field surveyors were using hand-held pen computers to record field measurements and transfer the results back to head office.

    ....................................................................................................................................................................    With this impeccable pedigree over time our maps are simply the best, so the next time we reconvene as a Club and set foot into the glorious countryside of England,


spare a thought for the traders, workers, school pupils, church goers, pilgrims and armies who walked before us, and for good old William Roy and Thomas Coldby, without whom we wouldn’t have a clue where we were going !!