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The Changing Historic Towns Atlas

Former Trust Chair Professor Keith Lilley writes about the Trust's evolving approach to the British Historic Towns Atlas and the maps that it publishes
Former Trust Chair Professor Keith Lilley, writes about the Trust’s evolving approach to the British Historic Towns Atlas and the maps that it publishes.

The article was written in 2017.


Maps change over time as much as the mapped places themselves do. This ongoing process of cartographic transformation has been the case also for the British Historic Towns Atlas (HTA) over the course of the past half century. Since volume 1 of the British HTA was published in 1969, the mapping that forms such a critical element of the atlases has seen some subtle but important changes.

With the first three volumes of the atlases, a key influence on their cartographic content was Colonel Henry Johns. Both he and series founder, Mary (Roddy) Lobel, forged ahead in what has become a European-wide historic towns atlas programme, with the British atlases leading the way. The maps of the first two atlases sought to show towns and cities at around the time of the eve of the industrial age, prior to the coming of the railways and the major transformations in urban landscapes that railways and industry wrought.

We get a glimpse from the atlas maps of Glasgow, Coventry and Nottingham, for instance, as they were before these cities were industrialised in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The basis of this topographic mapping of the ‘pre-industrial’ urban landscape was an amalgam of historic maps of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These invariably included large-scale Ordnance Survey maps of the first edition or second edition, as well as other printed and manuscript maps and plans. In the case of Coventry, the principal cartographic source used was Samuel Bradford’s plan of 1749–50, so here the ‘summary map’ of Coventry, at the standard scale of 1:2500, is described as c.1750. Most other ‘summary maps’ in volumes 1 and 2 aimed at a slightly later date, around 1800 or 1830.

Map of Coventry about 1750 from the original Historic Towns Atlas article
Extract from HTA summary map of Coventry (c.1750) from Lobel 1975

Extract from Samuel Bradford's plan of Coventry about 1749
Extract from Samuel Bradford’s plan of Coventry (1749–50)

The compilation of the topographic ‘summary maps’ of volumes 1, 2 and 3 reflect the working practices of Colonel Johns and those of the company he set up in the 1960s, Lovell Johns (and still going strong today). Well before the advent of modern digital methods used in cartography today, Johns was in effect redrawing earlier historic maps and plans to a new and consistent scale of 1:2500. This scale was set by the International Commission for the History of Towns at the outset of the European atlas programme in 1955 and has been a hallmark of the series ever since, aiding comparative study of historic towns and cities across Europe. The British atlases also share the European atlas principle that this 1:2500-scale topographic map, newly prepared from contemporary sources (often a cadastral survey or one prepared by a state mapping agency), and drawn to modern cartographic standards of accuracy and clarity, recreates the town or city as it appeared in the mid or early nineteenth century. However, over the intervening sixty years, historic towns atlas projects across Europe have begun to broaden the temporal scope of the topographic maps they include.

For the British historic towns atlases, the making of their particular topographic maps no doubt owed much to Colonel Johns’ wartime survey experience in North Africa with the British Army. In the atlases themselves, however, little is said of the cartographic process except for a brief note that appears at the end of each atlas ‘essay’ and before the suite of maps. These notes list the sources used in the compilation of the maps, but not the methods used to rescale historic maps, nor the selection process of where features on the map were derived. This led to some criticism of the atlas maps, from geographers particularly, especially as it meant — unlike the well-referenced historical essays in the atlases — the sources that went into the maps were not easily traced. Sometimes, as with Coventry, it is obvious from the appearance of the plot patterns on the ‘summary map’ that much was taken from Bradford’s plan of 1750. In other cases, the Ordnance Survey 1:2500 plan seems to have more of an influence on the plan’s layout of streets and plots.

With the death of Henry Johns in 1993, the British Historic Towns Atlas lacked a dedicated cartographic editor, and instead the Trust worked closely with Lovell Johns in continuing atlas maps and cartographic work, for the subsequent atlases of York (volume 5) and Winchester (volume 6) for example. The HTT's current Cartographic Editor, Giles Darkes, joined the project in 2008, and has since provided the Trust with much needed and valued advice and expertise on the compilation and production of HTA maps and mapping. This influence has shaped the atlases, starting with volume IV on Windsor and Eton. Here the atlas 'summary map' relies substantially on large-scale OS mapping as a base, and the same is true for the forthcoming volume of Oxford (volume VII), which uses OS mapping of 1876. The York volume too (volume V) uses historic OS plans as a base, plans dating in this case from 1850. The use of OS maps and plans means that the urban features shown share a common cartographic origin, even if the actual surveys used in the summary maps differ in date.

Graphic to show OS of York in 1850 morhping into the modern interpretation map
Extract from York 1850 OS 1:500 scale plan (left) with York HTA ‘summary map’ (right)

Through the course of the past fifty years, then, the HTAs remained — with few exceptions — wedded to showing towns and cities as they were sometime in the nineteenth century, in the period between 1800 (Winchester) and 1876 (Oxford). An exception to this rule is the third volume, for London, c.1520, which shows the city not in the nineteenth century but as it was by the start of the sixteenth. These topographic ‘summary maps’, that are such a feature of the British atlases, have also appeared in the very popular Town & City Historical Maps imprint of the HTT, which began with Oxford, and latterly has included Winchester, allowing the HTA to ‘showcase’ what will become maps as part of the published atlases of these cities.

Recognising that now — in 2017 — it is almost sixty years since Lobel and Johns started their work on the British Historic Towns Atlases, and that in those intervening years there has grown significant interest in more modern urban histories and topographies, the HTT has embarked on an additional form of mapping historic urban landscapes as part of our Town and City Historical Maps imprint. This new model uses large-scale (1:2500) OS mapping, of the early twentieth century, as a background, on which are superimposed earlier historic urban features, such as urban defences, medieval streets, churches and institutions, and the like. The first of the maps in this new format is for Kingston upon Hull, published in 2017 to time with the city’s UK City of Culture status.

The new Town & City Historical Map of Hull uses as a base the second edition of the OS 1:2500 series, which for Hull dates to 1928. This date marks an important period in the city’s history, as Hull at that time was at its apogee as a maritime port, a prosperous and expanding industrial city. The HTT wanted to capture this, and with the 1928 map base users can see how Hull looked in the inter-war years prior to the bombardment that destroyed large parts of the city centre in WW2 – yet the map retains the HTT map ‘branding’, with conventions that use similar colours and symbology as used in previous and current HTA maps in atlases. As with all HTA topographic maps, the Hull map is still a multi-period map.

Extract from the Town and City Historical map of Hull
Extract from Kingston-upon-Hull Town and City Historical Map, with 1928 OS 1:2500 base map

Moving with the times is important therefore. When Lobel and Johns first began working, in the 1950s, it was the previous century — the middle nineteenth century — that their atlas maps were seeking to present. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, that one-hundred-year ‘map window’ onto how towns and cities appeared in the past takes us back to the 1920s, not the 1820s. The British HTAs will of course continue to include summary topographic maps of urban landscapes at around the time of the dawn of the railway age, but we recognise too that for many towns and cities of Britain — especially the larger urban centres such as Hull — it makes sense too to seek to map the urban landscape of the twentieth century, for it too is of historical and topographical interest.

The British HTA is not alone in moving this cartographic window forward in time. The Irish Historic Towns Atlases now include three volumes each for the cities of Dublin and Belfast, mapping the cities up until the end of the twentieth century. In the case of Dublin too, the Irish HTAs are now embarking on a new suburban series, which will largely focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What matters in all this is that the British atlases appeal to our wide audience, academics and scholars as well as the general reader and non-specialist. The development and topography of Britain’s urban landscapes of the twentieth century can no longer be ignored.

As the example of Hull shows, there is plenty of potential for developing similar maps of other industrial urban centres of Britain, as well as towns and cities with nineteenth- and twentieth-century origins that have shaped the nation and contributed to our nation’s urban heritage: places such as Manchester and Liverpool, or Portsmouth and Blackpool, or Welwyn Garden City and New Lanark — all are equally as important as those places with more ancient urban roots, as well as those whose historic townscapes were transformed by a process of industrialisation that is itself something long since passed, as in places such as Swansea and Sheffield. In mapping these historic towns and cities of more recent times a new mode of mapping is required, building on the principles and traditions laid down by Colonel Johns sixty years ago, but methods and approaches that also move with the times.


About the British Historic Towns Atlas

What is a Historic Towns Atlas? We explain text, illustrations and format

What are the aims of the project?

Former Trust Chair Professor Caroline Barron writes about the history of the project and its connection with Oxford

What is a gazetteer? We explain its function and purpose and how you can view our London gazetteer online.

Former Trust Chair Professor Keith Lilley writes about the Trust's evolving approach to the British Historic Towns Atlas and the maps that it publishes

A published list of articles about and references to the British Towns Atlas and the European Project

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