Mick Aston: Using Maps

11 mins read

Where to begin? Mick reveals why the County Record  Office should be the first port of call for any project  investigating the local landscape.

Mick Aston

Maps, particularly early maps, are one of  the most important sources for any local  project similar to ours at Winscombe in  Somerset. Most of these will be found in a  County Record Office. Indeed, it is hardly  worth embarking on such a project if it  turns out there are not enough — or even any — early maps.  It will make the work extremely difficult.

For very many parishes in this country, the earliest useful,  detailed local map will be that compiled around 1840 by  the tithe commissioners, and known as the ‘tithe map’.  Following the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836, surveys of  each parish were conducted to assess the value of land and  hence the tithe paid on it. Incidentally, this also gives us  landowners, tenants, land-use, acreage, and field names for  each plot, and assessed value — a fantastic local source and  the benchmark for starting any project. There is an ‘award’  or ‘apportionment’ with all this information, and usually a  map. Frequently hand-drawn, coloured, and numbered, it is  of paramount importance for any local project.

It is enormously advantageous if there is  at least one large-scale map earlier than the  tithe map. For Winscombe, the tithe map  and award date to 1839-1840, but there is  an earlier map of 1792. This was surveyed  and drawn by William White for the Dean  and Chapter of Wells Cathedral. He was a  local surveyor who compiled many maps  of Somerset, including at least 22 enclosure  maps. White’s handiwork is very detailed in  places, but there are gaps elsewhere. From  other documents examined by Frances  Neale and Maria Forbes, we know the field  names, land-use, tenants (and leases —  whether leasehold or copyhold), all related  to the field numbers which occur on the  map. The existence of these two maps  enables us to compare lots of information  over a 50-year period, providing a springboard  to jump back to earlier documentary  references without any supporting maps.

There are a few other early maps for Winscombe, or parts of  the parish. In 1797 an Enclosure Act was passed in Parliament  to enable the enclosure of the parish’s upland commons —  Sandford Hill, Winscombe Hill (or Wavering Down), Sidcot  Hill, and Winterhead Hill. The 1799 map shows the intended  field and drove-road arrangements; it can also be readily compared  with the 1792 and 1840 maps to reveal the before and  after situation. In addition, this map gives a number of road  and lane names associated with small areas of common and  waste that were to be enclosed. These names are important, as  we shall see in a later column. There is also a drainage map for  the neighbouring parish of Congresbury which shows much  of the northern (Sandford) end of the parish in 1828.

It cannot be assumed that we have tracked down all the early  maps available for our area of study. A map of the northern  part of Shapwick village, dated to 1811, turned up in private  possession long after the project had started. Shortly before  the Winscombe Project began, an old map of Woodborough  Green was found. This shows the large triangular green in the  middle of the parish with a few farms around it. A series of lead  mine-shafts are shown along one side of it. The map turned  up with many other documents in the roof space of a house in  Wells, which may have formerly been the Chancellor’s house.  By happy chance, because the people living in the house at the  time, Nick and Chris Bristow, had lived in Winscombe, they  recognised that the ‘Woodborough Green’ written on the map  referred to the area now known as Winscombe.

For later maps we largely rely on the Ordnance Survey 25”  (to the mile, now 1:2,500) and 6” (to the mile, now 1:10,000)  maps. The first edition of these maps, produced around the  1880s, is the finest set of maps the Ordnance Survey have ever  produced, and are far superior in detail to the computer-drawn  monstrosities of today. The detail is superb, with buildings and  lanes shown to scale, and even individual trees marked. I prefer  to use these maps as the basis for all my mapping carried out on  any project. There are second editions (around 1903), and later  editions from the 1930s and 1950s. For Winscombe, the last  full survey maps available, and the most up to date, are from  the 1970s. These have to provide the base for fieldwork and any  attempts at mapping earlier features. So, once you have gathered  the available maps, what can they tell you?

Map regression  

One of the main reasons for all this interest in the availability,  scale, and detail of the maps, and what information comes with  them, is because they are essential for any map regression exercises.  The idea of map regression is to identify changes that have  taken place, in field boundaries and alignments, road and path  patterns, and building sites. It is only when comparing one map  closely with another that such subtle changes can be picked out.

These two maps are snapshots in time showing Winscombe 50 years apart. Above is the White map of 1792, while below is the Tithe Map of 1840.

Over the years I have built up a series of parish maps, to the  same scale, by transcribing one map’s details onto another.  Back in 1995/1996 I did this for Winscombe, long before  there was any intention of carrying out a project. I produced  a series of 1:10,000 parish maps from the current Ordnance  Survey map, with all the housing estates, and then worked  back through the early 20th century and late 19th century.  I finished by creating a late 18th-century map, based on the  1792 and 1799 surveys.

These were produced as follows: starting with a tracing  of the latest map (1970s), I placed another sheet of tracing  paper over this and, using its immediate predecessor (the  1950s map), transferred the details. Firstly, I put on all the  boundaries that are still in situ; allowing any changes to be  easily spotted and transcribed. These can be done in red to  highlight the differences. The process is then repeated going  backwards in time through all the maps, transferring the  evidence of each earlier map onto the tracing of its immediate  successor. I always do this exercise manually with  tracing paper and pens, accompanied by a glass of Cabernet  Sauvignon. Nowadays it can be done with computer programmes,  and my colleagues and fellow project-members  Phil and Maddy Knibb will explain this next time.

Personally, I think there is a problem with using computers  to do this type of work. A good analogy is recording a  scene with a camera rather than doing a painting or drawing  of it. In a matter of a fraction of a second, the camera can  record the scene without the photographer processing any  of the information. With a painting or drawing, however,  the scene has to be closely analysed and understood if the  picture is to be a true likeness.

And so too with map production. Laboriously copying  maps by hand and gradually appreciating the changes in the  landscape from one map to another really enables the detail  to be understood. Even if a field boundary is not depicted  entirely accurately, you can often see what was  intended. Time and again it is as if we can get  into the surveyor’s head and appreciate the  landscape as he saw it.  Nevertheless, most people will probably opt  for the speed of computer-assisted drawing of  maps. I just hope they do not miss the detail of  the original maps.

Further Reading:
M Aston (1985) Interpreting the Landscape: landscape  archaeology in local studies, London: Batsford, especially p. 18.
J P Kain and H C Prince (1985) The Tithe Surveys of England  and Wales, Cambridge University Press.
R J P Kain and R R Oliver (1995) The Tithe Maps of England  and Wales: a cartographic analysis and county-by-county  catalogue, Cambridge University Press.

This article was originally published in issue 278  of Current Archaeology magazine.

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