25 July, 2011Issue 16.6History

Email This Article Print This Article

Surveying a Nation

Judyta Frodyma

The Preparation of the NovelRachel Hewitt
Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey
Granta Books, 2011
432 Pages
ISBN 978-1847082541


A map is a curious thing. Part visual artifact and part text, it occupies the space between art and instrument; it is neither beautiful for its own sake nor exclusively practical. Any history of cartography will show that mapmaking was not merely for the purpose of navigation, but also contributed to the creation of national identity. Whether stemming from a history of military defence or geographical ownership, maps delineate that land which is “ours”.

Maps of the Ordnance Survey (OS) in particular hold a special place in the history of cartography and in the hearts of the British public. In the United Kingdom, the simultaneous dependence on and freedom offered by the Ordnance Survey maps place them on nearly every household’s bookshelf, if not the kitchen table. In a nation that has fought from Acts of Enclosure of the late 1800s to the Rights to Roam established in 2000, public footpaths and cairn-marked trails democratise the land. Now that we have our first “biography” of the Ordnance Survey, it seems a good time to reflect on its origins, its impact, and its legacy.

As Rachel Hewitt shows in Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey, the familiar bright pink (Landranger) and orange (Explorer) OS maps, far from beginning as the tools of hikers, fell walkers, and dog owners, evolved out of a military context. Hewitt has undertaken the commendable and surprisingly overlooked task of providing a history of the OS map’s provenance. In her title and introduction, she promises a biography of one of the most beloved British institutions. More than a biography, she offers a lively history of the key figures involved and events that followed the inception of this institution.

“But it strikes me now”, Hewitt writes, “that one of the reasons I find Ordnance Survey maps so seductive is the promise they seem to offer of the unfettered freedom to wander across the British landscape.” It is this promise that brings the OS maps, and thus the interest in history, so close to so many. For all the book’s charm, however, Hewitt neither engages fully with the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of this distinctly British institution and its relationship to the general public, nor does she provide a complete history of the survey itself. Yet even so, she should be credited with identifying a missing link in British popular interest, one that will yield answers to the greater questions the OS maps propose. If nothing else, her book calls us away from the talking GPS and back to the crinkled, folded map.

Hewitt’s story begins with the Jacobite uprisings of 1745 and the call for a map of the Highlands among Scottish rebels. She traces the project as it later passes hands, again and again (though rarely as a result of mismanagement). The continuation of the Ordnance Survey maps relied on the royal engineers and directors of the Board of Ordnance, a precursor to part of the Ministry of Defence. Mapmaking in the 18th century was a much more painstaking process than it is now. Each map first required a baseline measurement—ideally a long and flat piece of land—which served as control points for triangulation. This method consists of measuring the angles of known points along the baseline in order to determine a specific location. The overlapping triangles created triangulation networks, which were used to survey the land until the advent of global navigation systems in the 1980s. The process of triangulation required long and often arduous distances to be covered by foot and precise measurements to be taken throughout, requiring complicated and heavy instruments such as theodolites.

The Ordnance Survey was spearheaded almost exclusively by devoted and upright men, beginning with William Roy, who first served under Ltn-Col David Watson in 1747. Though of humble origins, Roy quickly manifested a talent for cartography, and he made his career as an engineer and surveyor. He insisted on charting the Highlands, and later became the key figure in the Anglo-French triangulations. He was later succeeded by William Mudge who, among other achievements, charted the meridian arc into Scotland. Finally, the survey was led by Thomas Colby, who saw the OS through to the maps’ issuance in 1846. Rather than relating the biography of the Ordnance Survey, it is to these unrelenting individuals, brilliant geographers, mathematicians, and draughtsmen that Hewitt’s book pays honour.

In focusing on the key players, however, she merely glosses over the literary, philosophical, and historical implications of the survey, which would have made for a more interesting text. Where the book (originally a draft of a PhD thesis) might have fruitfully engaged with the intellectual history informing the Ordnance Survey’s creation, it opts instead for a factual, if somewhat dull, narrative. Hewitt nods toward the different questions occasioned by mapmaking, from Andersonian nationhood to the relation between arts and sciences (especially mathematics), but does not take them up any further. Although Hewitt’s historical analysis of the process is acute, she leaves the reader longing for something more—either a fictionalised (and up-to-date—her book ends in 1870) account of the survey process, or instead, a much more academically rigorous investigation of the theoretical and practical problems that a “map of a nation” entails: first and foremost, what is a nation, and what role does mapping a landscape play in establishing nationhood? Spanning several centuries, her book does not address, in the words of Sir Robert Rees Davies, “the Matter of Britain and the Matter of England.”

The question of “what is a nation” was famously addressed by Ernest Renan in an 1882 lecture at the Sorbonne. He explored those characteristics which have been associated with nationhood, but which do not of themselves delineate a nation. He shows how neither dynasty, nor race, nor language, nor religion, nor communities of interest, nor even geography are enough to unify a people into a nation. Of national frontiers, he says they “undoubtedly play a considerable part in the division of nation”:

Can one say […] that a nation’s frontiers are written on the map and that this nation has the right to judge what is necessary to round off certain contours, in order to reach such and such a mountain and such and such a river, which are thereby accorded a kind of a priori limiting faculty? I know of no doctrine which is more arbitrary or more fatal, for it allows one to justify any or every violence. […] No, it is no more soil than it is race which makes a nation.

In Map of a Nation, however, both soil and race contribute an integral part to the history of the Ordnance Survey. It began from a defensive fear of the Scottish, but natural frontiers, of course, also had great importance to an island that depended on the channel for protection against French invasions. The Ordnance Survey maps, then, by becoming available to the general public, grant them a sense of ownership over the land. But boundaries can exclude even more than they include. Hewitt mentions the difficulties involved in the Irish triangulations and the perplexities of Welsh place names when it was evident that mapping the British Isles caused friction amongst the different groups. The desire to belong chafed against the desire to be independent and free. Renan argues that the joint features defining nationhood are “the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories” and mutual suffering, thereby making it even more difficult for readers to envision the OS maps as a depiction of a harmonious, stable nation.

Since 1870, the OS maps have undergone significant technological advancements, especially global positioning systems, and are now subdivided by use and function, including scientific research, military, tourism, leisure, road, and even collector’s editions. The maps have evolved from being markers of national identity to household instruments. And whereas they are no longer as loaded with contentions about “British” plurality, they do raise questions about future accessibility and recorded history in a different sort of “quantitative spirit” than that of the men so smitten by original mapmaking in the 1800s.

Judyta Frodyma graduated in 2010 with an MSt in English Literature from Worcester College, Oxford.