Guest column: ‘We can learn from the mistakes made by map makers’

Bowen-Kitchen map of Bucks PNL-141109-161516001
Bowen-Kitchen map of Bucks PNL-141109-161516001
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I’m very pleased to be speaking at the Buckinghamshire Local History Network conference on September 27 about the historical mapping of the county, writes Tom Harper, curator of antiquarian mapping at the British Library

I’m a map curator at the British Library, where there are 4.5 million maps include many hundreds of Bucks. I also grew up in Padbury, which means that I’ve a local knowledge of many of the areas shown in them.

Map of Bucks from the British Library PNL-141109-161528001

Map of Bucks from the British Library PNL-141109-161528001

Local knowledge trumps any sort of academic knowledge. If you want to know somewhere, you have to go there. The printed maps of Bucks span 500 years, but few of their makers ever visited the county.

Often, you can tell. The first printed map of Buckinghamshire was produced by Christopher Saxton in the 1570s, part of a national survey taken when war with the continent was near. Bucks was to be thoroughly mapped two centuries later by the first Ordnance Surveyors, the occasion again war with France.

Both of these projects’ mapmakers visited Bucks. But others in between, such as Bowen and Kitchin (1762) did not, simply copying earlier maps with often hilariously incorrect results. Yet incorrect maps can be important to the study of place. For example, the artistry of early (pre-industrial) maps, such as John Speed’s of 1610, taps into a local pride and sense of belonging, aligning Bucks with England’s green and pleasant heartland. This alone is of great value to our understanding of Buckinghamshire past.

You can view historical maps at the British Library (www.bl.uk, Twitter @BLMaps), and the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies.