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Using maps

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Why do historians use maps?
Most people will have used a map at some point in their life - normally to find out how to get somewhere. After all, this is probably the main purpose of most maps. However, throughout history maps have been created for a whole host of other reasons. These include:

  • to show who owned land
  • to record what land was used for
  • to show the location of natural resources
  • to determine political boundaries
  • to show transport links

It is this variety that makes them so useful to historians. By looking at a map from a particular date, historians can find out a lot of information about the way in which the land was used and, therefore, how people lived. Moreover, by comparing similar maps from different periods historians can discover how an area has changed and developed and suggest reasons for the change.


Extract from the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey of Durham, 1857

Extract from the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey of Durham, 1857. (Image courtesy of Durham County Record Office, ref county grid 33.4)


Local maps and their uses
As well as all the national maps that historians can use, there are lots of locally produced maps available. These can provide a range of useful information that can be difficult to find elsewhere. Examples of local maps include enclosure maps, tithe maps, road, rail and canal maps, and farm maps. The map we're going to use in our investigation is one that shows the coalfields of the North East. It was surveyed by a man called I T W Bell and was published in 1850. This map is interesting because not only does it show the location of all the coal mines in the North East at the time, but it shows how the transport network had started to develop to serve the industry.

If you're ready to continue, you can choose to go to either the Ordnance Survey maps or the coalfield map.


Map of County Durham by John Carey, 1801.

Map of County Durham by John Carey, 1801. (Image courtesy of Durham University Library, XL 912.4281).

What are Ordnance Survey maps?
Ordnance Survey maps are perhaps the best known series of maps in the United Kingdom and have a world-wide reputation for quality. Although used by a whole range of people today, from walkers to motorists to pizza-delivery companies, the first Ordnance Survey maps were designed to be used by the Army. Between 1793 and 1815 Britain was at war with France and the government was worried that the French might try to invade. To help them plan their defence they ordered the Board of Ordnance to carry out a survey of the whole country, starting at the south coast. The first Ordnance Survey map covered the county of Kent and was published in 1801 and a map covering Essex appeared shortly after. Twenty years later a third of the country had been surveyed. The surveyors worked their way up the country and it was not until 1857 that the survey of Co. Durham was completed.

Maps, like many other sources of information, are quickly out of date and Ordnance Survey continually resurveys the country to make sure its maps are accurate. This is great news for historians who are able to use the maps to compare how places have changed over time.



Go to the Ordnance Survey mapsGo to the Coalfield map

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