Review: Map of a Nation – A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

Map of a Nation, by Rachel Hewitt, comes in a large, chunky hard-back volume with a beautiful, gold-laced front depicting one of the Ordnance Survey’s earliest First Series maps, dated 1810. The book documents, in often immense detail, the early history of the Ordnance Survey – from the activities leading up to its creation in the early 18th century, to the publication of its final First Series map in 1870.

Rather than being a general history of the OS, the book focuses on the lives of its first director generals, Mudge and Colby, and Roy, whose work led to the creation of the organisation. It details particularly the trigonometric survey, under which an accurate triangular network of known points was gradually built up, and the creation, alongside, of large and small scale maps.

The book is therefore somewhat misnamed – it’s really “Ordnance Survey: Its Birth and The Early Years”. I was disappointed that there is little discussion of the OS’s history after 1870, apart from in a brief Epilogue. The organisation’s more modern history was what indeed I had been most looking forward to. The cover notes mention a Ph.D thesis written by the same author a couple of years before the book’s publication, and I wonder if the book is largely based on the thesis. The language in some parts of the book is also quite formal, with the prose being sometimes on a level consummate with a professional thesis but a little above what would normally expected for a popular book. (A very flowery way of saying I didn’t understand every word in the book!)

The pacing of the book is generally quite good, it is on a near chronological basis, although does tend to jump back in time briefly for short sections. Perhaps too much time is spent on the pre-OS period, important though it is – the detailed biographical sections of the principal people involved, prior to the organisation’s foundation, weighed the narrative down a bit. Later on, the book’s pace picks up. The latter half of the book details the slow progress towards completion of the First Series, with various delays caused by creation of the Irish Survey and expeditions to Sinai and so on.

The book includes a short plate section with colour extracts of various paintings and maps. It is a pity though that it has no photographs of, for example, the monuments showing the endpoints of the original baseline across Hounslow Heath. (See these pictures by Diamond Geezer.)

A note for those that measure their progress through a book by the position of their bookmark – the narrative ends quite abruptly 114 pages before the end, with the rest taken up by the extremely comprehensive citation marks, citation references and index. Again, very worthy for a thesis – the content has been researched extremely thoroughly – but slightly overwhelming for a book like this.

In all, a rigid, well written and authoritative discussion of the first part of the Ordnance Survey’s history, but I was left wanting for more. This is not the OS’s complete biography!

You can see the book on Amazon. A paper-back edition is coming out in July.

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