Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians


Our earliest map appears on a coin made in the Roman Empire and our latest appears as pixels on a computer screen. In between we have the most complete set of Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain, the grand collection of an 18th-century king, secret maps made by the Soviet army as well as the British government, and a book that stands taller than the average person. Read more

19 February 2015

Intelligence mapping of British East Africa - digitisation begins

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With generous funding from the Indigo Trust, the British Library has started to catalogue and digitise a unique archive of military intelligence maps of British East Africa - a region encompassing modern-day Kenya, Uganda and neighbouring parts of South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The maps are held in the War Office Archive and were created by British intelligence officers, surveyors and cartographers between the years 1890 and 1940.

During this period the requirement to administer newly-created British protectorates in Africa brought with it the need for mapping of a new order in terms of volume, scale and subject matter. As a result, the archive represents both a milestone in the history of the cartography of Africa and a goldmine of historical information for the modern-day researcher.

The example below is finely executed in watercolours and coloured inks, and shows a region to the north and east of the Nile River in north-western Uganda. It was drawn in 1901, at a time when the area was under British administration within the Uganda Protectorate, and represents the first systematic survey of the area.


Sketch to Illustrate Report on the Lango-Mutineer Expedition, 1901 (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/55)

The map provides a wealth of local historical information, showing the flow of water through the region, approximate altitudes of high points and limits of vegetation, the names and locations of tribal regions and settlements, and the names of local tribal chiefs.

Cropped2WOMAT_AFR_BEA_55 (2)

Detail of (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/55)

The sheet also documents the Lango Expedition, bringing new detail to reports written at the time. This punitive military expedition was sent against a force of around 100 Sudanese mutineers, who had retreated to the area after encounters with the British military to the south. Once settled, they had entered into blood-brotherhood with members of the resident Lango tribe, and were now said to be promoting unrest by provoking raids on neighbouring tribes. On the map the rebels’ stronghold is labelled ‘Mutineer’s Village’, identifiable today as a settlement called Oromo.

Cropped3WOMAT_AFR_BEA_55 (2)

Detail of (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/55)

Contemporary accounts relate how the British quickly overran the stronghold at the start of the campaign, but the mutineers dispersed through the surrounding country, a region of swampland inundated by early rains and choked with elephant grass up to nine feet high. In terrible conditions constant patrols were maintained throughout the area for a period of four months until all but seven of the mutineers had been captured or killed. The movements of the British columns during this period are meticulously recorded on the sheet in pale red ink.

Subsequently the Lango tribesmen wished to renounce their blood-brotherhood with the mutineers, for which the British devised a de-oathing ceremony. The following extract is taken from the official despatches

‘Dr. Bagshawe, with due formalities, injected a dose of apomorphia into the cicatrix of the incision made in the ‘blood-brotherhood’ rites. This made the patient violently sick in about five minutes. A few nauseous draughts afterwards completed the operation, and the subject’s satisfaction in the breaking of the spell.’

Nicholas Dykes


Further reading:

Sir H. Johnston, 'Major Delmé Radcliffe's Map of the Nile Province of the Uganda Protectorate', The Geographical Journal, 21-2 (1903), pp. 162-4.

The London Gazette, September 12, 1902, pp. 5875-8

Harry H. Johnston, The Uganda Protectorate (1902), vol. i, p. 244.

17 February 2015

Found: more maps than we’d reckoned

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Without looking, you can’t know what’s there. That was our experience locating maps amongst the one-million British Library images released to the public domain. We had not guessed that 50,000 images of maps were lurking there. So how were they singled out?

Answer: with the help of our friends (the crowd!) using several methods.

Semi-manually: A dedicated team of volunteers looked at individual images and applyied the tag “map” on flickr.  The work was organised using a synoptic index in Wikimedia Commons, providing a systematic method of looking at each volume and tracking shared progess. Over 29,000 map images were identified in this way.

Day-long event

The British Library hosted a one-day event, in concert with Wikimedia UK, to which volunteers were invited to kick-start the effort.  In between working, the 30 participants enjoyed tours and talks from speakers representing online mapping efforts, including OpenStreet Map and Stroly.  The day’s activities were captured in Gregory Marler’s engaging description, Lost in Piles of Maps, and a series of photographs from ATR Creative.  

One corner of the room - detail of photo by Machi Takahashi of ATR Creative who joined the event from Tokyo and was one of the speakers. CC BY-SA 2.0

Ongoing crowd activity

The bulk of the work took place online over the next two months. With the wiki tools built by J.heald to guide and coordinate contributions, 51 volunteers approached the work, book by book, often focussing on geographic areas of interest. Together, they made short work of what was a huge task; 28% of the books were completed after the first 72 hours; 60% were reviewed in the first 20 days; after five weeks over 20,000 new maps were found in 93% of the source volumes.

Automated methods

But surely maps can be identified automatically? It’s true that well before the organised effort just described, one user  produced algorithm-guided tags for this image set, which resulted in the addition of well over 15,000 map tags.

By the end of December 2014, every image in every book had been reviewed, and between the manual and automatic tagging, over 50,000 maps had been found. Since then, we have been working to clean up the data, including reviewing rogue tags, rotating images, splitting maps, and removing duplicates, to derive a final set of data. Next step: georeferencing.

The tagging project was presented on 12 February 2015 at the EuropeanaTech 2015 conference as a short talk and poster, Case Study: Mapping the Maps.

This achievement represents the work of many. Special thanks go to Maurice Nicholson, BL
Georeferencer participant; Jamed Heald, Wikimedia volunteer; and Ben O’Steen of BL Labs

13 February 2015

Enigmas and Errors: 19th-century cataloguing of the King’s Topographical Collection – Part 3. Windsor Castle and Hampton Court: a palatial mix-up.

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Illustration1Maps K.Top.29.14.m.2., A north-east view of Windsor Castle from the Little Park.

This brief blog looks at a small watercolour whose title has changed three times. Maps K.Top.29.14.m.2., now catalogued as A north-east view of Windsor Castle from the Little Park, is an example of an item which was correctly identified in 1829 but whose title changed in error some time before 1844. It was catalogued in 1829 as a view of Windsor Castle but by 1844 had been misidentified as Hampton Court


Entry for Maps K.Top.29.14.m.2. in the Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Drawings, etc., forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George the third. (London, 1829.).


Entry for Maps K.Top.29.14.m.2. in the Catalogue of the Manuscript Maps, Charts, and Plans, and of the Topographical Drawings in the British Museum [known as the British Library from 1972]. (London, 1844-1861).

The view shows the east and north fronts of Windsor Castle before 1824. The similarity between the pedimented facade of the north front of Windsor and the south front of Hampton Court, designed by Christopher Wren (1632–1723), might have led to the cataloguing error. After 1824 Windsor Castle was remodelled by Jeffry Wyattville (1766-1840) and its north and east fronts changed significantly from the present view. The use of medium is unusual in that there is a substance mixed with the wash and gouache creating a layered effect across the sky. 


Detail of Maps K.Top.29.14.m.2., A north-east view of Windsor Castle from the Little Park.

The change in identification from Windsor to Hampton Court occurred after the publication of the 1829 catalogue but before the 1844 catalogue was produced. The Windsor section of the collection was subject to considerable change at this time, to the extent that many of the items were returned to King George IV, despite being listed in the 1829 catalogue. The early annotations along the side of the somewhat vague catalogue entries for Windsor show just some of the works returned.

Illustration5Entries for Windsor items in the Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Drawings, etc., forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George the third. (London, 1829.).

The research and cataloguing of, and fundraising for, this complex collection continues as yet more and more nineteenth-century enigmas and errors are unearthed. 

Alexandra Ault