Early Printed Maps

Map Evolution


The art of Geography advanced hand-in-hand with Technology. The first woodcut map of Britain appeared in Münster’s edition of Ptolemy in 1540, and the first copperplate map was produced by George Lily, a Catholic exile in Rome, in 1546. In England interest in geography spread quickly. People like John Rudd, Saxton’s master and teacher, John Norden and Robert Adams were proposing surveyed maps of the whole country. The government was also realising the advantages of having detailed knowledge of the country and its coasts. Henry VIII’s engineers had drawn up defence maps for the principal channel ports, including Plymouth and Dartmouth. William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, saw the need for an overall picture of the country. He formed a large collection of maps, and in 1570 he backed Thomas Seckford’s sponsorship of Saxton. The true survey of the country and of the counties began.

Gerard Mercator’s map of 1564 was supposedly based on information and surveys produced by Laurence Nowell but when Saxton mapped the counties in the 1570s he was surveying an almost unknown country. Apart from the inaccurate maps of the British Isles and some local estate surveys previous knowledge relied on written itineraries such as Leland, on hearsay and on local knowledge. Saxton’s atlas, one of the first as such in Europe[1] must have been a revelation. It created a view of England that shaped the regional identity together with the interdependence of the part with the whole of the country - a dependence which was to become so important in the 17th century upheavals.

From the beginning of the Renaissance maps were also valued as pictures and decorations. John Dee (1527-1608), the mathematician and astronomer, noted in 1570 that the gentry acquired maps to beautify their halls, Parlers, Chambers, Galeries, Studis, or Libraries, liketh, loveth, getteth and useth Mappes, Charts and Geographical Globes. One need look no further than the county illustrations of Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion (7) and the early sets of playing cards with their clumsy little maps of the, very convenient, 52 counties of England and Wales (2, 3, 15, 16, 23).


Accuracy and Scale


How accurate was Saxton’s map? It is reasonable to assume that he surveyed the county using the known and established beacon points. A tally of these listed and mapped some 90 points[2]. A simple triangular grid based on these covers the whole county, apart from the coast line, and only twice does the gap or bearing exceed 12 miles. One can imagine Saxton climbing up to each point, reading off the angles to the heliographic signaller and sketching in the rivers and towns that he could see. One wonders how many helpers he had and one marvels at the distance he must have walked in the five years he took to survey the whole country. This is, of course, all conjecture but his map is testimony to the overall accuracy he achieved. Compared to the Ordnance Survey and allowing for his longer mile the north-south distance from Prawle Point to Foreland is short by but half a mile.

When looking at early maps one must remember that the standard statute mile of 1760 yards (1 degree = 69 miles) was not finalised until 1685. Saxton only showed degrees on his wall map which had three scales bars: Great, Middle and Small, measurable as 50, 55 and 60 miles to the degree. The first map to show degrees, Bill in 1626[3], has one scale, and l0 = 54 miles. Robert Morden in 1695 produced the second map with degrees which also has three scales: l0 = 56, 59 or 63 miles (21, 22). If we take a distance as the crow flies - Plymouth to Exeter is 36 miles - and compare the three county maps, the respective lengths of a mile in yards are; Saxton 1995, Bill 2137, and Morden 1812 yards. Saxton used the middle mile, Morden the small mile and Bill the great mile. While this satisfies the first two it leaves Bill’s map inaccurate, even to his own scale. Apart from Bill all the Saxton derivatives, Speed, Keere, Jansson, Blaeu and Blome are drawn to the same middle mile. In all of these the distance from Plymouth to Exeter is more or less correct at approx 35 miles, allowing for the town centres and symbolism. But interestingly the distance from Plymouth to Barnstable is only c.45 miles, some 4 miles short. Moll in 1724 made it 461/2 miles and on Donn’s survey in 1765 it is 471/4 miles (Donn is perhaps always short, for his Plymouth to Exeter distance is only 341/4 miles). Cary in 1787 copied Donn but corrected the distance to c.50 miles on his road map of 1789. One must be careful in considering distances and figures for, apart from the engravers inaccuracies and vagaries, the size of the print can vary and hand-made paper can shrink.

In 1675 John Ogilby’s road survey was compiled using the statute mile and this first appeared on Moll’s Devon map of 1724 (25), influenced no doubt by Moll’s own road maps derived directly from Ogilby. From then on the statute mile was used by most surveyors and noted above the scale bar.[4]


Derivation and Deviation


To a great extent cartography relies on the draughtsman’s ability to copy. Until the Ordnance Survey there were only three surveys of Devon of any importance: Saxton, Ogilby and Donn. Of these only the first and last cover the county. With one or two exceptions all the others are copies. Richard Gough, in 1780, summed it up perfectly: the several sets of county maps professing to be drawn from the latest observations they are almost invariably copies of those that preceded them.

When Saxton’s privilege or court monopoly expired the copying began, relying on both his wall map of the British Isles and his county maps. He had proved that maps had both practical and artistic values, and others were quick to seize on the public demand.

John Speed in 1610 created perhaps the most popular of all the county maps. He always admitted that he had put his sickle into other men’s corne, but he must have visited Devon in order to include

the hundreds. The boundaries of the hundreds - the administrative areas created in Saxon England and retained almost to the end of the l9th century - were known only to the local inhabitants. Rivers and streams formed the usual boundary line and when the line ran across country it was often marked

by so called turning stones. However, there were some surveys and maps available: John Norden, cartographer and surveyor, like Saxton with government backing, had completed a manuscript survey of Cornwall in 1596 and also a survey of Crediton hundred in 1590[5]. But the lack of real knowledge is illustrated by Speed incorrectly showing large parts of eastern Dartmoor as part of Roborough and Plympton hundreds.

Another example of copying error is shown when Speed, like Saxton, incorrectly places three villages south instead of east-by-south of Milton Abbot. Also, on learning that they lay in Lifton Hundred, he wrongly adjusted the boundary to suit not knowing they were in an ‘island’ surrounded by Tavistock Hundred. One should compare Donn’s correct version of 1765 (44).

The popularity of Speed’s map was increased by insertion of a copy of John Hooker’s map of Exeter and by the arms of the nobility, which gave more interest and decorative appeal. Like Saxton, Speed had government backing and monopoly and when this expired his map too was extensively copied.

Saxton’s Tamar gently meanders southwards without any real definition. But Speed saw or was told of the noticeable westward bow in the river just north of Cargreen, although he placed it incorrectly further south by Saltash. This variation gives a key to the source of later copies: Saxton was copied by Bill and Morden while Speed was copied by Jansson, Blaeu, Blome and John Seller. Keere’s map of 1648 was also a copy of Speed and not of his own earlier version of Saxton from 1605.

The line of the River Tamar also illustrates those few maps which contained original work. Norden’s survey of Cornwall suggests Speed’s river line. Joel Gascoyne’s large scale map of Cornwall in 1699, the first to show a nearly correct line, was partly accepted by Moll in 1724 and more fully by Kitchin in 1750 (34).

Lundy was not shown on a Devon map until Jansson’s revision of 1652 (11.3). Saxton’s plates were printed throughout the 17th century and when Philip Lea produced his atlas of All the Shires of England and Wales in 1689 he arranged for Francis Lamb to redraw the Devon plate which had been lost, perhaps in the Fire of London (19). Lamb chose to copy from Speed, including the shields, hundreds, roads, and the plan of Exeter; and for good measure he added Jansson’s Lundy.




Up to 1695 no roads were clearly shown on any maps of Devon.[6] In 1625 Norden produced his Intended Guyde for Travailers, which included for the first time the triangular distance tables that we still use today. This was reissued by Mathew Simons in 1635 (6) together with small county maps copied from Saxton’s wall map. Small and indicative only, with code letters for towns, the roads themselves were omitted. The armies in the civil war relied on these or on Thomas Jenner’s reissue (10) with slightly larger maps. Jenner also reproduced the Saxton wall map, redrawn in sections by Hollar as the Quartermaster’s Map, it still did not show roads until reissued in 1671.

By 1675 John Ogilby had surveyed on foot with his perambulator the 7500 miles of the principal roads of England and Wales, and published his Britannia. This showed the roads and their junctions, towns, hills and rivers, in a strip form, each with a compass rose to show direction.

In 1676 Robert Morden produced a set of playing cards, each with a small county map showing Ogilby’s roads but often inaccurately: the road from Ashburton goes directly to Plymouth and not through Brent or Plympton, though both are shown. Finally in 1695 Morden introduced accurate roads on his series of county maps (to accompany a new translation of William Camden’s Britannia, 21). From this time roads became a standard feature. A folio size map such as Ogilby’s Britannia being impractical for travellers the map trade introduced, in the early 1700s, the reduced strip-map pocket-book including those of John Senex or Owen and Bowen (24). Although strip-maps continued in use it was Cary in 1757 (51) who produced the first county map to show all the principal roads, followed in 1789 by his small but accurate Traveller’s Companion.


Longitude and Latitude


John Bill  in 1626 was the first to introduce border scales of longitude and latitude, but these were of little use to the local observer. Slightly more useful was Robert Morden’s addition in 1695: he added a time scale showing the seconds and minutes after London in the top border; a pattern repeated by Kitchin and Jefferys in 1749 (33).

Before the seventeenth century it was usual for the prime meridian to be drawn through the Canaries or the Azores - islands ‘West of all the Old World and East of America’. Although Bill used the Azores, by the end of the century British cartographers were using London as zero: Morden in 1695 (21); Moll in 1724 (25).

Though the Royal Observatory was established in 1675 and Edmund Halley, of comet fame, set up the first transit there in 1721, the county cartographers still used St. Paul’s, as Cary noted in 1787. Charles Smith’s atlas map of 1801 was the first map of Devon to be labelled West of Greenwich (63) and Benjamin Baker’s map of 1791 was so amended when reissued in 1806 (57.2).

Interestingly John Andrews’ Geographical Atlas of 1798 measured from St. Paul’s and gave figures for various towns including Exeter at 3o28'. While Smith showed 3o40', Morden and Moll had shown 3o42' from London, and Kitchin, Cary and Baker 3o32' from Greenwich (St. Paul’s is 5' west of Greenwich and the correct figure is 3o32'). The inaccuracies suggest that seldom did surveyors check earlier figures, even though John Harrison’s famous chronometer was in use from 1765.

Latitudes also varied. Morden and Donn showed the county between 50o15' and 51o16' (21, 44), and Moll 50o12' and 51o17' (25) yet Kitchin drew 50o77' and 51o14' (correct figs are 50o12' and 51o15').

Maps were seldom graticuled::: the first Devon map was Schenk and Valk’s variation of Jansson in 1714 (11.4). Although John Seller included grid lines on some of his county maps (not Devon) it was not until 1789 that James Haywood (53) used the latitude and longitude lines and so provided the first cross reference, the technique finally adopted by the Ordnance Survey.




Although charts of the coast were readily available the early surveyors do not seem to have used them. In 1584 Lucas Wagenhaer’s sea atlas was published (with maps of the Devon coast dated a year earlier). This was the first marine atlas with details of the English coast. An English translation, Mariner’s Mirror, appeared in 1588. The detail followed the old portolan tradition ‘Accuracy for the pilot’. The charts have two scales; a large one for usable harbours and a smaller one for the coastline.

An early land surveyor like Saxton can be excused an inaccurate coastline, and for him Wagenhaer came too late. But why did no one else notice and then correct? The south coast especially shows some of these early inaccuracies: the mouth of the River Yealm is usually depicted pointing due south instead of west; the River Dart appears east of Froward Point and not in Start Bay; Penlee Point is shown north-east of Rame not due east.

Although Greenville Collins, in 1693, produced his Coasting Pilot with more accurate charts (still with an incorrect River Yealm), it was not until the next century that a county surveyor altered the old copied coastline. When Moll produced his atlas, in 1724, he not only changed the line of the Tamar but he also correctly extended Start Bay to include the entrance to the River Dart.

This new south coast shape was copied by later cartographers, though some, like Kitchin and Jefferys in 1749, still retained the earlier Saxton form. Kitchin and Bowen in the 1750s adopted Moll’s coastline but placed Devon 5' further south: a mistake copied on all their own maps and later in maps published by Alexander Hogg in 1784 (50), and John Lodge in 1788 (52).

However, with Donn’s survey in 1765 a nearly accurate county map was achieved - to see just how accurate compare his Tamar and coastline with that of the Ordnance Survey. Donn’s work became the basic Devon to be copied by Cary in 1787 and in 1789, and by Smith in 1801, and changed only with the advent of new main roads, turnpikes and canals.

In 1809 the Ordnance Survey map of Devon was published (74), and became the accepted base for most, if not all, of the reduced scale county maps that followed. But we have to wait until 1820, when the Ordnance’s ‘Bellman’ introduced on to a large blank sheet of 600 mm by 300 mm, the tiny 75 mm by 25 mm island of Lundy.

The subsequent history of county mapping was, more or less, one of wholesale copying of the Ordnance Survey’s work. With the single exception of the Greenwood brothers, who surveyed Devon in 1825 and 1826 and published their nine-sheet map in the following year (96), all other maps were copies of Ordnance Survey work. Even John Cary, who had surveyed large areas of England to produce his highly accurate maps, resorted to copying. His last county map of Devon in 1813 was advertised: reduced from a survey made by order of the Board of Ordnance (79).


[1] The Hungarian Wolfgang Lazius mapped Austria in 1561 ; Johann Stumpf had mapped Switzerland 1548-1552.

[2] Percy Russell; Transactions of the Devonshire Association; 87; 1955.

[3] Van den Keere’s miniature atlas of 1605 (4) has degrees of latitude only on his maps of Ireland.

[4] For a comparison of scales based on Somerset see K Needell; Mile Scale Error ...; IMCoS JOURNAL; Spring 1987.

[5] See H Lawrence’s article in IMCoS JOURNAL, Vol. 1.5 Sept. 1981.                                           

[6] For a comprehensive survey of the road system in Devon and Cornwall attention should be drawn to two books by Francis Bennett. The Road-Books, Road-Maps, & Itineraries of Great Britain 1535 to 1850; and The Roads of Devon and Cornwall. Both books published by the author and printed by the Short Run Press, 2008.