A woodcut map of Peking from c.1900.

Industry and Empire: the town plans of the 19th century

James Elliot explores the development of town plans through technical and social change during the 19th century.

The growing professional skills of both surveyors and cartographers had developed by the turn of the 19th century to such an extent that town and city plans were already utilitarian rather than decorative objects before the process of map production became mechanised. As a reaction to the growing trend towards utility, Thomas Hornor, landscape gardener, surveyor, and artist, sought to combine scientific precision with pictorial flair. In his book Description of an improved method of delineating Estates he complained ‘the utmost that a common plan can effect … is to furnish an outline which the memory must fill up’.[1] His remedy was to depict the subject ‘so that the beholder, placed as it were in the air, may enjoy a prospect of which the irregularity of the ground had concealed, perhaps many pleasing parts’.

Plan of the town and parish of Kingston upon Thames

Thomas Hornor's Plan of the town and parish of Kingston upon Thames published in 1813.

This aquatinted map and view of Kingston-upon-Thames was created by the gardener, surveyor and artist Thomas Hornor in 1813.

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Hornor’s plan of Kingston-upon-Thames of 1813 embodied his philosophy, and was also one of the few maps to employ the aquatinting process. Aquatinting consisted of fusing a ground of minute particles of resin to a copperplate to act as a resistant to the acid in which the plate was then immersed. As the resin ground was porous, the acid would bite into the plate in tiny pools around each particle. When the plate was cleared of resin and acid, the minute depressions retained the ink, to give a soft grain which produced a film of shade and tonal variation over the plate. Aquatinting was more commonly associated with topographic prints than cartography, although Hornor’s style, which incorporated an elaborate cartouche as well as views of Kingston and its environs, undoubtedly benefited from the technique.

In the early part of the 19th century, most town plans continued to be engraved on copperplates, either as individual sheets or as collections for atlases such as the British Atlas (1810) by J Cole and J Roper, and the two-volume Maps of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, published in 1833 and incorporating highly detailed plans of Birmingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool and London as well as major cities elsewhere in the world.[2] 

Undoubtedly one of the most original urban cartographers operating in Britain in this period was John Wood, a native of Yorkshire who by 1811 had established himself in Edinburgh as a surveyor. Few plans of Scottish towns, apart from the main cities had appeared before the turn of the century, but Wood rectified this with the publication, between 1819 and 1826, of accurate large-scale plans of over 50 of the smaller communities of Scotland. These were issued in 1828 as the Town Atlas, along with a companion volume of descriptive text. From 1826 until his death in 1847, Wood surveyed a number of small towns south of the border, notably in Wales and the West Country.

Plan of the city of Perth

John Wood's Plan of the city of Perth, from the Town Atlas (1823)

In 1828 John Wood published his Town Atlas: a series of plans of Scottish towns and cities accompanied by a volume of descriptive text.

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By mid-century, however, urban cartography was being transformed by the spectacular urban expansion of the Industrial Revolution. In north-west Europe and North America the growing cities provided a ready market for cheap, up-to-date street plans, which in the new acquisitive age were as unadorned as utility permitted. Rapid urban growth also meant that town plans would quickly become out of date, thus presenting a new requirement on the cartographer to revise and reissue his plans to keep pace with the demands of a more mobile and literate urban population. The introduction of lithography from the 1820s onwards provided part of the answer to this demand, as it made the process of map-making cheaper and easier than the highly skilled, laborious and costly method of engraving on copper. Lithography, pioneered in 1796 by Alois Senefelder of Munich was a chemical process which exploited the ability of porous stone to attract both grease and water, which had a chemical antipathy to one another. The technique required than a design be transferred to a polished stone using a greasy drawing medium. The stone was then washed with water which was absorbed only by those areas of the stone not covered with the medium. A greasy printing ink was then applied by roller, which adhered only to the drawing medium. Prints were obtained by placing the paper face down on the stone and passing stone and paper together through a flat-bed scraper press which would rub the back of the paper as it passed through. Although the technique was widely used by the 1820s, its potential for mass production only became fully realised from the 1870s onwards, when steam powered mechanical pressed were introduced. These picked up the design from the stone and transferred it to the paper by means of rubber rollers, a process known as offset lithography.

The new techniques were extensively exploited in the United States and Canada, where the large-scale mapping of urban America took the form of commercially-produced county and city atlases. These were usually produced on a subscription basis, in which an agent of the publishing company would endeavour to raise money for the project from the local citizenry. This done, field surveys were carried out and supplemented with ownership and property details from tax lists, cadastral maps and other official records. The Atlas of the City of Buffalo, 1872, was a typical example and one of the earliest works by G.M. Hopkins, a company which concentrated its mapping activities in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The firm’s base, Philadelphia, was the most important atlas-publishing centre after Chicago.

Atlas of the city of Buffalo

An atlas of Buffalo, New York, published by G.M. Hopkins & Co (1872)

This atlas of the City of Buffalo was one of the earliest works by G. M. Hopkins, a publisher based in Philadelphia.

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North America also witnessed a revival of the bird’s-eye view on a scale sufficiently widespread to include even the smallest communities. The technique had been used in preceding centuries in Europe to portray the great cities and capitals. In the United States and Canada, however, urban views were mass-produced, not only for the major metropolitan centres, but for over 2,500 lesser towns throughout the continent. That of Winnipeg  was a typical example of the views that were published between the 1830s and 1920s, satisfying a vigorous demand for domestic wall-hangings and serving as publicity material for real-estate agents and chambers of commerce. For each view, the artist would draw from a street plan a projection of framework showing the town in perspective. He would then perambulate each street to make sketches of the buildings, which were then redrawn on the projection to show the towns viewed from a high-angle oblique position some 2000–3000 feet above the ground.

City of Winnipeg

A lithograph from 1900 showing a bird's eye view of Winnipeg.

This lithographed view of Winnipeg was one of many birds eye view plans published in America between 1830 and 1920.

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In Europe, by contrast, large-scale topographical surveys of urban areas were carried out by official organisations. In Britain, growing anxiety over matters of public health in the major industrial cities led to the establishment, in 1834, of the Poor Law Commission. This body quickly concluded that adequate improvements in urban areas could only be made if suitable maps existed. In response to this need, the Ordnance Survey, then mapping the northern counties of England at the 6 inch scale, was authorised by the Treasury in 1840 to produce a series of town plans at a scale on five feet to one mile, (1:1,056), for towns in the region with a population of 4,000 or more. The first of these plans, covering St. Helen’s, appeared in 1843. A second series, at a scale of 10 feet to one mile (1:528), was published in the early 1850s for a further eighteen towns in England and Wales. These were based on surveys stimulated by the evidence of witnesses to the First Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts (1844) and the Public Health Act of 1848. In 1855, a third series, at a scale of 1:500 (10.56 feet to one mile), was authorised which would cover all towns with a population of more than 4,000. By the end of the programme in 1892, urban Britain had been mapped at scales ‘sufficiently large to show detail down to the size of a door-step’ (Ordnance Survey, Annual Report, 1891). 

Ordnance plan of the Town of Huddersfield

Ordnance Survey Plan of Huddersfield, published in 1890 on 49 sheets.

The first town plan produced by the Ordnance Survey was that of St. Helens in 1843, this plan of Huddersfield was one of the last published almost 50 years later in 1890.

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The plan of Huddersfield, surveyed in 1889 and published the following year on 49 sheets, is typical of the third series plans, and was one of the last to be published before the surveyors moved onto the Irish towns. The availability of accurate large-scale mapping by the Ordnance Survey from the second half of the 19th century aided the commercial map producers, who no longer needed to carry out their own surveys. Instead they could produce maps which, with or without acknowledgement, were based on existing Ordnance Survey data. The firm of John Heywood was typical of the age, a commercial publisher whose few maps supplemented a much wider range of printed products from school books, newspapers and technical journals to office stationary and greeting cards. Heywood’s ‘Pictorial map of Manchester and Salford’ of 1886 features a ground plan derived from the Ordnance Survey on which had been superimposed elevations of the city’s prominent buildings, including Heywood’s warehouses and showrooms in Deansgate and his ‘Excelsior’ printing works.

Pictorial Map of Manchester and Salford

John Heywood’s Pictorial map of Manchester and Salford, published in 1886

Heywood’s Pictorial Map combines accurate mapmaking with pictorial elevations of buildings to create this plan of Manchester.

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Among Heywood’s contemporaries were specialist cartographic publishers who made their own contribution to urban cartography and whose names remain familiar today. George Washington Bacon was described in the London Directory, 1863, as ‘the American map publisher’. His company produced a wide variety of maps, atlases and globes, as well as wall charts, lettering charts and other educational aids. He also marketed a ‘parlour gymnasium’ and trapeze bar, and recruited apprentices to his firm by approaching the London School Board with a prize of £20 and the offer of employment to senior pupils who excelled at map-drawing. His index plan of Margate, like the others of the series, incorporated commercial sponsorship as a means of offsetting the cost of publication.

Bacon's Index Map of Margate

Bacon’s index map of Margate published by George Washington Bacon in 1893

George Washington Bacon’s map of Margate, Kent, was published with the aid of advertisements for local businesses.

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Another geographical publishing business, George Philip & Son, was founded in Liverpool in 1834 as a bookseller. The firm rapidly moved into publishing and printing, opening offices in London (1848) and new works in Liverpool (1859), equipped with powered lithographic machines. After 1870, when Board Schools were established to provide a national system of education, Philips became one the leading educational publishers and suppliers, producing a variety of school atlases, charts, ready-reckoners and wall maps. More specialised cartographic works were also produced, such as the plan of Greater Liverpool of 1895. 

Philips' New Plan of Greater Liverpool

Philip’s new plan of Greater Liverpool, published in 1895

During the 19th century George Philip & Son became the leading publishers of educational maps, however they continued to produce specialised publications such as this Plan of Greater Liverpool.

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One of the finest of 19th century street plans was the 12-sheet plan of Edinburgh of 1891 drawn to a scale of 15 inches to one mile. It was made by John George Bartholomew, who taken over the family map-publishing business from his father three year previously. The plan was based on the Ordnance Survey’s 1876–77 revision of the 1:1056 (five foot) scale town plan, and was produced on new gas-powered mechanical lithographic presses. Sold at 30 shillings, mounted copies were available at 45 shillings on which purchasers could have their home or business identified and coloured at no extra cost.

Plan of the City of Edinburgh

A plan of Edinburgh by John Bartholomew, published in 1891

Buyers of John Bartholomew’s Plan of the City of Edinburgh could purchase the map ready mounted with their homes and businesses individually hand-coloured.

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The 19th century also bore witness to the cartographic activities of the official agencies of the colonial powers, which produced plans of the many of the major cities as part of their regular activities. In India, for example, the Boards of Revenue were responsible for raising the land taxes necessary to support the British administration. The Sudder Board of Revenue published its maps from standard manuscript atlases which were maintained in all district record rooms at a scale of 4 inches to one mile.

A large coloured plan of Peking

A woodcut map of Peking from c.1900.

This anonymous woodcut shows a plan of the city in c.1900, with the Forbidden City at the centre.

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Despite the near monopoly of Europe and North America in the production of town plans in the 19th century, local traditions of urban mapping continued in both Japan and China throughout the century. This is evidenced by a Chinese woodcut plan of Peking of 1900, which nevertheless appears to be a close copy of one made in 1729 to accompany A description of Peking by Father Hyacinth Bitchurin of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission.

Footnotes

[1] Thomas Hornor, Description of an improved method of delineating Estates. With a sketch of the progress of Landscape Gardening in England, etc, (London : Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1810) 7054.h.5.

[2] The British Atlas; comprising a complete set of county maps of England and Wales: with a general map of navigable rivers and canals: and plans of cities and principal towns, (London 1810), Maps 7 Tab.47, and A Series of Maps, Modern and Ancient, under the superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, (London : Baldwin and Cradock, 1829–1831) Maps C.38.e.7.

This is an edited version of a text first published in James Elliot,The City in Maps (British Library, 1987).

  • James Elliot
  • Former maps curator, British Library

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.