Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

It is a strange facet of British culture that the organisation dedicated to mapping the nation has its origins in the Armed Forces. If one were to suggest a society in which cartographers and soldiers were one and the same, it would sound somewhat implausible. Yet, even if this was not strictly the case, the Ordnance Survey had its origins after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 revealed a need for accurate maps of the nation: the mountains of Scotland being difficult enough to shift troops, supplies and artillery pieces around even if you know where to go. Naturally, any modern army will understand the importance of maps and information, but to have the two functions so closely linked is odd in a modern, civilian existence.

Indeed, the dearth of available information is fascinating to consider in the Twenty-First century; to digress briefly, it is the sort of thing that ought to be really hammered home in schools as the century develops, to think of a world where information was difficult to find and frequently inaccurate. Or the sheer difficulty of collecting information.

Not that any of this is my own work; deriving from my reading of Rachel Hewitt's Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey (Granta, 2010). The start of it is deep in the Enlightenment 'everything can be measured' approach to things, though the uses of theodolite and measuring chain required more field work than the usual image of laboratory or drawing-room bound 18th Century Science. Measuring across vast distances, with The elements and distance were not the only threats: strange folk coming to survey one's land were not considered popular (an anecdote is given of a French surveyor being killed). In the paranoid times of 1798, when French invasion was predicted around the corner, surveyors could find themselves accused of being spies.

Local pride gave map-making a different air in Wales; the importance of getting place names correct was something that could draw venom from local dignitaries and commentators. Ireland was, if anything, more fraught; the survey was part of a re-assessment of tax boundaries (with some districts paying ten times that of others). The survey was initially staffed purely by British soldiers, as a measure against convenient errors; Irish labourers would eventually be hired, as would a team of Irish Catholics specifically required to work on place names - seeking to untangle the Irish name from any later English corruption. Naturally, the survey was not altogether popular; no serious violence is recorded, but much low-level disruption. It was even the subject of a play in 1980, Boundaries - though this piece of drama is little concerned with accuracy.

The great charting of the British isles was a long process - the final piece of the map would be published in 1870 - by which time, of course, the Industrial Revolution had wrought great changes, especially in a city like Birmingham. These maps were never altogether accessible to the general public (the first map made available to the general public cost several weeks wages for a skilled labourer). The Romantic movement would crop up to comment on the division of the countryside by the survey; Wordsworth and Blake both commenting negatively on this manifestation of the Enlightenment. Blake's image of Urizen in The Ancient of Days bears the tools of geometry and called out members of the survey in his Discourses. Worsdworth's own wanderings in the Lake District could be copied by tourists with new maps.

This has some applicability to the tabletop. The notion of the survey, taking delicate equipment into desolate places - assailed by the elements or the locals - seems an excellent starting point for a campaign. Careful calculations on top of mountains has something of a magical bent to it; reaching out across the wilderness to connect peoples together. I have been considering elements of a Enlightenment set or inspired campaign for a while and this seems an excellent inspiration and a interesting historical work.

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