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Understanding Common Record Types: Maps & plans

Guide to understanding common types of archive documents: abstracts of title, accounts, annual reports, charters & letters patent, constitutions, diaries, household books, land deeds, letters, manorial records, maps & plans, minutes, photographs, & wills.

Introduction to maps and plans

Illustrative and visual documents recording the results of geographical survey work.

Why they were created

Created for the purposes of aiding navigation in a particular geographical area, as well as to record the boundaries and features of a specific building, street or piece of land.

Who might have created them

Created by surveyors on behalf of local authorities, by land agents on behalf of land owners and estate trustees, and by companies with large land holdings.

Where you might find them

Usually found with records relating to land ownership and use. Commonly found in the following collections:

  • Landed families
  • Estates
  • Businesses
  • Local authorities

Period from which they most commonly survive

Commonly survive from the 17th century, although earlier examples can be found. As surveying and recording techniques become more technical, maps and plans become more detailed and accurate. Large numbers survive from the early 19th century.

Key features

Physical features

  • Variety of formats, including: Ordnance Survey maps; town plans; street maps; engineering plans; building elevation plans; landed estate plans
  • Single sheet paper, usually of a high quality, although sometimes reproduced as copies on tracing paper
  • Some examples are canvas backed for durability, usually where the document is intended to be handled frequently
  • Often outsized and large, may be rolled or folded for storage and handling purposes
  • Usually outline black and white, although some examples are colour-washed to add highlighting to particular areas

Informational content

  • Title of map or plan, indicating what is being represented
  • Date of map or plan
  • Surveyor or illustrator's name may be indicated
  • Scale of map, usually present at the foot of the map in the form of a bar or ruler, indicating the relation between the size of features on the map and the actual geographical distance
  • Location of north in relation to the features represented on the map, usually indicated by a stylised illustrated compass
  • List of features as represented by symbols on a map, usually presented in a key down the side of the map
  • The presence of physical features, such as waterways and bodies of water, byways and paths, buildings, and fields (usually indicated by symbols)
  • Boundary limits, some of which might be indicated by physical features (such as fences, hedges), but this is not always the case (usually indicated by boundary lines)
  • Names of occupiers, tenants or owners may be noted next to or on top of areas of land
Print of a plan of lands at Holderness owned by Christopher Sykes, shows plot boundaries, road names, adjacent land owners, and includes a key showing plot names and acreage

U DDHO3/9/11

Plan of Fitling in Holderness, the property of Christopher Sykes, Esquire, 1873

Hand drawn and coloured plan of the area of land making up Speke Manor, with field boundaries, names and acreages noted

U DDGE2/5/6

Plan of Speke Manor in the parish of Childwell belonging to Richard Watt Esquire, 1807

A printed plan of Londesborough village at a scale of 3 chains per inch, showing roads, plot boundaries, building locations, and the layout of a pleasure grounds

U DDCV2/55/4

Map of Londesborough, 1845

Print of a hand drawn plan of the building layout at Marrick Priory, showing room usage, entrance ways, stair cases, etc.

U DDCA2/29/134

Copy of a 16th century plan of Marrick Priory, 1838

Note on critical analysis

Things to consider:

  • Maps are created at the request of an organisation or individual for a specific purpose, the cartographer may therefore emphasize or omit certain categories of data or particular geographical features as fits their purpose
  • In earlier centuries, instruments used to measure distance and elevation were less sophisticated and accurate as compared to today's equipment, therefore, some data we assume to be factual might actually be inaccurate
  • Maps are created to record a survey of a geographical area, however, they can be used for various reasons, i.e. demonstrating the amount of land an individual owns, or the extent of a political unit's reach
  • Scale and projection can be manipulated to emphasize political power rather than actual geographical size and positioning
  • Historically, cartographers have often used large features such as rivers and coastlines as a baseline around which to map an area, however we now know that such features migrate and change over time
  • The size and placement of symbols representing features on a map might emphasize certain features over others, reinforcing concepts of power; for instance, the placement of a church icon over nearby features and the larger size of that icon in comparison to other symbols visually emphasizes the importance of religion

Potential research uses

Maps and plans can be useful when undertaking research into the following areas:

  • Urban and rural development over time, when used in conjunction with earlier and later maps and plans
  • Coastal erosion and land mass alteration, whether natural or manmade
  • Tracing land ownership, holding and rental
  • Tracking boundary movement and changes
  • Studies of the development of map-making and use
  • Issues such as enclosure, public rights of way and drainage
  • Development of specific features, i.e. docks, roads, etc.
  • Construction and relocation of buildings

Specialist skills and knowledge

Further reading in the following areas will help researchers when using these sources:

  • Pre-Metric measures of length and area, i.e. Imperial system
  • Roman numerals, as measures of length and area can be recorded in this format rather than as Arabic numbers

Resources at Hull History Centre

Search for further examples of maps and plans using our online catalogue. Try using search terms such as map, plan, survey, etc. in conjunction with the geographical area in which you are interested.

Alternatively, if you prefer to browse, the file below contains a list of maps, plans and surveys held at Hull History Centre. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, but represents key examples of the document type.