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Exhibition Review – London: A Life in Maps at the British Library

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Maps: sounds like a bit of a specialist subject – a bit nerdy and detached from everyday life. That was what I thought, but since I was at the British Library anyway, I thought I’d pop into the London: A Life in Maps exhibition.

Two and a half hours later, with the gallery attendants providing a chorus of vacuum cleaners, I was thrown out when the gallery closed. It had become clear that while at first thought the recording of the lines on a map marking streets and buildings might seem mechanical, it is in fact an intensely political, contested process, which tells not just the story of the physical changes in London, but also is highly informative about its social and cultural development.

There are earlier representations — the earliest being on a gold coin of 310 that commemorates London’s surrender to Constantius I Chlorus, whose forces had defeated the usurper Allectus — but it is only in the middle of the 16th century that maps as we understand them start to become readily available.

One of the earliest, which survives only in fragments, was a copperplate map of late 1550s. Already, the city map is an intensely political object. This was probably commissioned from a foreign surveyor for presentation to Phillip II (Bloody Mary’s husband) by German merchants, as part of their struggle to maintain trading privileges.

Another version was soon printed, known as the Agas map. It was a simplified copy with text panels boasting of London’s antiquity and wealth with no mention of foreigners – almost certainly the local merchants’ response.

What was included, and excluded, was also highly political. In these early maps London more or less stops at the Tower – the East End, which would over the next couple of centuries grow enormously, was unimportant, for that was where the poor lived.

It was only in the 1790s that the East End was mapped as an essential step to building the great docks of empire. It was no cause for celebration – for this recorded the houses dismissed as old, decrepit and occupied by “the poorest classes”, i.e. those that would be demolished. Five thousand lost their homes.

Maps of the West End, however, started even before it existed, for it was where the wealthy had their estates. In 1584, Ralph Treswell produced map of the fields near what is now Oxford Circus, showing, among its curiosities, the lead pipes that since 1236 had run from Hyde Park to supply water to the City.

In the 18th century the villages surrounding London started to appear on its map; they were thought to be of military importance, and there were starting to be concerns about food security. Lower Holloway, now very much part of central London, and the still leafy Crouch End are shown as a collection of scattered farmhouses.

The politics continued. In 1738, John Roque set out to prove that London was bigger than Paris, using the most accurate surveying techniques available. To show seriousness he dispenses with the views that had so enlivened earlier maps, providing instead a neat, but huge, 6-foot by 13-foot span that contemporary catalogues recommended making into a screen.

This foreshadowed a craze in the 18th century to put these newly accurate and available maps into many forms, including on fabric fans. It is easy to imagine one of these being used to settle a genteel geographical argument on a warm evening in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. What is the quickest way for the coach to get home?

Such gentility was giving way, indeed often being funded, by the explosion in manufacturing. London had always been an industrial city, a production centre particularly for luxuries, but such “luxuries” were becoming increasingly common. The Horwoods map of 1799, unlike earlier versions, names few aristocratic houses, but does locate many of the big breweries, tanneries and vinegar manufacturers.

More change was, however, on the way, to give a place on the maps even to the lower middle classes. Under the Reform Act of 1832 the franchise was extended to even modest landowners, and many aspired to, for the first time, own their own home, which would also give them the vote. For those who know London it will now seem ironic that between Hornsey Road and Seven Sisters (an area now dotted with “anti-vice cameras”), there was an explosion of streets named for this advance: “Reform”, “Franchise”, “Liberty” and “Freehold”. (They were however soon renamed – no doubt because the titles betrayed their aspirational, rather than “arrived”, status.)

The exhibition continues until March 4. If you can’t make it to the Library, the exhibition has its own blog. And there’s an official Google Maps mashup, bring it right into the 21st century.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.