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Creating a GIS of Ogilby's "principal roads" of England and Wales c. 1675

Creating a GIS of Ogilby's "principal roads" of England and Wales c. 1675

Text and maps by Max Satchell

This GIS, which was made possible through the generosity of the Leverhulme Trust, is a digitisation of the roads published in Britannia an atlas produced by John Ogilby, royal cosmographer, in 1675 (Ogilby, 1970). Ogilby's atlas is rightly celebrated in the history of cartography. The pre-turnpike road network is not depicted with any accuracy until Ogilby published his atlas of "principal roads" of England and Wales in 1675 (Ogilby, 1970). Britannia consisted of strip maps at 1:63360 scale of 85 routes on 100 copper plates which surveyed and mapped over 7500 miles of road. Earlier itineraries and road books had demarcated routes nationally but only as sequences of stages usually eight to twenty miles apart. In essence Britannia marked the transition from route, a direction of travel between known points, to road , a physical feature in the landscape. Despite the significance of Ogilby, his atlas has remained largely the preserve of the cartographic historian. Hitherto GIS analyses of the relationship between the road network and parish-level data using itineraries and road books have been hazardous because of the line of the road between the stages is usually uncertain. The Ogilby GIS makes such an exercise practicable for the late seventeenth century and perhaps earlier as the road network appears to have changed little after 1300 (Harrison, 2004; Satchell, forthcoming 1).

Digitising Ogilby is not without complication. Dickinson (2003) has shown that while many of the Ogilby maps suffer serious distortions in shape, they are far more accurate in terms of distance and that this characteristic used in conjunction with retrogressive analysis of later cartographic sources has made it possible to reconstruct their course. Regional studies which attempt to place the Ogilby data onto a modern map base remain rare and are of questionable cartographic accuracy, with the exception of the unpublished work of Jones on Yorkshire (Day, 1975-6, Jones, 1981, White, 2005). The only national attempt to place the roads shown on Ogilby's maps onto a modern projection is (Ordnance Survey, Southampton, 1930) which depicts the roads mapped by Ogilby with each road being referenced by its plate number. The map was produced by the formidably able cartographer and archaeologist, O.G.S. Crawford. Hitherto its value has been largely overlooked with the exception of Roberts (2002). Comparison between Ogilby routes in Cambridgeshire as mapped in A Map of XVII Century England and digitised anew by Satchell from Britannia and other sources confirmed the accuracy of Crawford's work. The GIS of Ogilby was digitised from geo-rectified scans of A Map of XVII Century England which were then checked for completeness against Britannia and a handful of omissions added (see Fig 1.).[i]


The status of the Ogilby roads is not entirely straightforward. Some commentators have regarded them simply as main roads (Emery, 1973; Harrison, 2004). This would seem to be borne out by Ogilby who claimed the roads included in his atlas represented 'the most considerable' of some 26700 miles of roads that had been surveyed. Hodson (2000) has argued that as originally planned the survey began with a series of road traverses and that this formed the framework by which local surveys could subsequently fill in the detail for the county maps. In short some roads were chosen not because of their economic importance but because by surveying them the map of England and Wales would be laid out more accurately. This is explicit when Ogilby qualifies his statement concerning his selection of the most considerable roads quoted above with the comment "...or such that an orderly distribution of the kingdom has obliged us to exhibit".[ii] Another problem was that Britannia as published had half the number of plates as planned which meant that a substantial number of the roads surveyed had to be omitted. Details of 21 extra roads surveyed for, but not included in Britannia exist in a road book published after Ogilby's death (Morgan, 1679). Mapping the stages of these routes indicates that a few roads of economic significance were omitted, such as the road from Halifax to Wakefield which was important for the distribution of textiles (Satchell, forthcoming 2). A detailed assessment of the degree to which Britannia represents the road network of England and Wales has yet to be made. However, it is already clear that Ogilby mapped all the major post roads and many other important roads. [iii]

Short bibliography

  • Albert, W., The turnpike road system in England 1663-1840 (CUP, 1972).
  • Day, W., 'The Shropshire portion of the Chester-Cardiff road in 1675', Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological Society, 60 (1975-6), 113-121.
  • Delano-Smith, C. and R.J.P. Kain, English maps: A history (Downsview: University of Toronto Press, 2000).
  • Delano-Smith, C., 'Milieus of mobility. Itineraries, route maps and roads maps' in J. Akerman, (ed.) Cartographies of travel and navigation, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006), 16-68
  • Dickinson (2003), G.C., 'Britain's first road maps: The strip-maps of John Ogilby's Britannia, 1675', Landscapes, 1 (2003), 79-98.
  • Emery, F.V., 'England c. 1600' in H. Darby ed. A New Historical Geography of England (CUP, 1973), 248-301.
  • Frearson, M., 'The mobility and descent of dissenters in the Chiltern Hundreds : Communications and the continuity of dissent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries'. in M. Spufford (ed.), The world of rural dissenters, 1520-1725 (CUP, 1995), 273-87.
  • Gerhold, D., Carriers and Coachmasters. Trade and travel before the turnpikes (Phillimore: Chichester, 2005).
  • Harrison, M., 'Bridges and economic development', Economic History Review, 45 (1992), 240-61.
  • Harrison, M., The bridges of medieval England. Transport and society 400-1800 (OUP, 2004).
  • Hodson, D., The Early Printed Road Books of England and Wales, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Exeter, 2000
  • Jones, A.K., 'The maps of Yorkshire printed in the period 1577-1857 as sources of topographical information', unpublished Ph.D, University of Leeds, 1981
  • Morgan, W., Mr. Ogilby's pocket book of roads with the computed & measured distances and the distinction of market and post townes, London, 1679
  • Ogilby, J., Britannia / [by] J. Ogilby. London, 1675. With an introduction by J. B. Harley (Amsterdam : Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1970).
  • Roberts, B. K., 'Woods, fens and roads: Where are the fens?' in Through Wet and Dry: Essays in Honour of David Hall, ed. T. Lane and J. Coles, Sleaford and Exeter: Lincolnshire Archaeology and Heritage Report Series No 5 and WARP Occasional Paper 17 (2002), 78-86.
  • Satchell, M., 'Continuity or change? The road network of England and Wales c. 1370-1675', forthcoming, 1
  • Satchell, M., 'Some lost roads of John Ogilby's Britannia', forthcoming, 2
  • Slack, P. 'Great and good, towns 1540-1700' in Cambridge Urban History of Britain, 2, ed. P. Clark (CUH, 2000), 347-76
  • Stenton, F.M., ''The road system of medieval England', Economic History Review, 7 (1936), 1-20
  • White, P., The South-West highway atlas of 1675 (Launceston: Tamar Books, 2005).

[i] Roads from Brighton to New Shoreham (plate 29), Ilfracombe to Bideford (plate 78) , Bideford to Great Torrington (plate 78), Chelmsford to Rayleigh (plate 93), and Chester to Flint (plate 98).

[ii] Ogilby, Britannia, sig.C2v my emphasis

[iii] Delano-Smith's claim that Ogilby only mapped post roads (Delano-Smith, 2000, p. 168; Delano-Smith, 2006, 50) has been widely repeated elsewhere. Comparisons between listings of post routes and Ogilby shows that he mapped many other important roads. For example, all the large provincial towns (≥ 5000) had one or more Ogilby roads linking them to other centres (Slack, 2000; Ogilby GIS).