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Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

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Map of a Nation tells the story of the creation of the Ordnance Survey map - the first complete, accurate, affordable map of the British Isles.


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Map of a Nation tells the story of the creation of the Ordnance Survey map - the first complete, accurate, affordable map of the British Isles.

30 review for Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    I know the exact moment I fell in love with this book. It came on page fifteen of the prologue, wherein Rachel Hewitt describes the debacle of a manhunt that followed the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. For want of a decent map of Scotland, England's fearsome army was led a merry chase across the Highlands by a half-lame septuagenarian and managed to lose "Bonnie" Prince Charles altogether. Charles's defeat came at the Battle of Culloden, famous for being the last pitched battle fought on the Britis I know the exact moment I fell in love with this book. It came on page fifteen of the prologue, wherein Rachel Hewitt describes the debacle of a manhunt that followed the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. For want of a decent map of Scotland, England's fearsome army was led a merry chase across the Highlands by a half-lame septuagenarian and managed to lose "Bonnie" Prince Charles altogether. Charles's defeat came at the Battle of Culloden, famous for being the last pitched battle fought on the British Isles, and infamous for the bloodthirsty zeal of the English troops during and following the battle. The English army annihilated the two thousand or so Scotsmen in around forty five minutes, and for anyone not quite sure how long forty five minutes is, Rachel Hewitt explains that it's "the time it takes to enjoy a soak in the bath". Upon reading this unlikely comparison between a scene of unimaginable bloodshed and a Cadbury's Flake advert, my eyebrows and jaw raced away from one another. Once I'd dragged down the former and pulled up the latter, I let out a sound somewhere between a snort of appreciation for the outrageous analogy and a snigger of expectation at what other delights the book would hold. The story of the Ordnance Survey maps turns out to be a fascinating one, and Hewitt tells it brilliantly. Not since Longitude have I been so enthralled by such a dry sounding subject, but not even Dava Sobel wrote this well. The book is always comprehensive but never too slow nor patronising, and has many a nice personal touch as well. The characters that brought the Survey to life are herein brought to life themselves, and thanks to some well placed and never smarmy personal recollections of the author, the book itself almost has a life of its own. The subject matter might not be to everyone's tastes, but maps aside it's a riveting tale of human triumph over and alongside nature and the elements with some intriguing cameos and some genuinely touching drama. And surely everyone appreciates a book with all that.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Puts the Ordinance Survey right on the map :). Something we walkers and scramblers have always loved, maps carried next to our hearts across the hills and through the rain, sleet and (rarely) burning sun. Winter nights on the kitchen table plotting routes. And 20 years ago wished for abroad in countries where whole hillsides seemed to be missing from the local maps! A moment in time just as the world changes - GPS, SATNAV, satellite pictures. The author places the start of the Ordinance Survey f Puts the Ordinance Survey right on the map :). Something we walkers and scramblers have always loved, maps carried next to our hearts across the hills and through the rain, sleet and (rarely) burning sun. Winter nights on the kitchen table plotting routes. And 20 years ago wished for abroad in countries where whole hillsides seemed to be missing from the local maps! A moment in time just as the world changes - GPS, SATNAV, satellite pictures. The author places the start of the Ordinance Survey firmly in the military world, beginning with the Highland clearances and wars with France, continuing with Ireland and the the mapping for taxation, the massive social implications of fixing place names and not forgetting the struggle of the 20th century for access to land. The military, economic and political setting gives the book a real bite without detracting from the heroics of the multitude of people who walked the land actually doing the mapping.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Fish

    My interest in maps was first triggered by a book passed down to me, aged seven, from the teenage son of a family friend. This "project manual" gave a grounding in many subjects, but it was cartography that caught my young imagination at the time. Fast forward more than thirty years and my wife, on the lookout for Christmas presents for an awkward bugger who just buys things when he spots them, stumbled across this. Telling the story of the Ordnance Survey may not be the most obvious thing to do, My interest in maps was first triggered by a book passed down to me, aged seven, from the teenage son of a family friend. This "project manual" gave a grounding in many subjects, but it was cartography that caught my young imagination at the time. Fast forward more than thirty years and my wife, on the lookout for Christmas presents for an awkward bugger who just buys things when he spots them, stumbled across this. Telling the story of the Ordnance Survey may not be the most obvious thing to do, but Rachel Hewitt does it with a passion which shines through the prose. You can almost feel the cold of Rannoch Moor - although having watched Nicholas Crane's Map Man probably helps.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Adam Yates

    I’ll never know why this book and its mundane subject matter ensnared me and in the end, it was a slog but I have retained a lot of the information and I feel smarter for it. One day, I will answer a question on University Challenge from the comfort of my sofa, my wife will look at me in astonishment and I shall arch my eyebrow and say “I knew that.”

  5. 5 out of 5

    Riona

    Lovely to read a non-fiction book. Really enjoyed getting to know the history of the OS (although only up to the late 1800s, would have liked to see more recent history - maybe that's another book?). I liked imaging how all of the different pieces of equipment work, messaging my mum (a surveyor) lots! :) Lovely to read a non-fiction book. Really enjoyed getting to know the history of the OS (although only up to the late 1800s, would have liked to see more recent history - maybe that's another book?). I liked imaging how all of the different pieces of equipment work, messaging my mum (a surveyor) lots! :)

  6. 4 out of 5

    Don

    This fine book covers the development of the Ordnance Survey from the political drivers of the 18th century that led to its creation, through to the completion of the ‘First Series’ of England and Wales (at 1 inch to 1 mile) in 1870. It has grown from the author’s PhD thesis, and other academic work. Her research has generated a remarkable level of detail about the key personalities involved, the methods they employed, and the scientific, social and political environments in which they operated. This fine book covers the development of the Ordnance Survey from the political drivers of the 18th century that led to its creation, through to the completion of the ‘First Series’ of England and Wales (at 1 inch to 1 mile) in 1870. It has grown from the author’s PhD thesis, and other academic work. Her research has generated a remarkable level of detail about the key personalities involved, the methods they employed, and the scientific, social and political environments in which they operated. It is, mostly, highly readable and absorbing, and provides a fascinating background to people, like me, who love maps – especially the masterworks produced by the OS.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Rob Kitchin

    In Map of a Nation, Rachel Hewitt tells the story of the formation of the Ordnance Survey. The book should really have a title that frames the time period of the content since it almost exclusive covers the period 1745 to 1870, with practically no discussion of the history of the organization in the twentieth century. The use of the term biography in the title is, I suppose, a nod to the biographical approach to history telling, with Hewitt plotting the history of the organisation principally by In Map of a Nation, Rachel Hewitt tells the story of the formation of the Ordnance Survey. The book should really have a title that frames the time period of the content since it almost exclusive covers the period 1745 to 1870, with practically no discussion of the history of the organization in the twentieth century. The use of the term biography in the title is, I suppose, a nod to the biographical approach to history telling, with Hewitt plotting the history of the organisation principally by tracing the lives of its key actors – David Watson, William Roy, William Mudge, Thomas Colby and others. Throughout the narrative there are a series of asides, with some context relating to politics, military conflict, scientific advances, philosophy, popular culture, and social relations, some of which aid the tale, some a bit of a distraction. Hewitt’s starting point is the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and the inability of English soldiers to navigate the Highlands, which led to a government-led mapping survey. Additional surveys were undertaken throughout the late eighteenth century, with the British collaborating with the French to create an accurate triangulation survey to document the precise location of key sites. These trig points became the basis for a national survey starting in 1791, under the office of the Master-General of the Ordnance, to underpin new, accurate maps. The survey first covered South East England leading to the first OS map in 1801 of Kent, and then continued across England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland during the first half of the nineteenth century. While it is evident that there is a substantial body of research underpinning the narrative, and there is a richness of detail, for my liking the account is somewhat an uncritical in charting Ordnance Survey’s history. There are very brief references to a more critical reading of how OS was a political body doing important work to maintain the Union and certainly no attempt at a postcolonial reading of OS’s work, particularly with respect to Ireland and Scotland. Instead the OS is framed as a somewhat neutral, yet civilising and Enlightenment endeavour, with some fairly weak defence of its colonial work. The result is an account that presents people, events and endeavours in a straightforward, face-value way but largely skims over the wider subtext. Overall, an interesting history of the formation of Britain’s national mapping agency, but lacking a critical edge.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    Enjoyable history of a national institution. It was at its best early on, describing the travails and technological innovations of the early pioneers, with background biographies to add colour, although I could have done with some accompanying maps to trace their routes. Later in the book, the survey became a national effort, and the focus shifts to political and administrative concerns rather than individual experience, which made it a drier read (and ironic, as the survey increased in scale an Enjoyable history of a national institution. It was at its best early on, describing the travails and technological innovations of the early pioneers, with background biographies to add colour, although I could have done with some accompanying maps to trace their routes. Later in the book, the survey became a national effort, and the focus shifts to political and administrative concerns rather than individual experience, which made it a drier read (and ironic, as the survey increased in scale and detail). Nevertheless, educational and interesting.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    The author takes us through the story of the OS by meeting the people who drove the idea forward, which also shows the context in which it was being done through the early years. Very enjoyable and informative.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Craig Morland

    Really interesting (if you're super dull like I am) but very dry in parts. Back to the land of make believe for a while... Really interesting (if you're super dull like I am) but very dry in parts. Back to the land of make believe for a while...

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tanya Turner

    Fascinating although at times a little too dense and quite dry.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Danny Whatmough

    On my count the book is actually only 312 pages of narrative (plus an introduction) but there's a tonne of references, if nothing else the book is amazingly well researched and referenced. I currently only own 5/6 OS maps in my room as well as having the app on my phone, and a puzzle book, and a few other bits people have bought me over the years. This book was one of those presents and I can easily say it's one of the best books anyone has bought me. I still don't fully understand how trigonometr On my count the book is actually only 312 pages of narrative (plus an introduction) but there's a tonne of references, if nothing else the book is amazingly well researched and referenced. I currently only own 5/6 OS maps in my room as well as having the app on my phone, and a puzzle book, and a few other bits people have bought me over the years. This book was one of those presents and I can easily say it's one of the best books anyone has bought me. I still don't fully understand how trigonometry works with regards to map making (I tried to learn, it confused me) but I know it creates some absolutely fantastic illustrations of a nation. I do now comprehend how much I took my maps for granted though, while I've had difficulty finding ones for when I travel abroad that I like as much as OS maps I always assumed it was just because I didn't know where to look, but from reading this book it looks like it's more to do with a pedigree and passion that was put into the map making process in the first place. It's honestly amazing to me just how much of a story there is behind what's essentially just a birds-eye illustration of a country, something that satellites and helicopters have made incredibly easy to find but back in the day the Ordinance Survey was starting up were completely novel ideas and the nearest thing might have been a hot air balloon. It's just a proper interesting book and it's really well written in my opinion, Touched on a few bits of history I knew bits about but never appreciated how important just knowing your area was and gave me a new found appreciation for how lucky I am to have detailed maps available for my use to avoid me from getting lost. (Though I'll still carry my GPS as a just in case)

  13. 5 out of 5

    ClareT

    I have had this on my shelf to be read for about ten years - I had picked it up before, and gave up. This time I did persevere. The book tells the story of the production of the first Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain and Ireland. From the original idea, following the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland in 1745, to their completion about 125 years later. These are the stories of the mapmakers who took the idea and developed both the scope and the coverage. Both the physical difficulties of produc I have had this on my shelf to be read for about ten years - I had picked it up before, and gave up. This time I did persevere. The book tells the story of the production of the first Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain and Ireland. From the original idea, following the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland in 1745, to their completion about 125 years later. These are the stories of the mapmakers who took the idea and developed both the scope and the coverage. Both the physical difficulties of producing the maps and the political barriers thrown in the way are covered. As are some of the other interested parties along the way - Wordsworth and Coleridge both make an appearance. This is a really well researched book (as testified to by the copious notes at the back), but it was quite dull and I did have to force myself to go on reading it. Possibly I was not as interested in the history of maps as I thought when I first bought the book!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chris Miller

    For the most part this is a really interesting book. However, she runs on a bit when describing the triangulation in places. The mapping of the British Isles extended over a century and required high quality people to run it, and as Hewitt shows, for the most part, the people were there when needed. The Geodesic Survey was an immense undertaking that brought the natural world into the libraries of the country. It was an extraordinary accomplishment. Hewitt writes well, and with the exception of For the most part this is a really interesting book. However, she runs on a bit when describing the triangulation in places. The mapping of the British Isles extended over a century and required high quality people to run it, and as Hewitt shows, for the most part, the people were there when needed. The Geodesic Survey was an immense undertaking that brought the natural world into the libraries of the country. It was an extraordinary accomplishment. Hewitt writes well, and with the exception of the lousy footnoting system that seems to be favored by publishers at this time, it is a fine book. She has included an immense bibliography that compares well with Phillip Russell’s in The History of Mexico. I am still trying to figure out if she is an historian writing science or a scientist writing history. Either way it is a good read.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Andy Bryant

    Slightly disappointed that the 'biography of the Ordnance Survey' is only a biography of it's first 100 odd years - I suspect the author wanted the closure from the publication of the much anticipated First Series (whole of England & Wales completely mapped) - which was a LONG time coming - included, otherwise the narrative may have been wrapped up even sooner. I'm not sure how much of it has sunk in (I'm a lifelong map addict so this should be my ultimate read but man, so much of this book was Slightly disappointed that the 'biography of the Ordnance Survey' is only a biography of it's first 100 odd years - I suspect the author wanted the closure from the publication of the much anticipated First Series (whole of England & Wales completely mapped) - which was a LONG time coming - included, otherwise the narrative may have been wrapped up even sooner. I'm not sure how much of it has sunk in (I'm a lifelong map addict so this should be my ultimate read but man, so much of this book was dry and often hard work) - but I shall definitely remember that we've all been pronouncing Mount Everest wrong!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Joanne Whitlock

    I skim read this as I have trouble remembering names and dates but was most of all interested in the narrative and thought behind the structure of the story. It surprised me that the maps and the organisation behind them had evolved from different people, projects and objectives yet I don’t know why that would be a surprise. It makes me feel that the contribution all of us make to the world is much harder to appreciate than we would like to believe.

  17. 5 out of 5

    James Marland

    My first book of 2019 was ultimately a little disappointing. The subtitle of “a biography of the Ordnance Survey” hides the fact that the material covers less than half of its 300 year span. For a map book the illustrations were weak, and the wider role that maps play in British society were brushed over in preference to Hanoverian civil service politics.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    I love maps. This book is good history and just enough science. The book reminded me again of why paper maps are in many cases much more useful than digital as they allow one to see a much larger context and to be much more malleable in one's choice of route and even destination options. And it helped me remember why I love(d) trigonometry and geometry. I love maps. This book is good history and just enough science. The book reminded me again of why paper maps are in many cases much more useful than digital as they allow one to see a much larger context and to be much more malleable in one's choice of route and even destination options. And it helped me remember why I love(d) trigonometry and geometry.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bryan

    Fascinating tale of the foundation of the Ordnance Survey in the U.K. and how it established a new conception of space and national identity. Extremely detailed, almost to a fault, making it a bit tough to work through at times.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Voirrey

    This is not a light read - but is a fascinating account of how the Ordnance Survey began, how the mapping was done over the years, and the people who were involved. As an aside, I was interested to read that page 100, of our island, was published in 1873 - 3 years after sheet 108.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Very dry. Focus is on a few individuals responsible for the early days of the Ordnance Survey, and clearly a lot of research went into this, but it brings little illumination to the joy of poring over an OS map, now or in the past.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Simon Apps

    A bit too much about the people involved and not enough about the maps and science for me. Interesting enough to keep me reading but could have done with more on the technology involved. I appreciate you can’t please everyone though. Glad I read it but also glad I can move on now.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    Found this really hard going for some reason. Not as enjoyable as I hoped.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lukasz Lukomski

    Very interesting history of one of the most important British institutions.

  25. 5 out of 5

    PJ Boshier

    Very interesting book. Not a complete biography tho doesn’t go beyond 19th century. But well written and informative.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Chris Smith

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Quite dry and a long read but only goes up to the 1830s

  27. 4 out of 5

    David Clark

    Interesting but a little long by the second half

  28. 5 out of 5

    Rhiannon Grant

    An interesting thematic history which gives an insight into some of the preoccupations of the British government and people throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Chaundra

    A surprising romp through one of the most iconic of British institutions. I have at least a couple of dozen of their maps on my bookshelves and unlimited digital copies on my mobile phone. It starts in the most surprising place and weaves through British history of the 17th, 18th and 19th century. My only complaint is that it ends all too abruptly after leaving so many hints about what the 20th and 21st centuries contained. Definitely one for hard core fans of the OS map and history geeks in gen A surprising romp through one of the most iconic of British institutions. I have at least a couple of dozen of their maps on my bookshelves and unlimited digital copies on my mobile phone. It starts in the most surprising place and weaves through British history of the 17th, 18th and 19th century. My only complaint is that it ends all too abruptly after leaving so many hints about what the 20th and 21st centuries contained. Definitely one for hard core fans of the OS map and history geeks in general.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mrs M

    You have to be a map nerd to enjoy this book but it is really well written.

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