Mar 312015
Folded Map from the 'revised' survey of North Wales published in 1810

Folded Map from the ‘revised’ survey of North Wales published in 1810

As I described in an earlier post, cross-checking between bibliographies and catalogues has formed a substantial part of the work that has so far gone into building our bibliographic database of the holdings of the County Surveys.  In order to make sure that we are identifying and locating as many of the surveys as we can, we have also been checking our holdings information against county maps. If we can say that we have found surveys that document all the counties, then we can be confident that we have the significant majority, if not a complete set.

The task is complicated by the history of the counties in Britain. Firstly, the borders of regions, districts and other administrative areas have changed frequently over the last two hundred years, meaning that the areas referred to by a county name in 1800 can be different to the areas referred to by the same name now. Secondly, as these changes have taken place, the names used to refer to areas have also changed, in some cases quite dramatically. What we now call Dumfries and Galloway, for example, was historically three counties, Dumfriesshire, Wigtownshire and ‘the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright’. We decided that for the twenty-first century researchers who would be consulting our online collection, the ability to search by modern names would be important.

To map our list of survey holdings to the geography of the British Isles and to the areas defined by modern names, we turned to the Ordnance Surveys. Ordnance Survey have been responsible for mapping and surveying the UK since the 1790s, the same decade in which the County Surveys were commissioned. Their most recent county maps represent Britain in the mid-Twentieth Century, when counties were still the primary administrative entities across the nation (since the 1970s, regional authorities have replaced counties), so the list of their maps represented as authoritative a list of modern counties as we are likely to find.  This has become both our ‘canonical county name list’ and the list of geographical areas against which we can map the areas covered by the surveys.

We hope, in time, that this work will enable us to create an intuitive map interface for our collection.  In itself, though, the process of mapping the surveys to the areas has been very valuable in that it has turned up quite a few queries about our holdings data and about the surveys themselves. For example, it has enabled us to identify no less than four surveys that deal with the same geographical area under different titles, for example Kings County in Ireland is also surveyed as Offaly, and the ‘Central Highlands’ survey of series one describes itself as dealing with Perthshire, although there are three other surveys with Perth in the title published in the same series.  The process has also allowed us to check geographically neighbouring surveys in order to establish the boundaries of the areas dealt with: for instance, in the first series there appears to be no survey for Bute. Checking Clydesdale, Argyle, and Ayr, the areas which might conceivably contain or neighbour Bute, reveals no trace of the Isle, suggesting that it was probably completely neglected during the first phase rather than incorporated in another survey.

This kind of cross-checking and mapping is time-consuming but necessary to ensure the integrity of the data and of our mode of presentation. In a sense it is an echo of the work done by the original surveyors, who also sought to compile information about areas and fields for which there was no guide place. “In obtaining an account of the present state of husbandry in North Wales several difficulties occurred”, wrote George Kay the first surveyor of the area in 1794. “Among others, no distinct map of it could be procured, although I enquired at all the shops in the principle towns from Edinburgh to Chester.” (p.1) Charting previously uncharted territories, the surveyors laid the foundations of Sir John’s pyramid of enquiries, enabling new questions to be posed and answered. At a much more modest scale, we hope our online collection will help researchers chart the bibliographic landscape of the Surveys and facilitate new research on this fascinating material.

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