Bored? Here are some century-old maps of Britain to play with

Edwardian London. Image: Ordnance Survey 1-inch, 1885-1900, courtesy of National Library of Scotland.

Do you like history?  Do you like maps? Then today is your lucky day.

Those nice people at the National Library of Scotland's map department have been spending their days scanning in historic maps of the UK, dating from the late 19th century onwards. (H/T: Lisa Riemers.)

I'm fact, it's not just one set of maps: it's a whole series of different ones, which you can access via a drop down.

So you can see that, around the turn of the 20th century, Edinburgh was a fraction of the size it was now, not extending all the way to the Forth, or beyond Arthur's Seat. (Like all the maps in this post, it'll expand if you click it.)

Image: Ordnance Survey Six Inch, 1888-1913.

Manchester used to have a lot more stations than it does now:

Image: Ordnance Survey Six Inch, 1888-1913.

While we're on tour, here's Liverpool:

Image: Ordnance Survey Six Inch, 1888-1913.

But it’s in London where there’s the widest variety of maps to play with. Interestingly this old Ordnance Survey map eschews the district names that are familiar today (Bankside, Borough, etc.), and uses parish names instead.

Image: Ordnance Survey 25 inch, 1890s-1920s.

The website also allows you to see how things have changed, by comparing the maps with modern street maps or satellite images. (Thanks, Bing!)

So you can explore ye olde Essex village of Walthamstow

Image: unidentified 1:1056 map, dating from 1893-1895, plus Bing streetmap.

Or you can see how at the turn of the 20th century Hampstead Heath led out onto open fields.

Image: Ordnance Survey Six Inch, 1888-1913, plus Bing streetmap.

You can see the streets destroyed to build that much loved urban motorway, the Westway:

Image: unidentified 1:1056 map, dating from 1893-1895, plus Bing satellite image.

Or the streets of terraced houses that were destroyed in the blitz. After the war these streets were demolished to create Shoreditch Park.

Image: OS Six inch, 1888-1913, plus Bing streetmap.

You can explore the lot here. Enjoy. 

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All maps courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.


How the big freeze of 1962-3 killed off Britain’s canals

Little Venice, London. This was actually 2010, but you get the idea. Image: Getty.

The English are internationally renowned for banging on about the weather. When British drizzle is compared to the hurricanes of the Caribbean or the cold faced by more landlocked countries, our complaining seems wholly unjustified.

Still, our weather can have ruinous effects on whole industries. The particularly cold winter of 1962-63 was the final nail in the coffin of a centuries old water-borne trade.

At one time canals played an essential role in the UK’s economy. In the early days of the industrial revolution, canals snaked across the map, connecting the coal mines of the countryside to the factories of cities. They fuelled the furnaces and kept the hearth fires burning, allowing for cities to rapidly grow in the closing years of the 18th century.

A map of British and Irish waterways. The canal network is in orange. Image: Peter Eastern/Wikimedia Commons.

Economics is rarely sentimental, though, and when more effective modes of travel came along the canals began their slow demise. Whereas European canals widened to accommodate for ever larger boats, the thin British canals –bar the mighty Manchester ship canal – slowly gave in to the supremacy of those new-fangled trains.

The rise of railway also saw the odd canal being bought and shut down by railway companies. In most cases this was simply about eliminating the competition, but in some the straight canals proved a perfect place for new railway tracks – the fate of South London’s Croydon Canal.

Still, the bargepeoples tightened their belts, and the canal system limped on as a viable option for freight until the early ‘60s, when nature came in with the knockout blow. The Big Freeze of 1962-3 was, as the name suggests, uniquely cold for the UK. Records going back as far as 1659 only recorded two winters colder, and the canal system froze solid.

Somerset, January 1963. The snow stayed for so long it stretched phone wires out of shape. Image: Howard Dublin/Wikimedia Commons.

Facing months of no service by barges, industries that had been reliant on the canals switched to alternatives on the rail and road networks. When the ice finally thawed, and with grim memories of that winter on mind, few returned to using the canals for freight. Besides having dire consequences for that years football calendar, the winter mostly finished canals as a component of British industry.

Luckily many of the canals themselves survived to be repurposed, first for leisure and more recently for living. London’s canal system currently holds around 5000 boats, 60 per cent of them permanent homes. These liveaboards, driven there by the desire for the slow life or the rest of the city’s crippling property prices, are changing the face of London’s waterways.
The water dwellers, along with those drawn to these lateral parks for leisure, have brought business back to the city’s canals. Now books shops, grocers, coffee shops and even bakeries can be found floating on the waters.

So next time the trope of the weather obsessed Brit comes up, you can scoff at other countries hailstones the size of Chihuahuas, or sun you can cook an egg in. Tell them that the weather has shaped British history, too – and with huge climatic shifts on the horizon, it shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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