The Map Collections Of The British Museum Library

The British Museum opened its Reading Room in 1759. It is interesting to note a reference to maps in the Trustees’ Minutes of 10th February in that year: These requisitioned a ‘Special Table’ 6 by 8 ft., to be made for large maps and surveys of the Sloane Library in the middle of the first state storey (the Reading Room was then in the basement storey). On 23rd December 1763 a stove was to be put in the ‘Charts Room’. Among the early visitors was Admiral Saunders, who between the fall of Quebec, 1759, and his appointment as Commander-in-Chief in the Mediter¬ranean, 1760, came to consult maps, plans and charts of the British Isles, France, Holland and Belgium On 27th April 1764 Captain Palliser, Governor of Newfound¬land, Cook’s commanding officer and later friend and patron, was reported to be desirous to inspect the sea charts in the Sloane collection. ‘Special leave was given to see them, though the Museum was not open’. The sea charts may well have included some of the manuscript atlases of William Hack, c 1680, of the so-called ‘Thames School’. In 1766 the Museum’s maps and books were consulted in the international dispute with Spain and France over the Falklands Islands. At the same time King George III was building up his library, filling the bookshelves left empty by the gift of the Old Royal Library, and adding to the nucleus of maps and atlases derived from the Old Royal Library. The collection was world-wide in compass, but especially rich in areas of British interest. It contains, therefore, perhaps the finest geographical collection in the world for eighteenth-century America. To state a truism, war proved a great stimulus to surveying and cartography, and the collection thus contains many military maps and plans relating to the Seven Years War and the American Revolutionary War. The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich was the training ground for the military surveyors and topographical draughtsmen who worked in North America. The drawing master at the school was Paul Sandby, Father of the English School of Watercolour, who from 1742 was working with his elder brother Thomas in the map and survey office in the Tower of London (and in this capacity had been one of the draughtsmen for Roy’s map of Scotland). In 1768 Sandby was appointed to Woolwich and therefore trained a series of topographical artists well-known in the North American theatre. The King’s Topographical Collection contains a wealth of plans and views, printed and manuscript, many illustrating forts and scenes of battle, others the peaceful development of a territory in the aftermath of war. Such are the birch bark map and drawings by Mrs Simcoe, wife of the Governor-General of Upper Canada (K Top CXIX 15). A document of major political importance is the Red-lined map’, an edition (1777) of John Mitchell’s map of North America first published in 1755, annotated with the demarcation lines between French and British possessions by Richard Oswald, British Commissioner at the Treaty of Paris, 1783, and presented to King George III (K Top CXVIII 49 b). It has been described as the most important map in North American history.
For continental territories, especially those of Hanoverian connection, the holdings are of comparable richness. The whole collection comprises some 50,000 maps and charts and was the finest geographical collection of its day. In the event the special military and political interest of the collection nearly led to the Museum losing it. The collection was to come to the Museum as part of the King’s Library in 1828. In June 1828 the Treasury approved ‘the immediate removal of the King’s Library to the British Museum,’ and in August the library arrived. Then came the news that J. H. Glover, one of the Assistant Librarians of the Royal Library, was authorized to retain ‘the whole of the Military Plans, the Charts, Topography and Geography, the catalogue whereof are contained in Six Volumes folio, exclusive of the Military Plans’. The Trustees at an emergency meeting learnt that Nicholas Carlisle, the King’s Under-Librarian, had authorized Glover ‘to deliver the Charts and the whole of the Geography and Topography to Capt Parry, whenever Capt Parry should demand them’. The Trustees urgently required Robert Peel as Home Secretary to see that the charts and the collections of geography and topography were transferred to the Museum. Peel was to point out to the King that ‘the Trustees feel the great advantage of making the British Museum the general depository of all these valuable Collections’. They would make them available to any Department of State which wished to see them. It was finally agreed that ‘the Nautical Charts only shall be transmitted to the Admiralty’, and that the other collections might come with the rest to the Museum, since it was found on enquiry that there was ‘not room for their proper Custody in those offices to which the Topographical and Geographical collections might have been most useful’. Any other interested department must be given the ‘utmost facility of access for the purpose of consulting them’. [22] Thus the collections were saved for the Museum. In 1844 the Lords Commissioners on the recommendation of Sir John Barrow and Captain Beaufort offered to the Museum ‘the Old Maps, Charts and Books which formerly belonged to His Majesty King George III . . . of which no use whatever was made’. The Museum’s officers reported that the material received ‘fell short of what was shewn’ to them, and it was not until 1952 that some forty of the missing items were identified in the Admiralty Library and transferred by the Lords of the Admiralty. [23] Another dispute, this time about the custody of certain military maps, arose in 1836 when J. Hignett wrote to the Board of Ordnance on 28 October to report that he had seen Board of Ordnance maps in the British Museum forming part of George III’s gift, which were perhaps of significance for defence and ought not to be seen by the public. The Board of Ordnance wrote to William IV on 4 November pointing out that the plans had been ‘inadvertently sent’ to the British Museum with the topographical collection. In fact, they had only been sent to George III for his approval and he had not been meant to keep them, and their return was requested. The Board of Ordnance sent Sir Frederick Smith and Samuel Howlett (Chief Draughtsman at the Tower) to the Museum to inspect the plans. On 15th February 1837 a letter from the British Museum refused the return of the plans, as they had been given to the nation with the full approval of Parliament, and the dispute continued until 1838. [24] A great disappointment which the Museum suffered was the loss of Gough’s collection of British maps and anti¬quarian material. He had offered his whole collection in 1802, but later changed his mind, leaving his collections to the Bodleian Library which thus became that ‘safest port’ where the Gough map and its companion collections were to find their resting place. ‘He was capricious and very often made short turns’, Sir Henry Ellis reported when closely examined on the matter by the Parliament Select Committee of Enquiry which looked into the affairs of the Museum in 1835.

At the same time Antonio Panizzi, then Assistant in the Department of Printed Books, and later to be acclaimed the greatest of nineteenth century Principal Librar¬ians, was becoming concerned over the financial neglect of the Department - the ‘want of a sufficient fund’, as Gough had called it. He asked in 1837 for £1,000 ‘to form a geographical collection which might be called complete’, and recommended the employment of a special bookseller to assist in the purchasing of suitable maps. It is interesting to note that in a memoir of 1848 Edme-François Jomard was setting out the same arguments for ‘un dépôt générale de géographie’ in the Bibliothèque du Roi (the Bibliothèque Nationale) and holding up the British Museum as a model. Henceforward the Museum pursued an active policy of acquiring modern foreign maps, by exchange or purchase. British works were acquired by copyright deposit, on the theory that the Museum was inheritor of the Old Royal Library’s rights to receive English books from the Stationers’ Company. An Act of 1814 extended the right, but the full application of the principle was not achieved until the Copyright Act of 1911.

Major acquisitions of special collections were made from time to time. In 1861 the Museum purchased the Beudeker Collection, comprising 24 volumes (out of a collection of 27) of maps and views of the Netherlands, 1600-1750. Christoffel Beudeker, a rich Amsterdam merchant who died in 1756, had grangerized Blaeu’s town atlas of the Netherlands. In 1880 the Crace Collection of London Plans and Views was acquired by purchase. These were collected by Frederick Crace, Com-missioner for Sewers, and came to the Museum from his son John Gregory, who had edited the catalogue. [25] The maps and plans are kept in the Map Room, the views in the Department of Prints and Drawings. The more recent acquisition of Ordnance Survey original drawings, supplement the Map Room’s almost complete set of all editions of Ordnance Survey printed maps and plans. Finally, the most valuable purchase of maps in the Museum’s history was made in 1968 when the Trustees bought the sheet map collection of the Royal United Service Institution. This comprised two important collections for North America and Great Britain, the map collections of Lord Amherst, Commander-in-Chief in the Seven Years War, and of Sir Augustus Frazer, who appears to have acquired and passed to the R.U.S.I. a major topographical archive preserved at Woolwich. A third smaller collection, also relating to America and Great Britain, is that of Richard A. Davenport. The other major collection is the ‘H.J.’ collection - presented to the R.U.S.I. by Sir Harry Jones —comprising nearly 600 manuscript maps of continental theatres of war - many of them of Prussian origin, which suggests that the collection may once have come from a Prussian archive.


  • 29-5-1973

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