July 2024
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Review: Map of a Nation, Rachel Hewitt

map of a nationIf you’re hiking somewhere in the UK and you’ve bought a map, you’re probably holding a little piece of the Ordnance Survey in your hands. The governmental organization responsible for mapping the nation, the Ordnance Survey faced a difficult road in its early years to successfully covering the entirety of the UK, including England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, maps were inaccurate, expensive, and incomplete, leaving travellers in most of the world unsure about the shape of the space in which they lived. The Ordnance Survey was created for the military, but it quickly became something that ordinary people eagerly followed as the outlines of their world were defined correctly for the first time. In this book, Rachel Hewitt traces the origins of the Survey through to the completion of the “First Series” of maps, where the entirety of Great Britain and Ireland was completely mapped in detail for the first time.

I don’t really know all that much about the Ordnance Survey, except for the fact that most maps seem to come from them, but I was very intrigued by the prospect of the origins of accurate map-making. Another little niche part of history that I know nothing about? Please, tell me more. Hewitt, in great detail, does exactly that, creating a readable early “biography” of an institution, peopled with many intelligent characters and full of descriptions about just how maps were created several hundred years ago.

I will completely at first admit that I didn’t actually come away from this book understanding precisely how maps are made, although I do have a greater knowledge than I did before. The geometry just baffled me; it’s been over ten years since I studied actual geometry and more than eight since I did any sort of mathematical subject, so I would suggest you hold this against me, not the book. I sort of understood the process of making triangles out of the land based on visible landmarks to check accuracy and map everything in between, but if I was ever asked to do such a thing, I’m pretty sure no maps of the world would have existed before satellites. There is enough of this sort of thing here to slow the book down occasionally, but I wouldn’t let it put you off.

What I personally found far more interesting were the people that Hewitt profiles, especially the earliest ones and those who successfully run the Ordnance Survey from its inception on to the conclusion of the book. Their efforts and seeming belief in their hard work was admirable, and I was left with a distinct sense of awe at the actual enormity of the task they were trying to accomplish. There is a fantastic reminder that all of these men (because of course the project was exclusively run by men, unfortunately) were really just people on page 225 of my edition. As a reward for working diligently over four months’ surveying in Scotland, the men are treated to an enormous plum pudding, nearly 100 lbs of it, for which they conscripted many spare pots and pans and bits of cloth, and all took turns watching it boil so it didn’t burn.

The sections I also really liked had to do with place names, or toponymy. Coming up with accurate place names, especially as detailed here in Wales and Ireland, was a severe problem. The mainly English surveyors struggled to understand what people were calling their towns, much less how to spell it, and in Ireland the surveyors met with some reticence on behalf of the Irish (for which no one can blame them). The early Welsh maps were riddled with inaccuracies and the system used to determine place names had to be revised several times – in Ireland, eventually a separate team of all Irishmen was hired just to work out what the accurate names of places were.

In all, I found Map of a Nation to be a completely fascinating piece of history on a subject I really did know absolutely nothing about. I also trusted it more as it originated as a PhD thesis and the huge number of notes and works cited led me to believe that the author knew exactly where she was coming from. At the end, the author has bolded her works cited to indicate which books are most appropriate for further reading, a nice touch which has inspired me to see if I can get my hands on any of her copious recommendations. Those who aren’t particularly used to reading history might find it a bit dry and hard to get through, especially during the parts describing how the map-making happened, but it’s an endeavor that is well worth it.

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