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The provocative maps that tell Britain’s history
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(Credit: The British Library)
Map-making is usually considered a serious, objective endeavour. But these whimsical creations aren’t just fun – they also give surprising insight into the British psyche.
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Maps are more than a reflection of geography. They tell us as much about ourselves – or the map-maker – as they do the place that they depict. And, sometimes, in fairly whimsical ways.

The London-based dealer and expert Ashley Baynton-Williams has picked out a collection of the world’s most bizarre maps for his book The Curious Map Book, some of which are on display in the British Library’s current exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. Despite the creativity of these maps, which range from games to political cartoons, they are as instructive as they are imaginative. “It is a very immediate insight into the mindset both of the maker and, in a sense, of the viewer. If you’re making a map, anyone making the map puts their opinions into it – but you’re also targeting an audience that you think is going to buy it. The more it appeals to the market, the more you’re going to sell,” he tells BBC Culture. “Some of these maps are really very unsubtle when it comes to giving a world view.”

Each of the following 11 bizarre maps illuminates a different point of modern British history.

A complete tour round the world, 1770, Thomas Jefferys Sr (Credit: The British Library)

A complete tour round the world, 1770, Thomas Jefferys Sr (Credit: The British Library)

Published in 1770, this depiction of the world – minus Australia and Antarctica, which Europeans had yet to discover – is one of the earliest map board games to appear in England. “It’s a lot like Snakes and Ladders: you land on certain squares and go forward, and on certain squares and go back,” Baynton-Williams says. Except, that is, for the ‘death square’, which would end the game for that player. Here, it was square 99: “Bahama Islands – noted for shipwrecks, and often fatal to the Spanish galleons; and to the traveller, who will be shipwrecked on these islands, and lose his chance for the game”.

If the instructions seem simple, it may be because the game was aimed at children. Specifically, it was targeted at the boys of England’s educated classes, who were being groomed to serve in the British Empire. It was also educational: each time a player landed on a new destination, they were supposed to read aloud the accompanying description of the place. Accordingly, much of the game’s focus is on places where the British had bases, like Madras and Bombay. “It is very much an Anglo-centric presentation of the world,” says Baynton-Williams. “It’s a good insight into the mind of the period. There are some relatively rude comments about certain parts of the world and relatively nice comments about other parts. At this point, the British weren’t very keen on the papacy, so if you land in Rome, I don’t think Jefferys is very nice about the Pope.”

Geography bewitched!, 1793, Robert Dighton (Credit: The British Library)

Geography bewitched!, 1793, Robert Dighton (Credit: The British Library)

By the late 18th Century, map caricatures were becoming popular. These two, which were by well-known artist Robert Dighton and part of a series with another image of Ireland, would have been sold as art prints to customers.

On the left, England and Wales are depicted as John Bull riding a sea-creature, perhaps a shark. “John Bull really is the British version of Uncle Sam: it’s a general depiction of the country as a person,” Baynton-Williams says. “Sometimes it can be quite military; other times, it’s much more a sort of a happy, rural man.” Like here, where John Bull is held clutching a foaming pint. At right, Scotland is shown in a clown’s cap, carrying a cloth bag of tartan over one shoulder.

“They’re great fun,” Dighton says. “Because Dighton was so famous, and because the image is so immediate, it was extensively copied.”

A new map of England and France, 1793, James Gillray (Credit: The British Library)

A new map of England and France, 1793, James Gillray (Credit: The British Library)

This caricature shows England and Wales – with the face of King George III – defecating an armada of ships from Portsmouth onto France. “I suspect that this sort of toilet humour was probably a little bit more acceptable then than, perhaps, it is now. I think it would have been seen as quite rude, but within the bounds of acceptability,” says Baynton-Williams. The map also, of course, spoke to the ongoing Anglo-French war: after an uneasy, decade-long peace, the French Revolution had pitted the old rivals against one another once again.

But the map is about more than the war, Baynton-Williams points out. “There’s a huge amount of concern in England about republicanism, both in France and the effect it might have in England,” he says. “So it’s partly the King defecating on republicans, as well as the United Kingdom [defecating] on its old enemy.”

Picturesque round game of the produce and manufactures of the counties of England and Wales, 1844, Edward Wallis (Credit: The British Library)

Picturesque round game of the produce and manufactures of the counties of England and Wales, 1844, Edward Wallis (Credit: The British Library)

Like the round-the-world game, this map, too, was intended to teach. But this time, not about the British Empire, but about an exciting development at home: the Industrial Revolution.

“The Industrial Revolution is not in its heyday, exactly, but it’s building up to that. And it really is changing the way that England made money,” Baynton-Williams says. “If you’re part of that educated class, it’s important for you to understand whatever it is – steel-making in Sheffield, or coal in Yorkshire and Wales – and the benefit that that has for the economy.”

That didn’t mean that the map-maker seemed fond of every place on the list. Although Manchester, “the largest manufacturing town in the world”, was given an adoring description – “Stop while the others draw once; examine the vast magazines of goods produced by the woollen, silk, and cotton factories, and admire the powers of steam, from which this place derives its importance” – Sheffield appeared to be a little less favoured. “This town makes cutlery and plated goods for the world. It is a dirty, black, smoky place, but has many fine buildings,” the city’s description reads.

The new game of the Royal Mail or London to Edinburgh by L & NW Railway, 1850, John Jaques (Credit: The British Library)

The new game of the Royal Mail or London to Edinburgh by L & NW Railway, 1850, John Jaques (Credit: The British Library)

This game educated its young players on the importance of the British rail network. “It’s bigging up the benefits of the railway. At this time, the rail network in England and Scotland is booming,” Baynton-Williams says. The railway owed its success partly to the Industrial Revolution and need to move goods, but also to a growing middle class, which had the time and money for recreational travel.

In this game, players each received a train engine and start at Euston station, London. From there, they have to get to Edinburgh. Landing on a square with a ‘stop’ signal (rather than an ‘all clear’) meant not being able to move at all. Different stations, meanwhile, had different activities: if a player stopped at Lancaster, he had pay one stake to visit the castle; at Wolverton, remain an extra turn to see the railway carriage works.

Map of England. A modern St George and the dragon!!!, 1888, William Mecham (Credit: The British Library)

Map of England. A modern St George and the dragon!!!, 1888, William Mecham (Credit: The British Library)

Published in the periodical St Stephen’s Review, this map commented on the political struggle over the question of Home Rule for Ireland. Prime Minister Lord Salisbury of the Conservative party is depicted as St George; the dragon has the features of William Gladstone of the Liberal party, who supported Home Rule. Gladstone’s bill to grant self-governance was defeated in Parliament in 1886, resulting in riots in Belfast, and paved the way for Salisbury’s victory in the following general election.

“Home Rule for Ireland has been a bitter topic for any number of years. But in the 1880s, how to deal with the ‘Irish question’ was one of the main distinctions between the English political parties – so in a sense, for what turned out to be a violent struggle, it seems appropriate that you’ve got two main characters with one stabbing the other,” Baynton-Williams says. “I can’t remember anything much earlier than that which actually represents the different parties in England, as it were, at war with each other.”

John Bull and his friends. A serio-comic map of Europe, 1900, Fred W Rose (Credit: The British Library)

John Bull and his friends. A serio-comic map of Europe, 1900, Fred W Rose (Credit: The British Library)

“At this period, you’re getting the polarising of the different countries into the two alliances that would fight the First World War,” Baynton-Williams says.

By 1900, the British Empire was in the midst of the Boer War; despite official neutrality, most European powers – particularly the Dutch and Germans – sided with the Boers. The map reflects these dynamics. Britain is shown here as John Bull, the soldier, who blithely fights off two wild cats (named Transvaal and the Orange Free State) and stands over ammunition labelled with countries of the British Empire that had been supporting Britain, like Canada and India. “It is very much Britain against the rest,” says Baynton-Williams.

Ireland, whose arms are raised in fury against John Bull, is explained in the text: “The Nationalist section in Ireland takes this opportunity to vent her abuse on him, but is restrained by the loyalty of the people”. Spain and France look on, doing nothing, while Germany is depicted by the emperor building battleships. Russia, meanwhile, has morphed into an octopus stretching its tentacles to eastern Europe and across Asia. “A lot of things have been said about Russia as an octopus: an evil creature of the deep that’s very scary, that people don’t really know much about – but that, once it’s got hold of you, will drag you down to the depths,” Baynton-Williams says. Four years later, the Russo-Japanese war would start.

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