September 2014

Southampton Ordnance Survey
September 2014

The first meeting of the Society’s 2014-15 season was addressed by Geoffrey May whose subject was ‘Southampton Ordnance Survey – the evolution of the organisation from 1791 to the present day.’

During his talk the speaker referred to the early history of the Ordnance Survey and explained that the misnomer of this admirable mapping body stemmed from the needs of the army in quelling the 1745 Jacobite rebellion in Scotland. It then became responsible for the essential maps required by the military and as a measure of defence against the French in the later eighteenth century.

George II charged Watson with making a military survey of the Highlands under the command of the Duke of Cumberland. Among Watson’s assistants was General William Roy who was commissioned to carry out a military survey of the Scottish highlands. Roy was an ideal choice; he possessed great skill, tenacity and vision and was ably supported by his army staff. At that time, ground surveying was carried out by the technique of triangulation and with the consequent need for the actual paper maps to be completed by draughtsmen, engravers and tracers, the whole procedure was very labour intensive.

The speaker said that General Roy worked assiduously on the project and although he died in 1790 his influence continued. In the early 1800s comprehensive maps of both Kent and Essex were produced. The Hampshire map was completed by 1810 and by about 1820 around one third of England and Wales had been mapped at the one inch to one mile scale. By the 1840s the whole of the area south of Preston/Hull had been mapped.

From 1791, the Survey had been housed in offices in the Tower of London. However, in 1841 a disastrous fire destroyed the Mapping Office and the Ordnance Survey was moved to Southampton. The building selected was an empty cavalry barracks in The Avenue, used latterly as a Royal Military Asylum for the orphans of soldiers. In the early years at Southampton, the unit comprised mostly army personnel of whom there were some 130 in the main offices and about 600 carrying out field survey work. (Since 1983 the unit has been staffed totally by civilians).

The speaker said that during the second half of the nineteenth century, mapping continued, being now controlled from Southampton. The need for maps constantly expanded, both in scope and in scale, e.g. for the various needs of land registry, shipping and railways.) Techniques for improving printing, photography and lithography were continually being developed.

The twentieth century and World War I brought fundamental changes to the organisation. Most of the army personnel were required for active service and more civilians were employed which, for the first time, included the introduction of women. The provision of public maps was discontinued and all resources were made available to produce maps for the army. During this period some 32 million maps were produced for the military, including large numbers of trench maps which were required at short notice.

The Ordnance Survey suffered major staff cuts immediately following World War I but, during the interwar years, capitalized on the burgeoning leisure industry by providing maps for walkers, cyclists and motorists. Nevertheless, by 1936 the Davidson Committee recommended that additional staff should be employed to take care of the backlog that had occurred.

World War II presented major challenges to the organization, which were exacerbated in November 1940 by major fire and the destruction of buildings resulting from an air raid centered on the town. Alternative accommodation was found so the work of the Ordnance Survey continued. A prime requirement in the later stages of the war was the provision of 120 million maps mainly for the ‘D-Day’ invasions. In 1969 Southampton once again became the HQ of the Ordnance Survey when Queen Elizabeth opened new offices at Maybush.

However ‘change’ seems to continue at a faster rate than ever. The advent of aerial photography, modern electronics; digitization and satellite navigation technology has revolutionized map making, consequently leading to the redundancy of all but 80 of the 6500 trigonometric points built between 1936 and 1962. Currently only 7% of maps are produced on paper. The Ordnance Survey was again rehoused when the Maybush offices proved to be too large and unwieldy for modern use and were demolished. Brand new offices have been constructed at Adanac Park, Nursling, just off the M271 which opened in 2011.

This excellent talk was most impressive for the depth of knowledge of the speaker and the extreme professionalism of his presentation. The audience thoroughly enjoyed it, responding with a series of interesting questions and comments.

The next meeting of the Society will take place on Friday 31 October to be held in the Fuller-McLellan Hall at 7pm. Proceedings will start with a short AGM to be immediately followed by a presentation by members of ‘Remembrances of World War One through Family Recollections’.