Using Ordnance Survey Maps for my

Family History

This article is written by Celia Heritage and brings you an insight into how using old maps in your research brings your ancestors to life. This helps to portray a fuller picture of where and how they lived through the generations.

Celia Heritage is a professional genealogist and lecturer in Family History and we would like to thank her for this contribution to our website news and information section.

See how to access and obtain maps at the foot of this article


Maps are one of the family historian's most useful tools for bringing a family history to life and helping to learn more about our ancestors. Although when we first start our family tree we tend to concentrate on records that provide direct information about our family, such as the census and birth, marriage and death certificates, I myself could never resist looking for the place where they lived on an old map. Through doing this I soon learned that maps helped me to understand what life would have been like for my ancestors because I had an understanding of the area in which they lived.

Many of us will have ended up living in a very different part of the country to that in which our ancestors came from and I can safely say that family history has greatly improved my knowledge of UK geography and also of which industries and trades flourished and where in the country. My Hemming family, for example, lived in Studley near Redditch and, although they began as farmers, by the late 19th century many of them were involved in the needle industry, which was centred in the area and which experienced a boom period at this time. Meanwhile my Heritage ancestors ran the local grocer's and Post Office in the village.  

Tracing the development of a town or village using maps tells us a lot about how places have developed over time and the various amenities and opportunities for work and trade that would have been open to our ancestors at different times. There are many types of maps you can use to aid your research but for now let's look at the maps produced by the Ordnance Survey. These are not only excellent tools for finding out about the history of an area but are also vital for us when we want to pinpoint exactly where an ancestor's house was or find out more about what it looked like. 

The advent of the Ordnance Survey in the late 18th century was a great blessing for us all as it provides us with a comprehensive coverage of detailed mapping for the UK and Ireland. Before this there were many different types of maps such as estate, tithe, and county maps but never a consistent approach to mapping. The term "Ordnance Survey" originates from the fact that, up until 1855, the production of these maps came under the control of the Board of Ordnance. The first surveys carried out by the board were as a result of a need for accurate mapping by the military in the second half of the 18th century, especially maps that showed relief. In 1745 the invading Jacobite army managed to advance into England as far as Derby partly due to the fact that the English commanders had no accurate or up to date mapping, and this need was then further reinforced by the threat of a Napoleonic invasion.

About this time too there were significant advances in cartography and the development of more accurate surveying instruments such as Jesse Ramsden's theodolite, which was developed in 1787. In June 1791, the Board of Ordnance purchased a huge new Ramsden theodolite, and surveyors began mapping southern Britain.

How to Access OS Maps

Many OS maps are now available to buy on-line as downloads - that is indeed how I came by the 1887 Studley map, while the 1903 map was a copy made from Warwick Archives (bear in mind that many archives will only let you photocopy a small percentage of the map depending on its date and whether copyright is still in force). Some archives will of course allow you to take your cameras in and then you can photograph the areas of the map that you are interested in - again subject to the date of the map. Most dates over 50 years old are out of copyright but do check with the archive staff first.

Cassini maps are a good source for old maps many of which are available as downloads as is also Old Town Maps at http://www.oldtowns.co.uk/ while Alan Godfrey Maps specialise in  producing reprints of old Ordnance Survey maps in paper form. The National Library of Scotland holds over 800 maps which are viewable on line some of which are OS maps and Irish Origins provides OS maps and town plans used by the team working on Griffith's Primary Valuation during 1847-1864 via its website, as well as a detailed town plan for Dublin in 1847. The National Archives in Kew holds a wonderful collection of OS maps of various scales many of which are available on the shelf in the map room.

Celia Heritage

Heritage Family History

Visit www.heritagefamilyhistory.co.uk.