Using Ordnance Survey Maps for my

Family History

When choosing the most suitable type of OS map for your research you may find you have a choice of scale, depending on what is available at the local archives or for purchase. The most usual scales that you will find are 1 inch, six inch and 25 inches maps.

The first one-inch map of Kent was published in 1801, although this was very much along the lines of previous county maps in terms of the fact that it stuck rigidly to the county boundary. After that however the OS took the decision to create an official national numbered series of maps that were not constrained by county boundaries. The first standard OS sheets are four sheets for Essex published in1805 while Kent was reissued in the new style in 1819.

So the first OS maps were at a scale of 1" but by the 1840s following a survey of Ireland at a six-inch scale, the OS decided to start mapping England and Wales at a scale of six inches too, thus producing much more detailed  maps. Although 1” maps provide a good overview of an area in general, six-inch maps are much more useful for your research because they are  detailed enough to show the various facilities in the area as well as the shapes of houses.  It is a good idea to use them in conjunction with local directories such as Pigot’s, Kelly’s and Bulmer’s and which provide a summary of the local services, transport and industries for each town or village. Using these tools in parallel helps you to reconstruct life as it was in your family’s town or village at the time they were living there. 

Twenty-five inch maps were introduced from the 1850s onwards and provide even greater detail and are therefore great for tracing house history. Not only do they give the exact shape of a house but they also name the majority of roads and clearly show local amenities and industries. Most towns had been mapped at this scale by the 1880s and some much earlier and will show features such as railways, pubs, factories, churches, mills, canals, and even paths and track ways, wells and outhouses.

Even a modern day OS map is a good starting point. The first thing I noticed when I looked at the modern day six inch OS map of Studley was that the main road running through the village is a roman road - Icknield Street. I then noticed that the parish church, which dates back in part to the 12th century, was some distance away from the modern-day village itself (which today runs alongside the roman road) together with the site of old motte and bailey castle, indicating that the original settlement is likely to have predated the Roman road and that the village centre must have migrated at a later date to the area around Icknield Street some quarter of a mile or so away.

A look at a twenty five inch map from 1887 and another in 1903 told me a lot more about how the village evolved during the 19th century. I was therefore able to use these in conjunction with the census returns to help build up a picture of how the village looked when my great great grandmother Elizabeth Heritage lived there between the 1840s and 1880s. The map shows me the sites of several needle factories in the town and the size and shape of their buildings including the main factory which is now the site of the Coop Supermarket and a plethora of inns one of which, The Barley Mow, was owned by Henry Hemming, Elizabeth's father. It also pinpoints other features such as the site of one of Studley's lost mills (indicated by the presence of "Mill Pond"), the Methodist and Catholic churches, a brewery, the police station, the local hotel and other institutions such as the Liberal and Conservative clubs, as well as a train station.  

What was most fascinating however was trying to identify the house where Elizabeth Heritage once lived. After her husband's death in 1857 she continued to run the grocer's shop and in the 1861 census this is also described as the Post Office. The 1887 map clearly shows the post office was located in Marble Terrace and, because it is a large-scale map there is sufficient detail to narrow the identity of the building down to one of two houses. Noting that one of these two houses was set slightly back from the road and had archway at one side (this is marked on the map by a small cross on the building) I then used Google Earth to "street view" the road and houses in question. Lo and behold the archway is still there in the house in question although now filled in and forming the top of a window! What does not yet add up is the fact that in the 1861 census Elizabeth's address is referred to as "Post Office Road" but this has then been crossed through and altered to Alcester Road. This adjoins Marble Terrace and was how the Heritage property was also described in 1851. My next move will be to locate a map for the 1860s to see if the Post Office is marked in a different location at that time in order to evaluate whether this is just a confusion over how the address was described or not!

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 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



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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


June 28th 2011

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.