Vintage Road Map Week 2012, Part I

It’s time once again for our annual Vintage Road Map Week at The Basement Geographer.   If you, like me, are a map freak, then you’ve probably tracked down your fair share of old road maps over the Internet, where good cartographic Samaritans have uploaded hundreds of images of old road maps that one can lose hours looking at – and if you haven’t, easy places to start are the Vintage Road Maps and Old Maps pools on Flickr.  For those wishing to dig really deep, stops at the David Rumsey Map Collection and the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center are very much recommended.  If you missed last year’s Vintage Road Map Week, click here, here, and here to visit those entries. It’s quite fun to look at all of the things that have changed over the decades.  Here are just some of the highlights you can find browsing these old maps. You’ll definitely want to click on each map to view them full-size and absorb every detail! 


Of all of the road maps we’ve looked at on the site with the exception of the Tabula Peutigeriana, the oldest is certainly the Gough Map of Great Britain.  Housed at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library since 1809, the Gough Map is named for its donator Richard Gough (who purchased the map from the estate sale of Thomas Martin of Palgrave in 1774 for one half-crown) and dates approximately to the year 1360.  Printed on two skins of vellum, it is the oldest surviving route map of the island of Great Britain and even employs numerals to indicate distances along the routes in leagues.  Towns are denoted with representations of churches, castles, city walls, and houses, and the two major cities of the time, London (Lo’(n)don) and York (Eborienc’) have their names printed in gold leaf.  A lighter ink colour used at the Scottish end of the map indicates that this portion of the map was filled in likely a century later than the rest of the document.

Accuracy-wise, it’s probably unsurprising that, being an English map, the map is most accurate within central and southern England, becoming somewhat distorted in Wales and very distorted in Scotland (which appears as an elongated round knob).  Most likely, the map came from a range of sources that evidently possessed varying levels of geographic detail.  Still, it’s an impressive feat by 14thcentury standards, and much of the English portion of the map can be overlaid with modern maps of Great Britain.  While the map has suffered over the years due to improper storage, conservation efforts have help restore it, and in 2010 the entire map was scanned, digitised, and placed on the Internet for viewing.  Visitors to the Gough map website can not only browse the entire map by place name but read numerous articles about the map and its restoration.

Andrews's new and accurate travelling map of the roads of Scotland, shewing the distances between the towns &c.

Source: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library,  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

For a more accurate, but still fairly old, representation of Scotland, we find this road map from 1783 entitled Andrews’s new and accurate travelling map of the roads of Scotland.  Here, we see road distances between locations marked down to the quarter-mile.  While something still seems a bit off about the positioning of the northern reaches of the country (especially Shetland, which has been quite glaringly compressed here in order to fit inside the bounds of the map without resorting to an inset) , it’s a decent enough representation; excellent, in fact, by late-18th century standards.  Also interesting is that the various waterbodies separating the Outer Hebrides from the rest of Scotland are simply labelled collectively as ‘The Scotch Sea’.  This map comes from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library which features an astonishing 200 000 maps and 5 000 atlases in its archives, 3 700 of which the institution has graciously digitised and uploaded to its website.


Source: David Rumsey Map Collection,–29–Bahia-de-Manila–Islas-Fili?sort=Pub_List_No_InitialSort%2CPub_Date%2CPub_List_No%2CSeries_No&qvq;=q:manila;sort:Pub_List_No_InitialSort%2CPub_Date%2CPub_List_No%2CSeries_No;lC:.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) licence.

Keeping with massive personal map collections donated for public display, the David Rumsey Map Collection is a truly invaluable resource.  Here, over 31 000 maps from Rumsey’s personal collection, mostly dating from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, have been digitised and uploaded for public viewing.  Where else could one, for example, find an 1899 map of Manila Bay produced by the US Coast and Geodetic  Survey?  In contrast to the dense urban sprawl of modern-day Metro Manila, the city of Manila looks incredibly tiny on this map, although even here the population of the city was still around 210 000 people at this time.  Still, it’s a far cry from the megalopolis of over 20 million people that surrounds the day today.


Source: National Library of Australia,

Here’s a slice of a pastoral map of Australia’s Northern Territory published in 1945 from 1936 data, displaying all of the pastoral holdings in the territory and their property names.  Many of these cattle stations would lend their names to small communities as the population of the sparsely-settled territory continued to grow in the following decades (the second-largest settlement on this map, Katherine, was only two decades old at the time of this map’s publishing).  The road system at this time in the territory is still rather minimal, with the main track being the Stuart Highway, shown here paralleling the North Australia Railway.  Although not fully paved until the 1980s, the Stuart Highway would be the major corridor along which settlement in the territory would take place as the railway would not be connected to South Australia until 2000.

Check back in a few days for Part II.

Further Reading

King’s College London (2011).  Linguistic Geographies: The Gough Map of Great Britain.  Available at  Accessed 25 April 2012.

Lloyd, C.D. and K.D. Lilley (2009).  Cartographic Veracity in Medieval Mapping: Analyzing Geographical Variation in the Gough Map of Great Britain.  Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99(1): 27-48.

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