Mapped: The whole of underground Manchester

I’ve always been fascinated by the hidden tunnels and chambers beneath our streets and Manchester has more than its fair share. I bought the book Underground Manchester a few years ago and thought it pretty comprehensively covered this secret world most of us know nothing about. However, a recent article in the Manchester Evening News shows that the city has many more stories to tell.

Mancunian enthusiast Mark Crossfield has spent the last few years putting together Hidden Manchester – a site dedicated to his love of the Manchester Underground. The MEN article contains a few good examples, but I thoroughly recommend a look at the site as it is packed with information.

Cartographically, it is not very exciting – just a push-pin overlay on a satellite basemap – but all the features have popup information with links for further reading. There isn’t any attribution on the basemap (I think it’s Google) and it doesn’t seem to be possible to switch to a vector map instead of imagery or turn on a street labelling layer either, but this map is definitely more about content than presentation. The sources page is full of interesting links and is probably worth the price of admission alone. There is certainly enough here to keep me quiet for some time.



The Bowes Playing cards of 1590

A quick look at a fascinating set of playing cards, recently acquired by the British Library. I imagine that, just like my Raisin Splitz illusion cards, they’d be very distracting for the players though.

Ships, Clocks & Stars

Despite the fact that my family is from London, and I was born there, I’ve never been to Greenwich. This means I’ve never seen the Royal Observatory or the Greenwich meridian, even though it is, quite literally, the centre of the world. Kind of.

Anyway, last weekend was a good time to put this right, as the Royal Museums Greenwich are holding an exhibition to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act. If you haven’t been already, I strongly recommend a visit before the exhibition ends on 4th January 2015. It’s the first time that all five of John Harrison’s timepieces are on public display together.

Sailing in the 18th century was a hazardous business, and poor navigation often resulted in longer journeys or even shipwreck, as with the Scilly disaster of 1707. The main difficulty was determining a ship’s position while at sea; establishing latitude was fairly straightforward, by measuring the angle of the sun over the horizon at midday, but longitude proved more of a challenge. The most common method was to use dead reckoning – basically to follow a bearing and assume that you haven’t been blown off course by the wind or tides.

The government decided to start a competition to solve the problem and passed the Longitude Act of 1714, which established the Board of Longitude, who would award a prize of up to £20,000 to whoever could come up with a method of determining longitude at sea.

(Interestingly, this article suggests that the Longitude Act was just a distraction to postpone actually doing something about the appalling conditions on board ship at that time.)

Five methods emerged as contenders, most of which used time to determine longitude. Given that the sun moves through 360° every 24 hours, that’s 15° every hour. So, if you are 15° W of Greenwich, it will be midday one hour later. The local time can be determined by seeing when the sun is at its apex (i.e. midday), so it follows that if you know the local time and the time at Greenwich, you can work out how many degrees of longitude you have travelled. So, how do we know the time in Greenwich when we have been at sea for weeks or months on end? Clocks of that period were unreliable and could not keep time during a long voyage.


Probably the least plausible method was to set up an array of signalling stations that would send up a rocket at regular intervals, say every hour. The idea was that sailors would hear the signal and recalibrate their onboard timepieces. Also, the time difference between seeing and hearing the flare would allow the distance from the signal to be calculated.

The problem with this method is the difficulty of maintaining the position of ships at sea, making sure the signals were released at the right time, and the reliability of ordnance. Would the rocket reach the right height, or explode too early?


It was known at the time that the Earth’s magnetic field varied and that there was a difference between magnetic north (as shown by a compass) and true north (as shown by the Sun and stars). Some people thought that if the all the magnetic fields across the globe could be mapped, then they could be used to determine a ship’s position. This chart by Edmond Halley is an attempt at plotting these fields:

Sea chart of magnetic variations

A new and correct sea chart of the whole world showing the variations of the compass as they were found in the year 1700
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Unfortunately, the Earth’s magnetic field changes over time and has too many local variations for this method to be of any use.

Jupiter’s Moons

The idea of using lunar or solar eclipses to determine time had been considered before, but these events were too infrequent to be of much use. However, when Galileo discovered in 1610 that Jupiter had four moons that disappeared behind the planet and reappeared at regular intervals, he realised that this method had some potential. He attempted to persuade first the Spanish, then the Dutch government to produce telescopes and train navigators to make the observations, but he was unsuccessful. Even one hundred years later, improved technology could not make instruments accurate enough to view a small object like Jupiter from the deck of a moving ship. This method did prove to be very effective though for establishing longitude on land and was used well into the 18th century.

Lunar Distances

If Jupiter’s moons were difficult to observe, a method requiring observations of our own moon should have been much easier. The idea was that an angle could be measured between the Moon and a star, for example the pole star, giving a ‘lunar distance’. After consulting an almanac of distances – and also altitudes of the Moon and stars – for various places around the globe, the local time should be easily determined. However, the Moon’s motions are very complex and constructing such a table proved very difficult.


The most accurate clocks of the period incorporated pendulums, which were unable to function properly on a moving ship. Watches and smaller timepieces were too susceptible to heat and humidity to remain accurate over long periods of time. A young clockmaker from Lincolnshire, John Harrison, had started to experiment with using wooden components, which required no oil, yet were almost frictionless. Over the next few decades, he constructed a series of timepieces (H1-5, on display as the centrepiece of the exhibition), continually making improvements, but never quite doing enough to please either himself or the Board of Longitude. The clocks performed well over a number of sea trials, with, for example, Captain Cook referring to his ‘trusty friend’ and ‘never-failing guide’. Eventually, Harrison petitioned the Prime Minister, and after a debate in parliament, he was awarded  £8750.

John Harrison's H1

Three-quarter view of Harrison’s marine timekeeper H1
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Ministry of Defence Art Collection

It’s clear that the Board were reluctant to award any of the prize to Harrison and continued to champion the lunar distance method, as favoured by Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal. They kept asking for Harrison’s timepieces to be sent on more sea trials and often discounted the trials that had taken place, claiming they were ‘unofficial’. The Board was stuffed with parliamentarians, Fellows of the Royal Society, and other members of the establishment and they weren’t about to give to prize away to some chippy northener. (This article sheds a little more light on Maskelyne’s role in the affair.)

I don’t think the exhibition made enough of Harrison’s struggles against the establishment, but nevertheless, it is fascinating and packed with information. There is so much more to see, as the institution is actually four museums on one site – hopefully I’ll have time to go and visit the rest of it before too long.

The First Casualty of War

It seems like you can’t move without falling over a World War I anniversary at the moment, and in the Guardian last week there was a full page reproduction of a page from the Manchester Guardian of one hundred years earlier.

Manchester Guardian 5th August 1914

Fans of Alexander Gross’ Geographia Ltd will know all about his decision to sell high quality maps to the Telegraph in the run up to the war, but it looks like the Guardian had to throw something together at the last minute. This map of the North Sea is particularly ropey – it looks like I drew the coastlines of Norway and Denmark with my eyes closed. They say the first casualty of war is the truth, and this map seems to be telling more lies than most. If its only task is to show the rough position of May Island, however, it is performed adequately. There is at least a north arrow and a scale, and everything is spelled correctly. Maybe spending a bit more time on the Scottish border would have been good though. Compared to other cartographical cock-ups from media outlets, perhaps it is forgivable.


The main map at the head of the page looks a little less rushed, but is still kept fairly simple. Some of the borders are obviously different to today’s maps, but contemporary maps show they are not far off.

The other insert map, of eastern Belgium and surrounding countries, is also a bit scrappy. Some of the defects here could be due to the reproduction of a hundred-year-old newspaper though. I find it hard to get a sense of the region we’re looking at, without any coastline in view, but this map gives a good idea of how the Kingdom of Belgium looked at the time.

A Rare Outing for Pierre Desceliers’s 1546 World Map

This just in: another gem from the John Rylands library collection has been on display. We’ll have to make do with the digital version, but it looks pretty nice.

John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

One of the Library’s great treasures is a remarkable manuscript map of the world, or Mappe Monde, produced in 1546 by the distinguished French cartographer Pierre Desceliers (French MS 1*).

Because of its size (260 x 130 cms), fragility, and the sheer logistical challenge of manoeuvring it around the building, the map is very rarely removed from it storage location, but last week it had a rare outing so that it could be examined by a researcher, Chet van Duzer, from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Chet is an expert on early world maps, and has been commissioned to write a book about a similar map by Desceliers now at the British Library (Add. MS 24065).

Chet van Duzer consults the Desceliers Mappe Monde (French MS 1*) Chet van Duzer consults the Desceliers Mappe Monde (French MS 1*)

It took a team of five conservators to move the map in its 19th-century wooden case, and we had to limit access…

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America’s Birth Certificate

Today I took a tour of the Library of Congress, in Washington DC. It is a huge institution, consisting of over 150 million items housed within three huge buildings. (Our guide told us it was the largest library in the world, but Wikipedia claims the British Library is bigger. The Library of Congress certainly covers a larger area anyway.)

The library contains nearly 400,000 maps, over 12,000 of which have been digitised and are available online. These high resolution images allow you to pick out the smallest details, but I think you can’t beat seeing the bigger picture and viewing the maps in person. Currently, there are two mapping exhibitions in the library, Exploring the Early Americas and Mapping a New Nation: Abel Buell’s Map of the United States, 1784.

Abel Buell’s map is the first map of America, published in America, by an American. It doesn’t contain any new cartography, but was the first time a map had been produced of this new nation. The other maps in the exhibition are thought to be used by Buell as source material.

Abel Buell USA 1784

What is interesting about this map is that, at the time, the western boundaries of the new states had not been legally defined. The Constitution was not ratified until 1787, so the federal government did not have the power to establish borders or force the sale of land. As a result, cartographers decided to end each state at the Mississippi River – leaving them much larger than their current extent. In particular, I like how Connecticut continues on the other side of Pennsylvania, making it many times the state it is today.

The Early Americas exhibition, meanwhile, features documents, artifacts, paintings, and prints, as well as maps. The highlight is undoubtedly Martin Waldseemüller‘s 1507 world map, widely regarded as the first usage of the word ‘America’ to describe the new land recently discovered in the west. Waldseemüller used a feminine, Latin version of Amerigo Vespucci‘s name on this map, but later distanced himself from this coinage, preferring instead Terra Incognita. He felt that perhaps Vespucci should not get all the credit for the discovery. The map had already been turned into a popular globe, however, and the name stuck. Our guide informed us that, as a result, this map is known as America’s birth certificate.

Universalis Cosmographia

What amazed me about this map was the level of detail, particularly in Africa. I always thought that very little was known about sub-Saharan Africa until Livingstone‘s explorations of the 19th century, but the Mountains of the Moon are shown here, along with many lakes and rivers.

Our guide also told us in great detail about the map’s discovery and purchase by the library, but I won’t go into it here. As usual, Wikipedia provides all the information you’ll ever need.

The (Offset) Streets of London

It’s time for another look through my old map collection, and this time I thought I’d finally get round to the map that actually inspired me to start this blog in the first place. On the front cover, it looks just like a normal petrol station road map, illustrated with generic tourist images (just so you know you’re in London, there’s Tower Bridge, a Beefeater, and a Routemaster bus).

Esso London front cover

Front Cover

The back cover shows the coverage of the series. London is the only city that has been mapped in detail – the other sheets seem to be smaller scale touring maps.

Back cover

Back cover

Looking inside is when it gets interesting, though. Street maps are generally produced in two styles – cased street symbols and centred labels, as seen on European-style street maps, or North American-style maps where labels are offset from thinner, single street features. The former style is prevalent among web maps from across the world, as I couldn’t find an online example of streets with offset labels. See below for a print map excerpt from 2000, with the same area on a web map.

Paris Michelin

European map

North American print map

North American print map

North American web map

North American web map

This London map is different though; it is a map of Europe, but done in the North American style. I’ve never seen a British street map that looks like this before. When you look closely at the labelling, there are a lot more interesting details. It has clearly been done by hand, as the spacing and font sizes are quite inconsistent. For example, Brushfield Street has been broken up so the letters don’t overlap the street underneath, but Artillery Lane is evenly spread along the street, with some letters clashing with the side streets below.  On Bishopsgate, however, the underlying features have been broken, so the label is surrounded by white space. The Houndsditch label has also been spaced out, with other labels placed in the spaces.

London detail 1

London detail 1

On example 2, more labels have been squeezed into the spaces between the characters of  Monument and King William Street. You can see text going right up into the Ls of William.

London detail 2

London detail 2

Example 3: again, Upper Thames Street has been stretched along the length of the feature, with other labels in the spaces. Note also, Bankside Power Station, or, as it is known today, Tate Modern.

London detail 3

London detail 3

Marshalsea Road, on example 4, has more feature masking.

London detail 4

London detail 4

Example 5 shows how the junction at Holborn Circus is masked, but Ludgate Circus is not. The gridlines are also broken for Farringdon Street Station, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and the GPO. Charterhouse Street shows a mixture of feature masking and character spacing to fit the label in.

London detail 5

London detail 5

In example 6, the street labels mostly have extra spacing between words so the two parts of the name line up across the terraces. Other streets have spacing between characters to fill the feature, as above. The U of Queensbridge Road seems to have fallen in the canal though, which is a bit unfortunate.

London detail 6

London detail 6

Lots of character spacing in example 7, especially Leonard Street and Epworth Street, and lots of labels in spaces, especially City Road.

London detail 7

London detail 7

And in the last example, we can see the date of the map, 1959. Also of interest in this corner is the Surrey Canal – I didn’t know there was a canal running through the middle of Camberwell. Unfortunately, it has now been filled in and forms part of Burgess Park. This blog offers more detail and laments what could have been had gentrification reached this part of town a bit sooner.

London detail 8

London detail 8

On the reverse of the map, the whole of Greater London is shown at a smaller scale. It’s not as interesting as the street-level map, so I’ve just included a view of how the docks and Greenwich looked in 1959.

London detail 9

London detail 9

The last item of interest here is a tube map by one H. C. Beck. It looks quite different to modern tube maps, with fewer diagonals and station names fully capitalised. A quick look on the London Tube Map Archive shows it to be a monochrome version of the 1958 edition.

London tube map

London tube map