Quite some years ago I applied for a job cataloguing maps. The interview was going well when one of the interviewers placed a map in front of me and asked me how I would catalogue it – it was a cadastral map overlaying a topographic map of an area of Melbourne in the 1880s. I was bedazzled. I had never seen anything like it before. I gabbled on about all the wonderful features the map showed, how it related to the history of the area, not the mundane elements that are the essence of cataloguing such an item. Needless to say I did not get the job.
I do love maps!
Older maps are not as precise as modern maps but they allow us a glimpse of what the map maker regarded as important about the area he was describing. They are an invaluable resource for the researcher or writer of historical fiction. Once the only way to access these maps was by visiting a library, fortunately many are now available online, with additional information about the places of interest within the map.
My favourite map is the Agas map of London with its houses, trees, ships and barges and wherries on the Thames, women spreading linen to dry on More Field and archers practising nearby. A modern edition has been available in book form of some years but an interactive version is available at the Map of Early Modern London site (MoEML). This is an ongoing project which uses Agas’s woodcut map to give a sense of the Shakespeare’s London. Specific sites are highlighted on the map and linked to references and detailed information on that particular site. Apart from the Agas map, the MoEML website includes an encyclopedia of early modern London people and places.
I have found that with perseverance it is possible to find historic maps of most places via the internet. The British Isles are particularly well served. Below are a few links to places that hold historic maps.
Collage, The London Picture Map uses a map to link to historical images of London and her inhabitants.
Rootsweb also has a wealth of maps of varying quality of other places in the British Isles from as early as the 13th century. Not all maps are easy to read and in several places the links are broken but once you know a map exists it may be possible to track it down elsewhere.
And, most horrifying, a map of the bombs dropped during the Blitz.
Of course, if you are researching the 20th century, the past can be brought to life through old film.