History by numbers

I find a lot of old maps in the course of my research and find them utterly absorbing. Some, such as estate maps, were commissioned by landowners to record the holdings of their tenants and the value of their estates. These were often exquisitely drawn with a level of detail way beyond that required for such purposes, such as drawing hedgerows between fields, shading the ridge and furrow of a ploughed field, or the trees in a plantation. Others, such as tithe maps, although simpler in definition, also provide important detail, particularly in recording the owner and occupier of each plot of land, its name, acreage, and how it was used. One aspect these maps have in common is that each plot of land is numbered in some way with associated information recorded in an accompanying key, schedule or apportionment.

All this information helps to determine how land and property changed over time; however it is not always easy to visualise this information. So using a technique not dissimilar to painting by numbers, each type of land usage can be coloured to depict whether the land was arable, meadow, pasture or plantation, using the information contained in the accompanying documentation. If this is done on a series of maps covering an extended period, a visual image of how land use changed is suddenly much more apparent. Comparative graphic representations such as these make it immediately obvious how the extent of a property’s land changed over time, how it was used and highlighting fields that were merged or divided.

In addition to looking at the land, the location and shape of buildings is of course crucial to understanding the history of a property. Changes to building outlines depicted in maps can help determine when a property was extended or even rebuilt, as well as determining the number and shape of its outbuildings, some of which may be described in property surveys. I never thought that the childhood pursuits of painting by numbers and spot the difference would ever be so useful.

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