Mapping Bath

Maps are, perhaps, one of my favourite categories of material in the collection. I enjoy the days when I find time, or excuse, to study them, usually finding out something new and interesting about the map or the city when I do so. My recent research into the maps of Bath has made me realise how lucky we are in the city to have such a long history of the city being surveyed. Normally it would have been estates or large and important cities, such as London or Bristol, that would have such a collection, but Bath has its own rules and unique history.

William Smith's map of Bath, 1588 (from BL Sloane Ms. 2596)
William Smith’s map of Bath, 1588 (from BL Sloane Ms. 2596)

In the Beginning : County Maps and City Plans in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

The first known plan of Bath was William Smith’s plan for his book The Particuler Description of England with the Portratures of Certaine of the Cheiffest Citties and Townes in 1588. This contains several town plans, and the one of Bath is fairly simple and straightforward. But at this point of the sixteen century, the military generally provide the only accurate surveys being produced (not a necessity in Bath), and most maps remain as manuscripts rather than printed up for a larger, general market. Speed’s 1610 map of the county of Somerset was one of many county series’ that started to appear in the late sixteenth century – Saxton’s survey being the first of Somerset in 1579.

Michael Drayton's curious map of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire from his Poly-olbion, 1612.
Michael Drayton’s curious map of parts of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire from his Poly-olbion, 1612.

Not all of them are as useful as Saxton or Speed – I’m still trying to work out what directions could be found from Drayton’s map of nymphs, dryads and hermits in his early seventeenth century map of Somerset/ Gloucestershire/ Wiltshire. Speed copied from whomsoever he could, including Saxton, but his unique twist was to add a map of a local county town of note. Usually this would be the main port, market or ecclesiastical town, but for Somerset he chose Bath, which was none of these. Bath was growing in reputation as a curative centre as word of the hot springs spread. Dr. Savile’s contemporary map – and possible source of Speed’s map – was on a larger scale and included even more detail especially the baths.

John Speed's map of Somerset and Bath from the Theatre of the Empire of Britain, 1611
John Speed’s map of Somerset and Bath from the Theatre of the Empire of Britain, 1611
Joseph Gilmore's iconic map of Bath, 1731 edition.
Joseph Gilmore’s iconic map of Bath, 1731 edition.

Maps were expensive to produce – the outlay for the survey and initial engraving costs would have been large, and some expectation of remuneration must have been anticipated. Speed, by placing the plan of Bath in a county map had an audience that would be interested in the county as well as the city, but Savile was relying only on those potential customers interested in the city itself. His map must have had a hefty price tag when it went on sale in the early seventeenth century.  By the late seventeenth century Joseph Gilmore’s potential market is a little easier to anticipate. Although there are no copies of his original 1694 map in our collections, his map was reprinted for the next forty years, so by 1731 it was still the principal map of a town that was rapidly changing. But in 1694 that was yet to happen. The crowded city had few modern facilities, but it did have a growing trade in medical tourism, and Gilmore tapped into that trade when he produced his map.  It shows the baths clearly and enables a visitor to have a clear idea of where the principal buildings of the town were situated. Round the edge he placed images of lodging houses. This wasn’t a map for sticking in your pocket in case you got lost – the town wasn’t large enough for it to need that.  This would be hanging on the wall of a coaching inn or suchlike to advertise long-term accommodations for the visitors. Seventeenth century Bath isn’t that hard to navigate around, but you might need a little guidance on first arrival to orientate yourself and recognise some of the main buildings. Many copies of the 1731 edition survive, so it seems likely that Gilmore, a Bristol surveyor, probably made his money back over time.

Estate plans : Growing Bath in the early Eighteenth Century

Kingston Estate Plan, originally surveyed 1725, copied 1882.
Kingston Estate Plan, originally surveyed 1725, copied 1882.

In the early eighteenth century Bath changed rapidly as it started to expand and rebuild to accommodate all these new tourists. We have one estate map originally produced at this interesting time in the city’s history, 1725 (copied in the nineteenth century). The plan of the Duke of Kingston’s estates was made when he purchased what had originally been the Abbey precincts and some additional land from the Chapman family. Kingston greatly redeveloped this land through investment in the baths, housing and roads in the area. Unusual for an estate plan, in that it shows part of a town rather than countryside, it highlights the beginning of a century-long period of intensive urban development in central Bath. The plan features potential developments drawn in as lines overlying current features: Wood’s Parades are hinted at overlying an orchard area; the Ham, notorious for flooding, was also an intended area of building, but would remain unbuilt on for over a century. There aren’t any contemporary maps of Bath to compare this to: versions of Speed’s and Gilmore’s maps were still the mainstays showing an essentially mediaeval Bath; Wood had only just started on his grand plan for the city – which he would later show off in his own survey of the city in 1736; and the next new tourist survey of the burgeoning town was twenty five years away.

Tourists : Guiding the visitors in the later Eighteenth Century.

A New and Correct Plan of the City of Bath and Places Adjacent, 1750. Guide book in a map
A New and Correct Plan of the City of Bath and Places Adjacent, 1750. Guide book in a map

The first city guide book Bristolian publisher Thomas Boddeley’s Guide to Bristol and Bath  in 1755. It didn’t include a map – perhaps a slightly strange decision from a modern perspective. But it wasn’t the first guide to Bath. City plans often included annotations and commentary text to interpret the contents but in particular to highlight important buildings without cluttering up the actual map itself. In 1750 an enterprising publisher did exactly this, but added further text on the history of Bath as well as rules for the Pump Room and the times of the post coaches. Essentially, it was a guide book and map on a single sheet of paper. It didn’t take long for the publishers of the guides, and the street directories later, to see the advantage of including a map. But to be able to fold up a map so it didn’t interfere with the binding of the book required a small map on fine paper, and some of the maps intended for inclusion in these books look quite basic in their information, although they would have been sufficient to navigate one’s way around town. Other maps were produced separately but sold at the same time as the guides and directories – too large to fit in the books themselves, they included more detail and were sometimes coloured to provide a more picturesque plan of the town and a souvenir.

A New Plan of the City of Bath with the New Additional Buildings c.1770?, Frederick & Taylor
A New Plan of the City of Bath with the New Additional Buildings c.1770?, Frederick & Taylor
An Accurate Plan of the City of Bath for May 1776
An Accurate Plan of the City of Bath for May 1776










These maps were often published by printers who specialised in engravings rather than book publishing as maps and prints involved similar printing processes. The initial outlay for the survey and engraving was very expensive, so they ensured the plates were used for as long as possible. Adding more buildings as they were constructed and occasionally even erasing old engraving (by rubbing the copper plate flat from the back and burnishing it to take new engraving lines) if it was absolutely necessary could lengthen the life of a plate’s usefulness. These plates also passed between businesses as partners came and went – the publisher’s name altered, and perhaps the date, but little else. Between that first guide plan of Bath in 1750 and the end of the century there were at least 35 separate maps of Bath produced – although many of them were just iterations of earlier surveys, often compounding errors and omissions as time passed.

Planning : Corporation Surveys in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries.

Tourist guide plans were not produced for accuracy and only showed select details, so finding small lanes, yards and individual houses was impossible. They were published to take advantage of the tourist trade that came with money to spend. For the Corporation something with a little more detail was required, which led to the first accurate scientific survey of the city of Bath since the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Charles Harcourt Masters, 1794
Charles Harcourt Masters, 1794

Charles Harcourt Masters was the city surveyor, an architect and a garden designer, and he completed the first of his city surveys in the mid-1790s. More building was going up along the London Road towards Lower Swainswick (soon to become Larkhall), and construction was starting to creep uphill above Beechen Cliff and Widcombe. Neither of these places were within the city boundaries, but the city itself was filling in with more houses and business, and the Corporation had to keep track of it all. Hence the survey at a time when there was no central government agency to provide such a map, and no one other person or business was going to pay for one in such detail. It was a necessity to which many towns and cities had to resort to enable them to plan for the lighting, roads, water supply, policing and other local government services that were required by a growing population. And this plan does provide such detail – the first to include the names of most of the hidden yards and alleys unrecognised in the smart tourist maps. Beside the detail of Masters’ own designs for the Sydney and Grosvenor Gardens, he marks in other gardens – whether of expensive houses in Walcot or market gardening plots along what was to become Pulteney Road. The development of Bathwick had just stalled due to the banking crisis of 1793, but Masters, with his inside knowledge as City Surveyor, included the sketch outline of the intended buildings here, and along the slopes of Beacon Hill in Walcot, as if construction would continue unabated. As we now know, with hindsight, this didn’t happen, but Masters kept the outlines in the subsequent map of c.1808 whilst including other alterations around town: the building of the Kennet & Avon Canal (not even hinted at in the first map); the move of the Theatre Royal from Orchard Street to Beauford Square; and laying out of Pulteney Road as indicated on the previous map’s sketches but with Sackville Street now renamed as Darlington Place. So the map provides us with an unprecedented level of detail, but it still has it’s inaccuracies (Green Park East & West were the wrong way round in the first map) and speculations that require a certain amount of caution. Copies of this map are not uncommon as many were printed for planning use and more than a few were probably sold to help reclaim som of the costs of production.

City of Bath From a survey by J.H. Cotterell. Engraved by Hollway of Bath. Published by S Hayward. 1852.
City of Bath From a survey by J.H. Cotterell. Engraved by Hollway of Bath. Published by S Hayward. 1852.

A scant fifty years later another City Surveyor, J. H. Cotterell was to produce another survey for the Corporation, this time because the city boundaries had changed. The Corporation Act of 1851 (14&15 Vict. c.civ) greatly expanded the boundaries of the city to include the whole of the parishes of Bathwick, Walcot, and Lyncombe & Widcombe, much of which was open rough hillside at the time. This required the Corporation to commission another survey to provide them with a planning framework for all this new land for which they were now responsible. In 1852 Cotterell’s map was published showing the new city boundary, parish boundaries, ward boundaries and as many alleys, yards and cul de sacs as could be printed on the map. He also produced a set of maps of the city centre at much greater scale (1:480 as opposed to the single sheet map at 1:6336) for use within the Council itself and not released to the public. Such mapping is found in many of the larger towns in England and Wales in response to the growth in concern at public health. The Public Health Act of 1848 highlighted the need for sewerage, clean water and other environmental services to maintain the health of a city population: detailed maps helped in the planning of these services alongside other needs of the corporations. Again, with no central mapping agency to supply such plans, it fell to the corporation to provide their own. It wasn’t until the 1870s and 1880s that the Ordnance Survey began to produce the large scale 1:500 (125″) plans that are much beloved by family and local historian alike.

Ordnance Survey map, 6":1 mile, 1904
Ordnance Survey map, 6″:1 mile, 1904
Ordnance Survey 25":1 mile, 1936
Ordnance Survey 25″:1 mile, 1936
Ordnance Survey 125":1 mile, 1886
Ordnance Survey 125″:1 mile, 1886

Details : The OS steps up (finally) in the Nineteenth Century and beyond

Bath was one of the last towns to be mapped in the large scale 125″ scheme, requiring in 86 sheets to cover the city (Bristol required 182 sheets in comparison), where every tree, benchmark and drain cover was faithfully recorded. They provide a fantastic snapshot of the city in detail allowing for accurate comparisons across the century since. Building divisions, outhouses and walls are recorded in sufficient detail to annotate present-day planning applications. Alas the one thing they lack are house numbers, to the frustration of house and family historians alike, especially for streets subsequently destroyed by bombing or planning. Never again would the Ordnance Survey provide printed mapping at such a large scale.

Although we can now access digital mapping with the touch of a button, the OS does not print maps to this scale, nor survey to this scale. Large scale urban mapping is standardised at 1:1250 – rural mapping’s largest scale is 1:2500 – although anything larger than 1:25 000 is only printed on demand by suppliers. Layers of information can be added and removed as required – electrical lines, water pipes, archaeological sites – whatever a client wants above and beyond the basic mapping that we normally get to see. But it all comes at a cost, and most members of the public only interact with OS maps at the 1:50 000 Landranger scale or 1:25 000 Explorer scale, neither of which satisfy those of us needing the detail of a city plan. OS mapping underlies a lot of the maps we use – even the Geographer’s A-Z street plans – and we still rely on them to spotlight our routes in an unfamiliar city. But most of the mapping we use now is provided digitally – GoogleMaps, OS, navigation systems – and the continuity and progression of the city’s history is lost: the details that so delight us on large scale maps disappear as driving routes become the over-riding priority of the map. There is no ongoing archiving of digital maps in the way that there is with paper maps allowing the maps themselves tell the story of the city visually.


Bath has been in a fortunate position for much of the last 500 years where its attraction for the great and the wealthy greatly outweighed the importance its size or position would indicate. Whilst it is mirrored by many towns with its legacy of mapping from the Victorian era onwards – public health mapping, canals, railways, wartime bombing, Goad fire insurance maps – it is in its earlier history that it is unique. Bath gives an unparalleled opportunity to the historian to examine the changing landscape of a town in a visual medium instead of just relying on written evidence.



2 thoughts on “Mapping Bath

    1. Unfortunately, not that William Smith, although he did work locally. This William Smith was Rouge Dragon Pursuivant and published his book in 1558, two hundred years before the geologist made his famous map. We do have several geological maps and sections in the collection. I just didn’t have space to touch on them in this blog.

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