We must let you know about a fantastic recent development in our collective knowledge of maps.

British Map Engravers‘, a dictionary compiled over 25 years of research (each!) by Laurence Worms and Ashley Baynton-Williams, is invaluable for anyone with an interest in maps published in the British Isles before 1850. Laurence was giving this year’s Stevenson Lecture at Senate House, and took the opportunity to launch his new website. Brilliant. Here are persons missing from the original dictionary, and an announcement of a forthcoming companion volume on American map engravers and (this time) the publishers and booksellers who employed them. I’ll be interested to see how much crossover there is, and that was one of the themes of Laurence’s lecture – map-makers who were born in the British Isles but spent much of their working lives overseas.

As ever, Laurence furnished some extraordinary and illuminating stories. Engraving was a rare skill, and engravers had a chance of changing the course of history. Take Henry Dawkins and James Smither, both Londoners in Revolutionary North America, both loyalists and both using their skills for the cause, one forging banknotes in an attempt to collapse the fledgling American economy, one leaking plans of the rebel fortifications to the British. 

I was delighted by the story of Billy Moffitt, a Liverpudlian sentenced to seven years’ transportation for stealing a case of tea in 1823. He set himself up in Sidney as bookbinder, supplier of stationery, printer and engraver (a diverse portfolio of cash businesses?). Then, in 1840, he was literally given a license to print money, producing banknotes for the newly formed Bank of New Zealand. He became one of the richest men in Australia. According to his family he made wise investments in property. He may have been a brazen crook, but given how often we learn of map-folk dying bankrupt it’s nice to get a happy ending for once.

Many of the earliest efforts of map-makers and engravers were printed back in the UK. One of the most interesting features of Laurence’s talk was his insightful discussion of the logic of logistics. The first and, for a long time, the only paper mill in North America was established near Philadelphia in 1690 – a major reason Philadelphia became a centre of printing. No paper was made in Australia until the 1860s: everything had to be imported. And not just paper and the presses themselves. Shipping copper printing plates and – later – lithographic stones imported from Germany, was a major expense. Creating a new survey, arduous as that was, was just the tip of the iceberg. I was left with a sense of wonder that map publishing spread as rapidly as it did.


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