How To Make Maps: Benjamin Wilme’s Hand-Book For Mapping, Engineering, & Architectural Drawing

The study of how maps were made is an intriguing topic for anyone with an interest in early maps. A considerable volume of printed material on surveying has accumulated over the last 500 years, much of it technical advice for surveyors themselves. Rather less attention was paid – in print – to lettering, signs and colour, the ‘finish’ of the completed survey. This, at least, was the contention of Benjamin Pickever Wilme (c. 1816-1862), an Irish civil engineer who settled in London and published a richly illustrated part-work on the subject in the 1840s: ‘A Hand-book for Mapping, Engineering, and Architectural Drawing, in which maps of all descriptions are analyzed, and their several uses fully explained, intended for the use of Civil Engineers, Architects and Surveyors; also for Naval and Military Academies, Engineering Schools and Colleges and Draughtsmen’.

Title page of B.P. Wilme’s ‘A Hand-book for Mapping, Engineering, and Architectural Drawing’, 1846

Wilme had covered aspects of this in ‘A Manual of Writing and Printing Characters’ (1845) but the ‘Hand-book’ (1846) was much more extensive in its scope; a second edition was published in 1863. In his introduction he remarks: ‘if we examine the maps drawn by surveyors generally, we cannot but perceive a very great difference in the execution of them; an almost total want of system is observable’. Furthermore, some draughtsmen ‘can draw good lines, but cannot write, or form good letters; some are adepts at colouring, but either cannot draw good lines or write well; others can only write, but make a most miserable attempt at the remaining parts’. Military surveyors had an edge, educated as they were ‘in large bodies under the best instructors, and trained to base their works on fixed principles’. Their civilian counterparts, according to Wilme, were often left to ‘trust to chance’ to pick up what information they could. Wilme felt he had something to offer everyone: teachers, learners and established practitioners.

Alphabet soup

Wilme’s ‘Hand-book’ was extensively advertised and reviewed in the press, and in the trade and specialist press reviewers had space to spread themselves. ‘The Patent journal and inventors’ magazine’ (Vol I, London 1846, p. 31 ) noted approvingly that the book had been issued in parts at intervals, presumably as Wilme’s busy workload permitted: ‘though… marked by a protracted gestation, we think it the more likely, on this account, to prove of sterling worth’; no aspect of the book’s production had been rushed or ‘slighted’ or ‘delegated to inferior hands’. The reviewer was full of praise, and quoted the section on zincographing plans in full.

Designs for Borders: Wilme offered designs for compass roses, scales and titles, but also covered aspects of design which are easily overlooked, such as map borders.

Wilme’s book received a glowing and lengthy review in ‘The Magazine of Science’ (Vol. IX, London 1847, pp. 338-339). It’s the full five stars: ‘a more valuable, complete volume has never, we believe, been presented to our notice’. It should become a ‘prized possession’ of anyone involved in map-making or technical drawing – students, teachers and established engineers. Wilme is praised for the ‘infinite toil, extreme skill, ingenuity and assiduity’ necessary to create such a comprehensive work, complete ‘with illustrative and coloured engravings, so numerous, so exact, so applicable to every case and emergency’. But what I found most interesting is that the reader is expected to know Wilme by reputation: ‘Mr Wilme’s name appearing on the title page… is sufficient and ample guarantee’ that the book is worth buying. B.P. Wilme was a ‘valued name’ in 1840s London, but he is not familiar to me as a map-maker. Who was he?

Designs for portions of titles for maps and plans. Wonderfully exuberant early Victorian lettering, familiar from finished maps of this period.

According to Wilme’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Architects, an online resource maintained by the Irish Architectural Archive, he was admitted to the Dublin Society’s schools of Architecture and Landscape & Ornament in 1833, winning prizes in 1834 and 1835. The 1841 census reveals that he had moved to London and was practising as a civil engineer and surveyor, living in Addington Street, Lambeth. His marriage to Anne Mahon at St George’s Church, Dublin in January 1845 was reported in the Morning Chronicle (February 1 1845). Wilme was described as the second surviving son of Henry Wilme of Diamond Hill, County Wicklow. His business address in this period is given as 15 Featherstone Buildings, Bedford Row, Holborn. His services as surveyor and land agent were advertised in the Essex Herald (May 11 1847) and this was also the address supplied on his surviving work which I have been able to locate. In 1844 he made plans to accompany a ‘Schedule of lands required by the South Eastern Railway Company’ on the Isle of Sheppey and in 1850 he corrected a tithe map of Foulness Island, Essex, all of which are now in the National Archives. In a similar vein, the Bodleian holds an estate plan, ‘part of the estate of Wm. Morland’ (Lamberhurst, Kent) which had been surveyed by someone else in 1837 but was drawn by Wilme in 1846. Wilme’s publisher John Weale of 59 High Holborn was a relatively near neighbour, but also an experienced publisher of similar technical works.

Geological Diagrams. Method of shewing strata in section. Geological mapping was in its infancy (William Smith’s map had appeared in 1815) and required specialist hand-colouring, but was of tremendous value in industrial Britain.

At about this time he designed South Park, Darlington, the first Victorian park in northeast England: ‘beautifully executed’ according to The Darlington & Stockton Times (16 Nov 1850) and now Grade II listed. To coincide with the Great Exhibition of 1851 he published ‘Wilme’s Symbolic Map of London, or Visitor’s Guide to the Sights and Amusements of the Metropolis’; Worldcat only locates one example, held by the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (OCLC 834992647). It sounds rather interesting: ‘folding small enough to carry in the pocket, yet so clear as the enable the traveller in the dense thicket of buildings to trace his way’ (Chelmsford Chronicle, June 13 1851); ‘the great advantage… is its clearness; the map being relieved of a great number of minor lanes, streets, courts and alleys’ (Sun, May 31 1851); ‘each class of objects of interest is represented by a distinct symbol’ (Morning Advertiser, June 17 1851).

Railway section from the standing orders &c. As well as traditional estate plans, Wilme gave plenty of examples of the new work which surveyors and industrial engineers were expected to undertake in the era of railwaymania.

A son, also Benjamin Pickever, was born in Holborn in June 1851 but by the time he was baptised in December 1854 the family had moved to Walworth: the baptism took place at St Peter’s, and the family lived at Albert Terrace, Royal Road; Wilme was once again described as a civil engineer. He had Trans-Atlantic connections too: he engraved the frontispiece for William Austin Burt’s practical guide to using his great invention, ‘A key to using the solar compass’ (Philadelphia, 1855). Wilme depicts the compass itself, which was widely used in land surveying for well over a century.

Signs used in mapping. Some of Wilme’s symbols seem very modern. Accepting that one is unlikely to need to differentiate (often) between wooden, stone and iron bridges today, the symbols are clear and forward looking, and wouldn’t look out of place on a modern map.

He died in May 1862 in Kensington, Middlesex, leaving Anne as his principal beneficiary. The date of his death surprised me as the 1863 second edition of his ‘handbook for mapping’ was published posthumously, apparently by John Weale and ‘for the author’ as before. Weale himself died in December 1862, making the imprint even more problematic. Perhaps the book was already in the works, or perhaps his widow Anne saw it as a way of generating some income.

Forest trees in elevation, in contrast, seems something of a throw back. Rather than presenting us with a general symbol for trees, each species of tree is shown pictorially. One can appeciate the value in terms of estate management, but the general reader, also, is expected to recognise different types of tree from a long way away. Perhaps these signs were intended more for estate maps than for general circulation.

From the quality of this book alone, Wilme would appear to have been a skilled and capable draughtsman, and from its reception he appears to have enjoyed a considerable reputation. I suspect that more of his work is out there, uncatalogued or unrecognised. He supplies detailed instructions for lithographing, zincographing and engraving maps, with his own observations on the comparative merits of the different processes: he found ‘engraving is much to be preferred’ over lithography on the grounds of ‘firmness or soundness’ of the image and the ‘durabilty’ of the plates. He was clearly no stranger to printing. With no evidence that he worked for any of the major cartographic publishers I can’t take this much further, but the very least one can say is that his work almost certainly informed or influenced people who did.

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