The Contemporary Tree Sheep Reviews – Tube Map Travels: Imitations, adaptations, and explorations worldwide by Maxwell J Roberts, published by Capital Transport, 2019

The latest book by Max Roberts landed on my desk just before Christmas, a seasonal treat from the invaluable Capital Tranport stable. Max trained as a psychologist, with a focus on how people interpret information, so it’s not hard to see how his professional career has informed his increasingly extensive body of work on schematic mapping and transport map design. Until recently I would have limited that to ‘Underground map’ design, but he has brought out two books in the last few months. The other, co-authored with Mark Ovenden, examines the first century of commercial airline maps, and I’m delighted to say that at this year’s London Map Fair (June 6-7) they will be giving the Saturday lecture on that subject together. You’ll hear more about that in future issues of Rhumb Lines, I’m sure.

‘Tube Map Travels’ is about the unofficial maps of the London Underground, the ones which were not produced by TfL or any of its predecessors and which, in fact, TfL might like to suppress if it were possible. TfL’s vigorous protection of its copyright is one of several reasons why nobody knows just how many of these maps are out there, but Max has (so far) assembled an impressive collection of over 300 examples. So this is a book by a collector about a collection, which I find very refreshing. And it’s the kind of collection I like best. We have no idea exactly what was published so it can never be knowingly complete or finished, and every day there is the possibility of a new discovery with significant research potential.

As Max points out (chapter one line one), in Edwardian London 16 independent companies were vying for passengers. Unsurprisingly, their ‘official’ maps prioritised their own lines over their rivals, which was not especially helpful for anyone trying to navigate their way around the capital. For a few years there was a legitimate need for some businesses, such as the big department stores, to commission their own maps simply to help their customers find them. It’s a fascinating and hitherto neglected area which I’ve blogged about whenever I found something fresh, such as these Edwardian maps commissioned by department stores DH Evans and Dickins & Jones, Astonishingly, and obvious though this approach seems in hindsight, it was left to London newspaper The Evening News to commission the first Underground map which allocated a contrasting colour to each line and made them the same width – regardless of ownership – with the specific goal of creating a map which was useful for passengers who wanted to get around town (see our posts on Colouring Inside the lines here and here).

The UERL (the precursor of today’s Underground, originally owning 4 lines) swiftly saw the value of this approach and commissioned their ‘common design’, which finally accorded equal weighting to non-UERL lines. Most advertisers then switched to using the official map, often overprinted with an arrow pointing to their location. There is plenty of work still to be done on overprints, of which there is a huge variety. It can’t have been ruinously expensive, if it was official at all (the Underground may simply have turned a blind eye). Advertisers I’ve seen range from department stores through to coach companies, boarding houses and small independent wireless shops. But that’s a whole other subject. The point is, that after the official maps became more user-friendly, the character of the unofficial maps changed.

Max has found maps which extract a part of the network to show how to get to a particular place or event from central stations, such as Stanley Kennedy North’s colourful and effective schematic journey planner created for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, and a less well known map for finding the 1951 Jehovah’s Witnesses Clean Worship event at the same venue. It wasn’t necessary to map the whole system. He has also found a particularly confusing inverted (south at the top) map which must have misdirected many people trying to find the Southbank venue and Battersea Pleasure Gardens during the Festival of Britain. Then there are cheesy tourist maps, superimposing major landmarks, London buses and even the odd London bobby on unlicensed renderings of the Tube map. The largest category seems to be maps made for tourist guides printed overseas, where the publishers considered it unnecessary to go to the trouble or expense of licensing the official map, or where the official map does not fit neatly into the space available (such as the endpapers of a book). Their quality is hugely variable, but Max goes looking for creativity among the knock-offs. A change of policy in the 1980s, when TfL decided to monetise the official map rather than encouraging its use by third parties as free advertising, coupled with a boom in tourism caused by the appearance of budget airlines in the 1990s, has made this a rich seam and Max’s ideas have clearly been evolving for some time. He touched briefly on unofficial mapping in ‘Underground maps unravelled’ (2012), but in this book he has space to play with. 

Any person or organisation can create their own map of the system, even a schematic map, without necessarily infringing TfL’s copyright [though if you get in trouble please don’t tell them we encouraged you – PB]. Unofficial maps present intriguing issues in determining whether their makers are genuinely trying to improve on the official map, when they are attempting to camouflage their reliance on it through basic changes, or when elements of the official map are simply unimportant for the intended audience. For example, the colour coding of Underground lines has been remarkably stable for more than 80 years, but while no Londoner could fail to be thrown by a yellow Piccadilly Line on a map, for a visitor it probably doesn’t matter a jot. Or perhaps, it would be fairer to say, it doesn’t matter greatly to someone commissioning a map halfway round the world.

Finally, Max confronts the recent slew of unofficial maps created by enthusiasts, aided by computer technology both in realising and disseminating their ideas. They think they can do better, and why not? Many of the named map designers including Hutchison, Garbutt and Beck himself were ‘amateurs’, employed by the Underground in other roles who redesigned the map in their spare time; they also thought they could improve on the current map, albeit with mixed success. Since Beck drew his first diagram, over 200 new stations have been added to the map, which in its pocket form is no bigger than the one published back in 1933. There is room for improvement, and may it be one of Max’s own designs!


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