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First Impressions: Pre-1750 women writers represented in UCL’s special collections

Erika Delbecque31 August 2021

This guest blog post was written by Isobel Goodman, who spent six months volunteering at UCL Special Collections as part of the Liberating the Collections project.

Tasked with researching pre-1750 women writers, as part of UCL’s Liberating the Collections project, I was struck by the varied ways in which women engaged with print culture in this period. Unsurprisingly, recognised names such as Margaret Cavendish, Mary Wortley Montagu and Aphra Behn occur frequently in the catalogues, but the research also revealed several other women writers whose non-aristocratic status and lesser-known writings provided a fascinating insight into the processes at work.

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Mrs James’s Vindication of the Church of England in an answer to a pamphlet entituled A New test of the Church of England’s loyalty. (London, 1687) [UCL Special Collections Huguenot Library JB 17 HAL]

The political writings of author-printer Elinor James (1644-1719) were regularly published even before she inherited her husband’s printing business in 1710. Renowned for her petitions to the king and parliament, James’ work benefitted from ready access to a printing press: not only could her concerns be published promptly in response to new debates (hence avoiding any appearance of pre-meditated attack on the petitionee), but also in large quantities for maximum impact. Extant documents indicate that she penned at least 90 pamphlets and broadsides during her career, although the ephemeral nature of these items could disguise a much greater number. UCL holds a copy of Mrs James’ Vindication of the Church of England (1687), in which she defends James II’s ‘Declaration of Indulgence’ against criticism in another pamphlet published anonymously weeks earlier. Robustly countering the anti-Catholic stance of the earlier publication, James concludes “GOD Save the KING”!

Portrait of Elinor James, c.1700 ©Wikimedia Commons

The fast, cheap, ephemeral nature of pamphlet production suggests that James sought neither literary renown nor fortune from her writing. However, the conspicuous inclusion of her name in her publications, often in the title itself, demands recognition as both author and printer. Indeed, a portrait she gifted to Sion College in 1711, notably depicts James holding a lavishly bound book whilst a copy of her Vindication of the Church of England rests nearby.

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Poems upon several occasions. By the late Mrs Leapor, of Brackley in Northamptonshire. The second and last volume. (London, 1751) [UCL Special Collections Strong Room E 221 L2]

In the absence of owning a press, less-wealthy eighteenth century authors could fund the third-party publication of their writing through subscription i.e. half of the book price paid in advance by readers and the other half on receipt, in return for their names being listed in the publication itself. Kitchen maid, Mary Leapor (1722-46), was an unlikely candidate for a published poet, yet she successfully funded printing in this way – no doubt aided by subscribers’ curiosity of her situation. Rector’s daughter, Bridget Freemantle, and Leapor’s employers and their relations (the Jennens and Blencowes) also provided useful connections.

Rear flyleaf of Poems upon several occasions. By the late Mrs Leapor, of Brackley in Northamptonshire. The second and last volume. (London, 1751) [UCL Special Collections Strong Room E 221 L2]

Following Leapor’s premature death, two years before her book appeared in print to positive reviews, novelist Samuel Richardson published a posthumous second volume of Leapor’s manuscripts (1751), of which UCL holds a copy. While less successful in attracting subscribers, the text’s woodcuts still suggest a reasonable budget. Leapor was certainly well-known during this period: an anthology ‘by eminent ladies’, published in 1755, devoted more pages to her than any other writer. Indeed, UCL’s text previously belonged to Jeremy Bentham and includes his annotations of ‘Mrs Grey’s memories of Mary Leapor’, indicating a prestigious readership of both sexes. Bentham reports that Mrs Grey introduced Leapor to Bridget Freemantle, who subsequently provided her “with pens, ink & paper & a bureau, book case & likewise books, before which she had scarcely an opportunity of coming at any books, or the means of procuring them”.

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In contrast, the corpus of poems, prose, petitions, biography and translations penned by Lucy Hutchinson (1620-81) remained deliberately unpublished during her lifetime. She is perhaps best known for her Memoirs of her husband, John Hutchinson – a signatory of Charles I’s death warrant who died in prison following the Restoration – which she compiled for their children between 1665 and 1671.

Lucy Hutchinson by Samuel Freeman, stipple engraving, circa 1825-1850
NPG D19953 ©National Portrait Gallery

The Memoirs’ posthumous publication in 1806, by Hutchinson’s great-great-grandson, raises questions about the control authors ultimately had over their work. The private account was intended as “a naked undrest narrative, speaking the simple truth of him”, confirmed by careful, personal revisions of the original manuscript. Yet the heavily edited (although well-received) first publication was swiftly followed by two further editions before 1810. UCL special collections hold five four copies, ranging in date from 1808 to 1904. The original editor promoted the text to female readers as having “all the interest of a novel”, and the book’s moralistic account of the civil war impacted both historiography and popular opinion, despite no evident intent by Hutchinson to do either.

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An apology for the conduct of Mrs Teresia Constantia Phillips (London, 1748) [UCL Special Collections OGDEN MUI (1)/1]

The scandalous memoirs published in 1748-9 by Teresia Constantia Phillips (1709-65) were perhaps originally penned more for blackmailing former lovers than for book sales! In a self-promoting sales tactic, the imprint claims, “Such extraordinary care has been taken to intimidate the Booksellers, in order to stifle this Work, that Mrs. Phillips is obliged to publish it herself, and only at her House in Craig’s Court, Charing Cross; and to prevent Imposition, each book will be signed with her own hand”. Yet, in reality, the removal of pre-publication censorship during the 18th century had freed publication of such material in Britain. Trade publishers, such as Mary Cooper, who would assign their own name to an imprint and sell publications anonymously on behalf of the publisher and copyright holder, further enabled publishers to print controversial works without risk to their reputation.

Portrait of Teresia Constantia Philips, in An apology for the conduct of Mrs Teresia Constantia Phillips (London, 1748) [UCL Special Collections OGDEN MUI (1)/1]

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Whether for money, renown, or politics, the women represented in UCL’s special collections employed authorship for their own purpose – albeit with varying control over the resulting publications. Literacy was expanding during the 17th and 18th centuries, as was the print market following the lifting of restrictions on printer numbers in 1695. Combined with women’s evident interest in matters beyond the household (despite being unable to fully participate or vote in them) the processes were in place for them to reach a wider audience than ever before, through the medium of print.

By Isobel Goodman

Bibliography

Primary sources

Hutchinson, Lucy. Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson. London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Roes and Orme by T. Bensley, 1810.

James, Elinor. Mrs James’s Vindication of the Church of England, in an Answer to a Pamphlet entituled, A New Test of the Church of England’s Loyalty. London: Printed for me, Elinor James, 1687.

Leapor, Mary. Poems upon Several Occasions. The second and last volume. London: Printed and sold by J. Roberts, 1751.

Muilman, Teresia Constantia. An Apology for the Conduct of Mrs Teresia Constantia Phillips. London: Printed for the Author, and sold at her house in Craig’s-Court, Charing Cross, 1748-1749.

Secondary sources

Brown, Susan, Clements, Patricia, Grundy, Isobel. “Elinor James: Writing,” Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, last accessed 03/08/2021. http://orlando.cambridge.org.ezp.lib.cam.ac.uk/protected/svPeople?formname=r&people_tab=2&person_id=jameel&crumbtrail=on&dt_end_cal=AD&dt_end_day=27&dt_end_month=06&dt_end_year=2021&dt_start_cal=BC&dt_start_year=0612&dts_historical=0612–+BC%3A2021-07-12&dts_lives=0612–+BC%3A2021-07-12&dts_monarchs=0612–+BC%3A2021-07-12&heading=h&name_entry=Leapor%2C+Mary&subform=1&submit_type=J

Greene, Richard. Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women’s Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hutchinson, Lucy. Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Mayer, Robert. “Lucy Hutchinson: A Life of Writing,” The Seventeenth Century, Vol. 22(2) (2007): 313.

McDowell, Paula McDowell. “Introductory note” in Elinor James. The Early Modern Englishwoman: A Facsimile Library of Essential Works, Printed Writings, 1641-1700: Series II, Part Three, Volume 11. Ed. Paula McDowell. London: Routledge, 2017.

Plaskitt, Emma. “Phillips [married name Muilman], Teresia Constantia (1709-1765],” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, September 23, 2004, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22170

Treadwell, Michael. “London Trade Publishers 1675-1750.” The Library Series 6, Vol. IV, No. 2 (1982)” 99-134.

Women in the Italian Book Trade: forgotten owners and producers of Italian books

Erika Delbecque23 August 2021

This guest blog post was written by Sara D’Amico, who spent six months volunteering at UCL Special Collections as part of the Liberating the Collections project

We might think that women were not allowed to participate in skilled crafts: for instance, the art of book binding was foreign to them until the nineteenth century. But women have always been involved in the book trade. However, many of them have remained in the shadows and their contribution has not been acknowledged for centuries. The Liberating the Collections project aims to fix this and give the women who are represented in the rare book collections at UCL Special Collections the recognition they deserve. As a volunteer in the LTC project, I have conducted a focused search among the Castiglione and Dante Collections, to allow the women involved in the Italian book trade to come to the fore. What follows is only a brief overview of some of the most interesting people involved in the making and keeping of Italian books.

Luchina Ravani (active ca. 1532-1541)

Luchina Ravani’s edition of “Il libro del cortegiano” (1538) [STRONG ROOM CASTIGLIONE 1538 (1)]

Financial considerations often forced a printer’s widow to take over the business, as the death of a husband plunged many widows into poverty. These women would often work until their sons came of age, but in the case of Luchina Ravani, she apparently continued working even after her son took over. The State Archive in Venice holds two documents stating that Luchina was free to run “a suo conto la stamperia.” This indicates that the widow held an important position in the business and possibily had some kind of agency in deciding what to print, like the beautiful Libro del cortegiano in the Castiglione Collection. However, despite her active role, her name is never explicitly mentioned on any edition. Only her son’s name, Vittore, appears on the titlepages or the colophons, followed by a simple and anonimous “& Co.” The reasons behind this choice remain unknown, but they do raise the question: how many other women’s works are hidden behind a man’s name?

Sofia Giacomelli (1779-1819)

Sofia Giacomelli’s illustrations of the “Divina Commedia” (1813) [DANTE DD 5 K]

Book history has neglected women engravers. Wood engraving was, for almost two centuries, the most common means of illustrating printed work. This art was not usually practised by women until the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement, and yet some of them, because of their incredible talent, managed to excel in this field almost half a century prior. Geneviève Sophie Giacomelli was one of them.

Also known as Sophie Janinet and Madame Chomel, Sofia was a popular singer and an accomplished graphic artist: she even exhibited her work at the Paris Salon in 1799 and in 1800. Art magazines from all over Europe praised her work in illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divina Commedia. The Journal des arts, des sciences, et de littérature reviewed her Milton collection in 1813: “The collection of the twelve figures of Madame Giacomelli is one of the most agreeable productions that engraving has offered us for a long time. We live in a century when women have won the most distinguished rank in literature: it is enough to look at this work to discover that the field of the arts is not foreign to them either.” But most importantly, Sofia didn’t stop working on her engravings after her marriage in 1802 with musician Joseph Giacomelli, who introduced her in the world of music and singing. She was, first and foremost, an artist.

Sofia Giacomelli’s illustrations of the “Divina Commedia” (1813) [DANTE DD 5 K]

Caroline Morris (dead after 1870)

Caroline Morris was not an occasional book owner: together with her husband she formed a library of about 9,000 volumes, making her a book collector on all counts. In the nineteenth century it was not common for a woman to collect that many books and it was even less common for a woman with no titles and significant richness to do so. James Morris, Caroline’s husband, was a Professor of Languages in the Royal College of Mauritius and the UCL Calendar (1870-71) seems to suggest that he was the owner of this extensive and valuable library: apparently, he bequeathed it to his wife for the duration of her lifetime, and after her death to the College. And yet, the illustrated bookplates that can be found in the books clearly say: “Jacobus et Carolina Morris”.

Letter from J. M. Peebles to Caroline Morris. [MS ADD 133]

As is often the case for women book owners, virtually no biographical information about Caroline is available. However, the UCL archives hold some of the Morris’s correspondence. The letters, together with the bookplates, were invaluable in proving that Caroline must have had an active role in the making of the Morris Library. Not only that, the letters from scholars like Francis William Newman and J. M. Peebles prove that she was also a reader and they help shine a light on Caroline’s interests in a great variety of subjects: from botany to music to women’s rights.

There are many women like Luchina, Sofia and Caroline who contributed to the making and preserving of some of the finest rare books in the UCL Special Collections. Their names are often overshadowed by those of their husbands but the LTC Project is finally giving them a new voice. While there is still room for more research, these first results are an indication of how many valuable resources are hidden within the UCL Special Collections and how much they can contribute to the study of the Italian book trade’s history.

References

Michelle Levy, ‘Do Women Have a Book History?’, in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 53, No. 3 (2014), pp. 296-317.
Deborah Parker, ‘Women in the Book Trade in Italy, 1475-1620’, in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3 (1996), pp. 509-541.
Patricia Jeffe, Women Engravers, 1990.
Stephen S. Stratton, Woman in Relation to Musical Art, in Proceedings of the Musical Association, 9th Sess. (1882-1883), pp. 115-146.

Exploring Women Owners of UCL’s pre-1750 Rare Books

Erika Delbecque16 August 2021

This guest blog post was written by Dr Steph Carter, who spent six months volunteering at UCL Special Collections as part of the Liberating the Collections project

The initial phase of the ‘Liberating the Collections’ project at UCL Special Collections has begun to highlight under-represented and marginalised voices in the collections. One area of research has been women owners, contributing not only to the existing narrative of pre-1750 books in the UCL Special Collections but also to the growing scholarly interest in early modern women book owners.

Working primarily with the UCL library catalogue, 5000 provenance statements were examined for evidence of women owners and straightaway provided ample data to pursue research on the lives of these former book owners. However, research into women book owners brought to the fore the intensely acute disparity that is so common between men and women when it comes to historical documentation and searching for biographical details. Biographies of identifiable women tend to be tied into the biographies of their fathers, husbands or brothers, typically comprising little more detail than a wedding date and how many children were born. An added complication is the repeated use of the same first name through successive generations of a single family.

[Seder berakho] (Amsterdam, [1687 or 1688]), front endpaper [STRONG ROOM MOCATTA 1687 B2]

A Hebrew text from the 1680s includes the inscription ‘Rebecca Mocatta’ on the front endpaper. This is undoubtedly part of the surviving Mocatta Library, the majority of the collection having been destroyed by bombing in 1940. The Mocatta family were established in London by 1671 with the merchant and diamond broker Moses Mocatta. At his death in 1693, Moses identified a niece called Rebecca; his son Abraham later had a daughter also named Rebecca. Rebecca also continued to be an important female family name in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the book remained in the Mocatta family collection until at least the early 19th century as there are manuscript notes on the front flyleaves detailing information about births in the family between 1797 and 1809.

John Harington, Orlando furioso in English heroical verse (London, 1591), title-page [STRONG ROOM OGDEN B 2]

Of course, even with a family name it is not always possible to identify the correct lineage. The Countess of Warwick, Mary Rich (1624-1678), is a known author and book owner. She was addicted to plays and romances in her youth, so it is not ridiculous to assume that she is the author of the inscription ‘Mary Rich’ on the title-page of Sir John Harington’s 1591 translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso – the Italian poem that is a source for Much Ado About Nothing.

However, another ascription, ‘Margarit Riche’, is also present on the title-page and an inscription on p. [186] of the main text refers to a note on the marriage of Robert and Elizabeth Riche in 1616.

John Harington, Orlando furioso in English heroical verse (London, 1591), title-page [STRONG ROOM OGDEN B 2  

These details do not match with the genealogy of the Earls of Warwick, suggesting that this book may have been owned by a completely separate family and passed down through female members of that family.

Despite the limitations of researching and identifying women book owners, the Mocatta and Rich examples contribute to a growing narrative of what the editors of Women’s Bookscapes in Early Modern England describe as ‘the myriad ways in which women bought, borrowed, accessed, wrote in, made, recorded, cited, and circulated books’ (p. 4). Such research on women book owners will also contribute to a broader engagement with the UCL Special Collections.

Dr Steph Carter, Associate Researcher, Newcastle University

References

Orbell, J. (2004) ‘Mocatta family (per.1671-1957), bullion dealers and brokers’, Dictionary of National Biography Online. Available at: oxforddnb.com [Accessed on 27 July 2021].
Cambers, A. Godly Reading: Print, Manuscript and Puritanism in England, 1580-1720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 48-50.
Knight, L. and White, M. ‘The Bookscape’ in: Knight, L., White, M. and Sauer, E. (eds.) Women’s Bookscapes in Early Modern Britain. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018, pp. 1-18.

Kaladlit Okalluktualliait (Greenlandic Folktales): Contentious histories of preserving indigenous oral traditions

Erika Delbecque17 May 2021

This blog post was written by UCL student Sae Matsuno (MA Library & Information Studies) as part of a two-week work placement at UCL Special Collections. Sae’s Twitter handle is @O_Aspirations. 

19th-century folklore books that travelled from Greenland to UCL

Rasmus Berthelsen, title page of Kaladlit Okalluktualliait, Godthåb, 1859-1863. © UCL Special Collections.

Kaladlit Okalluktualliait (1859-1863) is a multi-part work (four volumes) of Greenlandic oral folklore collected, written, illustrated, published and preserved. The organiser of this large-scale preservation project was a Danish geologist/colonial official Hinrich Rink (1819-1893). As Inspector of South Greenland, Rink requested all Greenlanders to record in writing their local legends and poems. He worked with native artists/catechists to illustrate the stories and translate the texts into Danish. Among them, Âlut Kangermio – better-known as Aron of Kangeq (1822-1869), Rasmus Berthelsen (1827-1901) and Lars Møller (1842-1924) are notable figures.

The three volumes housed in UCL Special Collections were originally owned by the Peckovers, a leading Quaker family in Wisbech, England; and donated in 1967 to Library Services by the UCL emeritus professor L. S. Penrose (1806-1974). For the last few years, the item has drawn more attention through the National Trust exhibition at Peckover House (2019), publication in Art History (Hatt, 2020) and the Liberating the Collections project at UCL Special Collections (2021).

Voices, languages and tensions in colonial Greenland

Kaladlit Okalluktualliait is a finely executed print work, including woodcut plates, many of which were hand-coloured. One example is an illustration for “The Man Not to Be Looked at by the Europeans”. In this story, an Inuk was made by his mother’s charm unbearable for European sailors to see. As no Europeans dared to look at him, the man had the freedom to steal from them. Angry sailors came to attack the man, but no one could shoot him even when he challenged them to do so.

An illustration for “The Man Not to Be Looked at by the Europeans”. Kaladlit Okalluktualliait, Godthåb, 1859-1863. © UCL Special Collections.

Winter house (Rink, Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo, 1875). Courtesy of HathiTrust.

In the history of printing, Kaladlit Okalluktualliait is considered as one of early milestones of the print culture in Greenland. (Oldendow, 1953; Thisted, 2001) Rink continued to collect folktales and translated them into other languages. Among them, Danish (Eskimoiske Eventyr og Sagn, 1866) and English (Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo, 1875) editions, of which copies are also held at UCL Special Collections, can be accessed via HathiTrust Digital Library. Tales and Traditions and Danish Greenland (1877) – written also by Rink – are of note, as they were richly illustrated by Âlut, Berthelsen and other indigenous artists.

Dog sledges in front of winter houses (Rink, Danish Greenland, 1877). Courtesy of HathiTrust.

Rink certainly played a central role in promoting Greenlandic cultures (see the chapter “The Greenlanders Sketched by Themselves” in Danish Greenland). However, I hesitate to call their relationships “collaboration” because of the power imbalances between Denmark and colonial Greenland. In this context, many questions arise. Who decided which folktales were to be included in the volumes? Were the artists allowed to create their works in their own ways, or did they follow Rink’s instructions? Who chose illustrations that accompanied the texts? What have been the benefits of this project for the Inuit?

As I read the relevant literature (see below for references), it becomes more clear that there are complex ambiguities between preservation and exploitation, sounds and pictures, as well as between spoken and written languages.

For instance, Hatt characterises the production of Kaladlit Okalluktualliait as a process where “[t]radition was eroded”. (2020: 313) His article helps us to critically think about:

1) transforming indigenous oral traditions to texts and images, as a result of which the stories may lose their orality (e.g. accents and vocal expressions) and get detached from the local storytelling practice;
2) translating those texts into other languages, through which cultural values and nuances may not be fully expressed or understood;
3) publishing and selling the intangible heritage of indigenous peoples as collectibles, while Inuit communities can be excluded from the life cycle of collections.

Interdisciplinary potential

As much as we appreciate the artistry of Kaladlit Okalluktualliait, we should also put these historical and ongoing tensions at the centre of our attention. By doing so, the print work can be used as a gateway to engage with indigenous oral traditions, as well as to explore and better understand how these traditions function (or stopped functioning) in Inuit societies. This item can be a meaningful part of interdisciplinary teaching, learning and research across Indigenous Studies, Postcolonial Studies, History, Literature, Arts and more.

References:

Hatt, M. (2020) ‘Picturing and counter-picturing in mid-nineteenth-century colonial Greenland’. Art History, 43(2), pp.308–335. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-8365.12498 [Accessed 4 May 2021]

Hauser, M. (1993) ‘Folk music research and folk music collecting in Greenland’, Yearbook for Traditional Music, 25, pp.136–147. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/768690?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents [Accessed 30 April 2021]

Kahn, L. and Valijarvi, R. (2020) ‘The linguistic landscape of Nuuk, Greenland’, Linguistic Landscape, 6 (3), pp. 266-295. Available at: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10094235/1/Kahn_linguistic_landscape_nuuk__centrevsperiphery_final.pdf [Accessed on 30 April 2021].

McDermott, N. K. (2015) Unikkaaqtuat: traditional Inuit stories. PhD dissertation. Queen’s University. Available at: https://qspace.library.queensu.ca/bitstream/handle/1974/12806/McDermott_Noel_K_20154_PhD.pdf.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y [Accessed on 30 April 2021].

Montenyohl, E. L. (1993) ‘Strategies for the presentation of oral traditions in print’, Oral Tradition, 8(1), pp.159–186. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/160495057.pdf [Accessed on 30 April 2021].

Oldendow, K. (1958) ‘Printing in Greenland’, Libri, 8(3-4), pp.223-262.

Petterson, C. (2012) ‘Colonialism, Racism and exceptionalism’, in: Loftsdóttir, K. and Jensen, L. (eds.) Whiteness and postcolonialism in the Nordic region: exceptionalism, migrant others and national identities. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, pp.29-41.

Thisted, K. (2001) ‘On narrative expectations: Greenlandic oral traditions about the cultural encounter between Inuit and Norsemen’, Scandinavian Studies, 73(3), pp.253–296. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40920318?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents [Accessed 30 April 2021].

London History Maps

Harriet S14 May 2020

The retrospective cataloguing team recently embarked on a project creating records for London History Maps, ca. 300 Special Collections maps, atlases and panoramas of London and the surrounding area.

The size of some of the maps was a little problematic (see images!), and finding appropriate locations to safely examine them was difficult in the busy Science Library. With a little planning, however, we were able to schedule map cataloguing time for when the office is at its emptiest, and at times (carefully) use floor space as well as any available desk space.

Finding London University in Cruchley’s New Plan of London, [1829?]

Maps also require extra fields in catalogue records, such as scale and coordinates, and there are elements of vocabulary that cataloguers are not usually accustomed to using, for example identifying whether gradient is marked by hachures or bathymetry.

Thankfully, there are a number of helpful internet tools out there (such as this one to discern scale), and we discovered the “Bounding Box,” a website by Klokan Technologies, a Swiss company specialising in online map publishing. The bounding box tool gives approximate coordinates when adjusted to contain the area of the individual map. This is particularly helpful when many of the older London History maps do not operate on coordinates at all, but rather have numbered or lettered grids for reference to that map alone. Those that do, often have St. Paul’s, the centre of historic London as the meridian, not Greenwich. In fact, it was not until the 1880s that maps had any consensus as to what meridian to refer to, and many chose the centre of their respective cities/countries rather than settling on an international standard.

Panorama of London

I think we’re going to need a bigger floor!

Finding their objective coordinates would have been a very arduous task if we had needed to relate to other maps, so the Bounding Box has been an invaluable resource to help us provide as much detail as possible. The site even helpfully provides coordinates formatted specifically for MARC cartographic fields 034 and 255.  Alongside these websites, we also shared expertise and created standard phrases for common occurrences, such as the way the maps have been cut and mounted, and cartographic detail extending beyond the neat line (border) of the map.

A sparsely populated Camberwell and Peckham in Cary’s New Plan of London, 1839

With the nitty gritty out of the way, we had space to focus on the content of the maps. Many are beautifully engraved and hand-coloured, with parks showing detail up to the individual tree or flowerbed and the individual docks labelled along the Thames. Some maps emphasise railways, hackney carriage routes or walking distances, some even show the network of sewers! What is most striking is how different London was, and how quickly its expansion occurred. Up to the late 19th century, the land North of Regent’s Park dissolves into fields and farms, and South of the River is even less urbanised. Some maps even split boroughs into landowners’ estates. On a personal level, seeing UCL campus slowly emerge on the maps was particularly interesting.

The retrospective team began cataloguing London History Maps in February 2020, and almost half the collection is now online. Further map-related posts to follow when we regain access to our physical collections.