It was a lovely surprise for the Oxfam bookshop.
They are peopled by volunteers. And a friend of one of these volunteers for the Newcastle store was a collector of books.
The donor was having a ‘clear out’, they said. And one of the things they cleared out was a book worth around £2300.
Personally, I cannot see how the donor could have let it go. For it is one of those books which, were I ever fortunate enough to have it slip into my possession, would never be allowed out again. I might even chain it.
For it is Britain’s first road atlas. Britannia Depicta.
Published in 1675. You know, for stagecoaches.
Its creator was a man who had many strings to his bow. A dancing master who founded a theatre before settling down, the year of Charles’s execution, to print publications. A man who gained the heavenly title of His Majesty’s Cosmographer – or mapper of the cosmos – at the age of 71. And at 75, a year before his death, he bequeathed us a priceless gift: the first readable, graphic map of the road.
His name was John Ogilby.
We don’t know anything about Ogilby’s parentage, though we do know he was a Scot from Forfarshire. We first come across him when he paid off his father’s debts at the age of 12, and later, when he was 19, was apprenticed to a London dancing master.
And so began a career in the theatre. He danced in The Gypsies Metamorphosed, a Ben Johnson masque. He was responsible for opening Ireland’s first theatre: New Theatre in Dublin’s Werburgh Street. This was hastily put a stop to in 1641, with the Irish Rising.
Returning to England he went first to Bristol, then Cambridge, and in 1648 he arrived back in London, marrying, and placing himself in a prime position to watch the shenanegans of the fall of Charles I.
And then he began to print: first books, and gradually, he made a foray into maps.
Which is where I met him. Because the maps he published a year before he died changed travelling on the road in Britain forever.
Ogilby published a set of road maps, mapping the 73 principal highways which were in use in the second half of the seventeenth century. But he didn’t just lay out a standard map. He took the same route the designer of the London Tube maps, Harry Beck, used all those years later. He forsook the idea of drawing maps geographically – and went topological.
Topology: where scale, distance and direction take second place to the points that link the journey. One look at Ogilby’s maps is a revelation, for each one is broadly a vertical line, travelling from the bottom of the page to the top. But all the way up that line are annotations and symbols which make it a vital way for stagecoaches and horseriders to navigate.
Ogilby used a waywiser to measure out distances. There’s one preserved in the Oxford Museum of the History Of Science: a ‘great wheel’ which records the passing of the miles:
In time, they took Ogilby’s work and ‘improv’d’ it: and so the 1720 edition was born, improved by another gifted cartographer, Emanuel Bowen. It gloried under the name “Britannia Depicta” or “Ogilby Impov’d Being a Correct Coppy of Mr. Ogilby’s Actual Survey of all ye Direct & Principal Cross Roads in England and Wales: Wherein are exactly Delineated & Engraven, All ye Cities, Towns, Villages, Churches, Seats & scituate on or near the Roads with their respective Distances in Measured and Computed Miles.”
And a 1720 edition made it to Oxfam, where I expect it raised plenty of much-needed cash for charity.
I have never been so tempted to covet my neighbour’s goods.
Slideshow images from http://www.fromoldbooks.org and http://www.bouletfermat.com. Do take a look, also, at this broadsheet created by the Museum of the History of Science based around Ogilvy’s routes: