Ordnance Survey Town Plans of England and Wales, 1840s-1890s


This series was the most detailed topographic mapping by Ordnance Survey covering towns in England and Wales with more than 4,000 people from the 1840s to the 1890s. By the 1890s, the large-scale town plans covered nearly 400 towns in Great Britain, including 62 towns in Scotland .

We are aware that our holdings are incomplete, so there are some gaps in our coverage. We hope that we may be able to fill these in future through collaborations with other libraries.


Detail of OS Town Plan showing industry in Bristol, 1882
Part of Bristol, surveyed 1882, with malthouses,
the Three Crowns Pub and Mission Chapel

Public health concerns provided the initial rationale for the Ordnance Survey large-scale town plans. The major cholera epidemic of 1832, along with continuing outbreaks of typhus, were strong in people's minds, along with the growing awareness that cartography had provided the vital links to discovering the causes of these diseases. During the 1840s, the Poor Law Commissioners recommended that the Ordnance Survey should create detailed town plans in conjunction with their mapping of counties, for encouraging local authorities to make sanitary improvements. Following the Public Health Act of 1848, Local Boards of Health were formed in urban areas, and were given powers to ensure clean water supplies to their districts, as well as control sewers, clean the streets, and regulate slaughterhouses.


Initially the scale chosen was 1:1,056, or five-feet to the mile, a scale ten times larger than the six inch to the mile mapping (1:10,560) which became the de facto standard for all rural areas. However, for the purposes of sanitary engineering, the five-foot scale was soon found to be too small, and a number of towns paid for surveys at the true ten-foot scale (1:528) at the instigation of the Board of Health from 1850. Finally in 1855, following pressure from Ordnance Survey and its Superintendent, Henry James, the Treasury approved the nation-wide mapping of towns at the metric ten-foot scale (1:500). This was used consistently for all new town surveys from this time, with the usual definition of a town being an urban centre with a population of over 4,000 people. Revised editions of towns that had first been mapped at 1:1,056 and 1:528 were sometimes kept at their original scales.

Detail shown

Detail of OS Town Plan showing the Circus in Bath, 1883
The Circus in Bath, surveyed 1883

Due to the importance of the maps for improving urban sanitation, many features relating to water supply, sewerage, drainage and gas supply are shown, including fire plugs, hydrants, water taps, manholes, stop-cocks, spot-heights and benchmarks. The maps show the divisions between all buildings, including terraced houses, with glass roofed buildings depicted with cross-hatching. Many industrial and manufacturing premises with details of their type of industry are clearly depicted, along with wharfs, docks, market places, canals, railways and tramways. The maps often show the ground floor layout of public buildings, including cathedrals, churches, almshouses, and railway stations. The exact position of free standing trees, as well as clusters of trees and woodland are also depicted, along with the layout of gardens. The maps are also an excellent record of urban public boundaries, showing the broader County and Municipal Borough boundaries, as well as the more detailed Municipal Ward and Local Board District boundaries.

As will all Ordnance Survey series, there were variations over time, and inconsistencies in the particular features shown from one town to another. Sometimes, for example, railway track information is shown fully, whereas in other towns it is omitted if the track was roofed over in a station. The definition of which public buildings were included and named can also vary, and reprints of maps often omitted interiors of public buildings. Secret or classified buildings, such as prisons, barracks, or military sites were often left blank. In spite of their detail, the Ordnance Survey town plans did not include house numbers - these were printed comprehensively by Ordnance Survey only from the 1940s (see our National Grid maps, 1940s-1960s). The maps also do not usually indicate features below ground level, such as cellars, underground utilities or tunnels. For more detail on these and other features, please consult Oliver (2013).

Sheet lines and numbering

All of the 1:500 plans were published on sheets that were typically sized ca. 28 x 41 inches (72 x 105 cm), with maps 24 x 36 inches (64 x 97 cm) - A0 size for modern copying. The 1:1,056 plans were published on sheets that were typically sized ca. 28 x 41 inches (72 x 105 cm), with maps 25.3 x 38.0 inches (61 x 96 cm) - A0 size for modern copying. The 1:500 sheets are subdivisions of 25 sheets (5 x 5) of the OS 25 inch to the mile sheet lines, carrying a Roman numeral of their parent 25 inch sheet (eg. XI.12), and then a sub-number from 1-25 (eg. XI.12.18). The 1:1,056 sheets are usually laid out on local sheet lines unrelated to the parent County Series mapping - although in a few cases, they are subdivisions of the six-inch County Series maps (for example, the London, 1893-96 large-scale town plan).


Detail of OS Town Plan showing the Royal Nurseries in Cirencester, 1875
The Royal Nurseries in Cirencester, surveyed
1883 with trees, glasshouses and gardens

The earlier editions of OS 1:1,056 and 1:500 maps from the 1840s to the 1880s were usually printed from large, engraved copper plates. However, there was a growing trend to print maps using zincography. Zincography was a lithographic printing process, with the map image traced using litho-transfer ink onto large plates of specially prepared zinc. Zincography was introduced in OS from the 1850s, but expanded particularly from the 1880s, as it was significantly cheaper than copper plate engraving, and corrections were easier to make. Zinc plates were also lighter and easier to store than large stones traditionally used for lithography. Zincography created much bolder maps with thicker lines, symbols and larger fonts, compared to the fine, delicate line work of the engraved maps. The Ordnance Survey 1:500 and 1:1,056 maps were issued in uncoloured and coloured forms. Generally the National Library of Scotland maps are uncoloured, but there are some earlier sheets that were coloured: carmine for stone or brick buildings, rich carmine for solid walls, grey for wooden or metal buildings, sienna for roads, and blue for water.

The end of the series

In 1894, the Treasury recommended that large-scale town plans should only be made on a repayment basis by particular towns. Fourteen towns were mapped on this basis until 1909, but the official publication of the maps by Ordnance Survey ceased. In the 20th century, the largest scale mapping of towns has been the OS National Grid 1:1,250 series, initiated in the 1940s.

Further reading