Map of Public Buildings in Great Britain 1900s is a digital humanities project supported by the National Library of Scotland. The interactive map displays the locations of different public buildings in Great Britain in the 1900s.

The website was designed and built by Cynthia So at UCL DH during a three-week postgraduate placement with the Library.

Project Overview

The project was created to be an open-access digital resource to support the learning and exploration of the social and cultural history in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain.

The definition of "public" spaces or buildings has long been a subject of debate in the field of urban studies, cultural studies, social studies and political studies. By providing multiple filters and viewing options, the goal of this project is to identify and classify the country’s public buildings with digital mapping technologies and promote greater understanding of the availability and variety of public spaces during this period. More than 29,000 public buildings have been mapped and categorised into 14 types, offering rich scope for subsequent analysis.

All source code is available on GitHub.


Ordnance Survey is the national mapping agency for Great Britain. The project was built upon a series of georeferenced scans of the Ordanance Survery (OS) maps published around the 1900s, seamed together as zoomable historic map layers.

Within this map series, the Ordnance Survey six-inch to the mile (1:10,560) County Series is the most detailed topographic mapping that covers all areas of Scotland, England, and Wales from the 1840s to the 1950s, so it provides a good record of streets and public buildings during the period. There are two editions of the six-inch maps. This project utilised the second edition OS maps as the basis for digital mapping, published between 1888 and 1913. These can also be veiwed online.


The project combined the GB1900 gazetteer dataset on the Library's Data Foundry website and historical boundaries and census data downloaded from A Vision of Britain through Time.

The GB1900 gazetteer includes 2.5 million place names transcribed from the second edition Ordanance Survey six inch maps and is the largest ever historical gazetteer. It should be noted that the GB1900 dataset does not provide a comprehensive listing of every public building in Britain. In particular, the more detailed OS 25 inch to the mile maps and town plans provide larger-scale coverage of towns, and name more public buildings; however, the text has not been transcribed from these maps. It would also be possible to parse Post Office Directory texts and geolocate public buildings, but this has not been systematically attempted and it was beyond the scope of a brief project such as this. In the absence of detailed records of all public buildings in the 1900s, the dataset offers valuable insights into the various public buildings that were present at the time, and it could be that future work with extracted text from more detailed maps and directories could build on this.

The project also incorporated boundaries and census data, which allows for the visualisation of population density across registration districts (a type of administrative region used for registration and census purposes), and helps draw attention to the correlation between population and the spatial distribution of public structures and facilities. The population data of England and Wales and that of Scotland come from two different censuses as the boundary data for Scotland was published separately from England and Wales.

Mapping Methodology

Public buildings were extracted from the GB1900 gazetteer based on what Ordnance Survey considered to be “public buildings” from 1888: almshouse, assembly room, asylum, athenaeum, auction mart, aquarium, bank, barrack, bath, bridewell, cathedral, church, chapel, club, college, coastguard station, court of law, custom house, dispensary, dock building, drill hall, exchange, fire station, gymnasium, hall, hospital, infirmary, library, literary and scientific institute, local government board office, market house, monument, municipal building / office, museum, palace, police station, post office, prison, public office, railway station, reading room, school, skating rink, theatre, wash house, water work, workhouse.

They are identified by common names such as "school" and "church". The dataset was queried with QGIS software using an expression:

"final_text" ILIKE '%Museum%' OR "final_text" ILIKE '%Gallery%'

This query string would enable a case-insensitive search. Although not all of the public buildings could be accurately identified by names, this method provides an efficient way to filter a large dataset under the tight time constraints of this project. The long list of specific public buildings was grouped together into more meaningful, broader categories; for example, hospitals, infirmaries and dispensaries were grouped together under ‘Health services’. The selected features were saved as GeoJSON files.

The boundary data was downloaded and opened as shapefiles. The census data were then joined to the boundary data using the common id field in QGIS and classified into five groups at equal intervals. Districts were coloured according to the classification to produce choropleth map layers. The layers were saved as GeoJSON files whilst the colour scheme of the choropleth maps were saved as separate Styled Layer Descriptor (SLD) files.

Due to the large size of some layers, all GeoJSON files were uploaded to GeoServer, which allows the data layers to be viewed as image tiles, thereby reducing web page loading time. Meanwhile, the SLD files from QGIS were added as style layers on GeoServer to style the choropleth maps.

The interactive map was created using OpenLayers, an open-source JavaScript library for web maps. Data layers of public buildings and census districts are retrieved from GeoServer based on the user's selection. The background OS 1900s mapping was brought in as a Web Map Tile Service (WMTS) from the National Library of Scotland’s servers, whilst other modern map layers were brought in as WMTS layers from ESRI and OpenStreetMap. It is not surprising to see that the distributions of public buildings are broadly linked to urban development and population density, but there are several interesting regional variations. Some public buildings were obviously more common than others across the country, but the specific building distributions are all different. For this reason, it was felt useful to allow the ability to compare different distributions side by side.


Special thanks are due to Fredric Saunderson and Christopher Fleet (National Library of Scotland) for advice and technical support from the project’s inception and through to its implementation.


This project is copyright National Library of Scotland and is available under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY) licence. This licence does not apply to: