How to look for Maps and plans of lands abroad

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1. Introduction

This research guide identifies the various series and other accumulations of maps and plans generated or collected by the various departments of state responsible for the foreign relations of England, Wales and the United Kingdom since the sixteenth century. These include the office of the Secretaries of State (the State Paper Office), the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, and India and Burma Offices, the Commonwealth Relations Office, the Commonwealth Office, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Most of the series of maps and plans described in this guide represent ad hoc accumulations of records. Many were gathered by diplomats when abroad or by colonial governors and civil servants. A number were commissioned or purchased from map sellers in the United Kingdom. Policies for the collection and storage of maps have differed over time and between departments. Staff were, from time to time, given specific responsibility for the care of maps, but no section, division or unit was created solely for this purpose: maps were usually placed in the custody of departmental libraries.

Creations and successive mergers of departments have affected the arrangement of these maps. Most of these series should be seen as an accumulation of newly acquired maps coupled with those inherited from a predecessor department.

Many maps and plans are described in Discovery, our catalogue, which is keyword searchable. Other maps are listed in three published catalogues (see section 9) or in a card index in the reading rooms at The National Archives.

Most maps within files or volumes have not been catalogued individually. You may also need to search speculatively among other records relating to a specific subject, country or territory. See the list of related guides in the right-hand panel for further information.

2. State Paper Office

The State Paper Office evolved during the sixteenth century as a central depository for papers of the secretaries of state. Amongst the large number of State Paper Office record series that contain maps and plans, three have significant quantities pertaining to other countries. Maps and plans collected by Sir Joseph Williamson, Keeper of the State Papers from 1661 to 1702, are in SP 9. These include maps of America and Europe, including plans of forts. A number of maps can also be found in additional state papers in SP 46. Most are plans of towns and harbours. The largest collection, covering the period from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, is in SP 112. This series comprises individual maps of countries in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. There are also a few naval charts, town plans and atlases. Some of the maps accumulated by the State Paper Office. were inherited by the Foreign Office and Colonial Office. They now form part of FO 925 and CO 700.

3. Foreign Office

The Foreign Office came into being in 1782. Responsibilities for political relations with foreign powers included briefing the Government on overseas affairs, enhancing British influence over other nations and developing commercial links. Maps and plans acquired by the Foreign Office often accompanied reports and dispatches. Many others were acquired from mapsellers in order to assist comprehension of diplomatic and territorial relations abroad. The principal series of maps, covering the period 1700 to 1914, can be found in FO 925. Some maps collected by the Foreign Office after 1940 can be found in CO 1054 (for more about this series see below under Colonial Office), but many others have been transferred to the Royal Geographical Society. Maps produced during the Peace Conference following the First World War are in FO 373 and FO 608. Maps and plans of the North American Boundary Commission 1872-1876 are in FO 302, and those used by the Commission which arbitrated on the Argentine-Chile boundary dispute in 1966 are in FO 928. The extracted map series for the Foreign Office are MPK 1 and MPKK 1. Other Foreign Office maps can be found in the series for extracted rolled maps, (MR 1 and MRQ 1) and extracted flat maps (MF 1 and MFQ 1).

4. Colonial Office

The Colonial Office was established in 1854 when the War and Colonial Department was divided to form the War Office and the Colonial Office. A collection of maps which had been accumulated by its predecessors, and other bodies which dealt with colonial affairs (including the State Paper Office and the Board of Trade), was inherited and enlarged by the Colonial Office Library. Three series of Colonial Office maps and plans have been successively transferred to The National Archives – CO 700 (Colonial Office and predecessors: Maps and Plans: Series I) covering the period 1595 to 1927; CO 1047 (Colonial Office: Maps and Plans: Series II), covering 1779 to 1947; and CO 1054 (Colonial Office and successors: Maps and Plans: Post-1940 collection), covering 1897 to 1984.

Each time a transfer has been made, maps still needed or believed to be useful for current business have been retained by the department. Many of these retained maps have been included in CO 1047 and CO 1054. As well as material from the Colonial Office, CO 1054 includes maps from the Foreign Office, the Commonwealth Relations Office, the Commonwealth Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Plans acquired by the West Indian Incumbered Estates Commission, 1770 to 1893, are in CO 441. The extracted map series for the Colonial Office are MPG 1 and MPGG 1, with additional material in MR 1, MRQ 1, MF 1 and MFQ 1.

5. India Office and Burma Office

The India Office was established in 1858. Before then British administration in India had been undertaken by the East India Company and the Commissioners for the Affairs of India. In 1937 responsibility for Burma passed to the Burma Office. Responsibility for relations with India and Pakistan passed to the Commonwealth Relations Office on their independence in 1947. Burma did not join the Commonwealth when it attained independence in 1948 and responsibility for relations with Burma consequently passed to the Foreign Office.

Like other India Office records, most maps and plans collected by the India Office and Burma Office are held at the British Library. A few maps used by the India Office, and subsequently transferred to successor departments, can be found at The National Archives in CO 1047 and CO 1054.

6. Dominions Office

The Dominions Office was established in 1925. Before then administration of the Dominions had, since 1907, been undertaken by the Dominions Division of the Colonial Office. Amongst the many record classes containing maps and plans, four hold significant quantities. The first is DO 35, which comprises general correspondence of both the Dominions Office and Commonwealth Relations Office, 1915 to 1971. A number of maps can also be found amongst material relating to treaties and agreements, 1856 to 1965, in DO 118. Maps of southern Africa can be found amongst correspondence of the High Commissioners, for the period 1843 to 1965, in DO 119. Finally, maps relating to the work of the British Phosphate Commission, 1873 to 1983, are to be found in DO 140. Other maps used by the Dominions Office now form part of the Colonial Office and successors map series CO 1054. Extracted Dominions maps are to be found in MPI and MPII, MR 1 and MFQ 1.

7. Commonwealth Relations Office and Commonwealth Office

The Commonwealth Relations Office was formed in 1947 by the merger of the Dominions Office and the India Office. The Commonwealth Relations Office undertook responsibilities relating to the newly independent states of Burma India and Pakistan. By 1953 it had also assumed responsibility for Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In 1966 the Commonwealth Relations Office merged with the Colonial Office to form the Commonwealth Office. Two years later this department merged with the Foreign Office to form the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Maps and plans collected by these two departments the Commonwealth Relations Office and the Commonwealth Office are in CO 1054.

8. Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office came into being on 17 October, 1968. This new Office was formed from three predecessors: the Diplomatic Service Administration Office, the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office. Maps and plans inherited from these predecessors, together with more recent cartographic acquisitions, covering a period from 1897 to 1984, and are in CO 1054. This series of maps represents the latest collection to be accumulated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and subsequently transferred to The National Archives. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to accumulate cartographic material, but further transfers have yet to be scheduled.

9. Published map catalogues

PA Penfold, ed, Maps and Plans in the Public Record Office: 2 America and West Indies (London, 1974)

PA Penfold, ed, Maps and Plans in the Public Record Office: 3 Africa (London 1982)

Geraldine Beech, ed, Maps and Plans in the Public Record Office: 4 Europe and Turkey (London 1998)

10. Further reading

Some or all of the recommended publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ Bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.

Mandy Banton, Administering the Empire, 1801-1968: A guide to the records of the Colonial Office in The National Archives of the UK (Institute of Historical Research and The National Archives, 2008)

Michael Roper, The Records of the Foreign Office 1782-1968, Public Record Office Handbooks No33 (Public Record Office 2002)

Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 6