How to look for records of... Ordnance Survey
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you find:
- historical Ordnance Survey maps
- records created or maintained by the Ordnance Survey as the national mapping agency of Great Britain
The nature of Ordnance Survey’s work means that the maps and written records are a useful source for researching many different aspects of the history of Great Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries.
2. Essential information
Check libraries and other archives or useful online sources first if you are looking for an Ordnance Survey map. The National Archives is not the best place to start for published Ordnance Survey maps.
We do not have a comprehensive collection but we hold many Ordnance Survey maps among our other records. See the section on Ordnance Survey maps at The National Archives.
Although the first Ordnance Survey map was published in 1801, it was many years before it has produced detailed maps of the whole country. For many places, the oldest large-scale Ordnance Survey map dates from 1860s, 1870s or 1880s. Many different editions of Ordnance Survey maps have been produced since then.
Finding relevant maps or textual records often involves identifying a sheet number or a National Grid Reference. See the section on How to identify sheet numbers or National Grid references.
3. Useful online sources
Digitised copies of some Ordnance Survey maps are available on several websites including:
- A Vision of Britain through Time
- British History Online
- National Library of Scotland
- British Geological Survey
You can view Ordnance surveyors’ drawings online at the British Library website.
4. Administrative and technical records
Other records before 1841 are in:
- OS 3, particularly the military and scientific papers of Major General William Roy, 1756-1791 in OS 3/1-5
- T 1. Read How to find records of Treasury letters and papers for information
After 1841, many records are arranged and listed by:
- county or parish name
- Sheet number or National Grid square
For specific topics, search or browse the following series in Discovery, our catalogue:
- Policy and general administration in OS 1, OS 9, OS 11
- Triangulation and levelling in OS 2, OS 6, OS 13, OS 16, OS 17, OS 54, OS 69
- place names in OS 23, OS 34, OS 35, OS 50, OS 52, OS 67
- administrative boundaries in OS 12, OS 24, OS 26-29, OS 30-33, OS 37-42, OS 76-79
Read our guide on Public rights of way for information on records of public rights of way maintained by Ordnance Survey.
For a full list of Ordnance Survey records held at The National Archives, browse our catalogue under the department code OS.
5. Staff records
We hold limited records on staff.
Up to 1946, some Ordnance Survey staff were military personnel and some were civilians.
If you are looking for records of military staff, start by reading the relevant guides:
- British Army soldiers up to 1913
- British Army officers up to 1913
- British Army soldiers after 1913
- British Army officers after 1913
You can also consult the records in:
- WO 54/208 for men who served in the Royal Corps of Military Surveyors and Draughtsman which lists dates of appointment and promotions
- OS 1/1/1 for a list of Royal Engineer Officers who served in the Survey between 1791 and 1927
- OS 3/300 for a register of deceased soldiers serving in 13 Survey Company between 1829 and 1892, which gives information on cause of death and disposal of the man’s effects
- OS 1/1/4 for a list of all Royal Engineers officers serving with the Survey on 1 July 1890
- OS 3/341 for a register of marriages of men serving in 16 Survey Company between 1901 and 1929
- OS 3/275-277 for seniority lists of the Survey Battalion (1935-1942)
Very few records exist for civilian staff:
- OS 3/285 for a register of civil assistants (many of whom were former Royal Engineers who had previously been with military survey companies) which provide dates of entry into the Survey and of retirement
- OS 1/1/4 for a list of all civil assistants as well as Royal Engineers in post on 1 July 1890
- OS 10 for selected personal files on senior staff
Search in Parliamentary papers for a complete list of civilian staff in post in the Survey on 31 March 1863 (reference 1862 (xxxiii) 505).
6. Ordnance Survey maps at The National Archives
The National Archives does not collect complete sets of published Ordnance Survey maps because they were considered to be government publications rather than government records.
We do hold many Ordnance Survey maps which originate from the work of various government departments. Some are ordinary editions but others are special editions or special printing. Many include additions made by hand.
There is no comprehensive index of Ordnance Survey maps among our records but you can browse our catalogue for published Ordnance Survey maps in:
- F 17, F 23 and F 30 (the Forestry Commission)
- COAL 40 (National Coal Board)
- IR 90, IR 93 and IR 105 (the Tithe Redemption Office)
- WO 78 (War Office)
- 124 series from IR 121/1 to IR 135/9 (Valuation Office survey)
- ZOS (former library collections)
7. How to identify sheet numbers or National Grid reference
Many different index maps exist relating to the various different scales and editions of published Ordnance Survey maps.
A selection of index maps is available at The National Archives. Many other archives and libraries also hold copies of relevant index maps.
You can also use the following websites to help you identify sheet numbers or National Grid references:
- National Library of Scotland sheet indexes – these also cover England and Wales.
- Charles Close Society sheetfinder
- Fielden Maps co-ordinate converter
- UK Grid Reference Finder
8. Ordnance Survey maps held elsewhere
For specific editions of published Ordnance Survey maps or specific sheets of known Ordnance Survey maps contact:
- British Library
- Bodleian Library, Oxford
- Cambridge University Library
- National Library of Wales
- National Library of Scotland
Many local archives have collections of Ordnance Survey maps. Find contact details for archives elsewhere using Find an archive.
9. Further reading
For general information, browse:
- the Ordnance Survey website
- the Charles Close Society for the Study of Ordnance Survey Maps website
Read A brief history of Ordnance Survey on the Charles Close Society website.
There are many books and articles about Ordnance Survey maps and the history of Ordnance Survey. Some of the most useful include:
- Chris Higley, Old Series to Explorer: A Field Guide to the Ordnance Map (London, 2011)
- Richard Oliver, Ordnance Survey Maps: A Concise Guide for Historians, 3rd edition (London, 2013)
- Richard Oliver, The Ordnance Survey in the nineteenth century: maps, money and the growth of government (London, 2014)
You can also access PDF copies of the following publications from the history pages of the Ordnance Survey website:
- Tim Owen and Elaine Pilbeam, Ordnance Survey: Map Makers to Britain Since 1791 (Southampton, 1992)
- WA Seymour, ed, A History of the Ordnance Survey (Folkestone, 1980)