How to look for records of... Ordnance Survey

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you to find:

  • historical Ordnance Survey maps
  • records created or maintained by the Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency of Great Britain, including records documenting the Ordnance Survey’s work

The National Archives is not the best place to start a search for published Ordnance Survey maps – check libraries and other archives first if you are looking for these. See section 2 of this guide for some of the major libraries where published maps are held.

2. Ordnance Survey maps held elsewhere and published online

For published Ordnance Survey maps you should head elsewhere before searching at The National Archives as our collection is not comprehensive and you are less likely to find a published map here than online or at libraries and other archives, including local archives. You can find contact details for archives elsewhere using Find an archive.

Major libraries, including Legal Deposit Libraries, where published maps are held include:

Digitised copies of many Ordnance Survey maps are available on several websites including:

You can view Ordnance surveyors’ drawings online at the British Library website.

3. Ordnance Survey maps at The National Archives

The National Archives, though not the routine place of deposit for published Ordnance Survey maps (see the Legal Deposit Libraries in section 2 for this) does, however, hold many Ordnance Survey maps used during the working life of various government departments. These include maps used by the Ordnance Survey itself, a government agency since the late 18th century. Some maps are ordinary editions but others are special editions or special printings. Many include additions made by hand.

Although the first Ordnance Survey map was published in 1801, it was many years before it produced detailed maps of the whole country. For many places, the oldest large-scale Ordnance Survey map dates from the 1860s, 1870s or 1880s. Many different editions of Ordnance Survey maps have been produced since then.

4. How to find Ordnance Survey maps at The National Archives

There is no single, comprehensive index of Ordnance Survey maps held here so to find a map you will need to try one of the following search methods:

4.1 Using index maps to find sheet numbers and grid references

Finding maps, as well as written records, often involves identifying a sheet number or a National Grid reference. You can use the following websites to help you identify sheet numbers or National Grid references on the various different scales and editions of published Ordnance Survey maps. These websites feature online index maps:

There is also a selection of index maps available at The National Archives and at many other archives and libraries.

4.2 Searching our online catalogue

Use the advanced search to search for maps, either using the sheet number (for example, “Devon VIII”) or using a combination of place names with “OS”.

4.3 Browsing or searching in specific record series

You can browse our catalogue for published Ordnance Survey maps in the following series, all of which contain significant numbers of Ordnance Survey maps:

5. Place names and topographical features

If you want to know how a place name was or is ‘officially’ or historically spelled or whether a place or feature of the landscape existed at a particular date, the records and maps of the Ordnance Survey may provide you with the answers.  Various kinds of ‘name books’ were created and used by the staff of the Ordnance Survey to establish the names of places and features on maps, whether buildings or villages, hills or rivers, roads, railways or canals and numerous other ‘objects’ shown on maps, both natural and man-made. To decide on the spelling of names the surveyor would ask a local authority, such as a vicar or landowner, for their version and this would be recorded in the name books.

5.1 Object Name Books

These printed log books relate to the older six-inch and 1:2,500-scale County Series maps. They are arranged and described by the Ordnance Survey map sheet number to which they relate and by the names of civil parishes which were shown, or more often partially shown, on that map sheet. They list the names of places and features in columns and, for each one, details of who provided the authoritative spelling and what their job or position was – often they were the local vicar or estate manager. The date of the initial record and any subsequent amendments may be given. There are also sometimes ‘Descriptive Remarks or other General Observations which may be considered of interest’ for the place in question.

Search our incomplete set of Object Name Books (it is thought that some were destroyed during air raids in the Second World War), compiled at various dates between 1896 and 1938, by date, name of county and map sheet in OS 35. While you can also search by parish name, please note that the records are not arranged by parish but by map sheet, so you may need to consult a number of Object Name Books to ensure total coverage of the parish in question.

There are further object name books for 1943-1983 in OS 67 but you cannot search these by place. Instead, you must search for them using map sheet numbering – advice on this is contained within the OS 67 series description under ‘Arrangement’.

Object Name Books compiled at various dates between 1943 and 1983 relating to the newer National Grid Series map sheets are in OS 67. You cannot search these by place, but by map sheet numbering; advice on this is found in the OS 67 series description under ‘Arrangement’.  These records are held offsite and require at least three working days’ notice to produce.

5.2 Other kinds of name books

The following series all contain variations of the Object Name Books described above – click on the references to learn more about each series and to search for name books within them:

  • Parish Name Books 1850-1945 in OS 23 (search by county and parish)
  • Original Name Books 1853-1866 for Cumberland, Durham, Hampshire, Northumberland and Westmorland in OS 34 (search by county and parish)
  • One-Inch Scale Name Books in OS 50 for 1951-1970 and OS 52 for 1948-1975 (search by county)

6. Parish, county and other public boundaries

As well as producing maps, the Ordnance Survey, from 1841, was responsible for the Public Boundary Archive for Great Britain. Its files show each change to a public boundary (county, parish, parliamentary and local government boundaries). There are large numbers of Ordnance Survey reports and other files describing and defining boundaries. They include:

  • Local government area boundaries 1852-1936 in OS 12
  • Poor Law Union boundaries 1820-1940 (and less than half a dozen files from 1940-1971) in OS 24 (search by name of Poor Law Union and/or county)
  • Local government boundaries as depicted and described in sketch maps, reports and remarks books in OS 26 to OS 29 and OS 30 to OS 33 (search by place name)
  • County boundaries and other local government boundaries in OS 37 to OS 42 and OS 76 to OS 79

7. Other administrative and technical records

7.1 Pre-1841 records

Ordnance Survey was not a separate government department until 1841. For information about earlier records in WO 44, WO 47, WO 55, read our guide on Board of Ordnance.

Other records before 1841 are in:

7.2 Post-1841 records

After 1841, many records are arranged and listed by:

  • county or parish name
  • sheet number or National Grid square

Search or browse the following series in our catalogue for:

Read our guide on Public rights of way for information on records of public rights of way maintained by Ordnance Survey.

You can browse the full list of Ordnance Survey records series in our catalogue.

8. Staff records

We hold a relatively small number of records for Ordnance Survey 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:

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, births and baptisms for  men serving in 16 Survey Company Royal Engineers between 1885 and 1939; you can search for these by name using the OS 3 series search
  • 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).

9. Further reading

For general information, browse:

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:

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)