This article was written by Geoff Sherlock for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.

51 degrees 40 minutes North; 0 degrees 38 minutes West

In St. George’s Chapel, Windsor there is a copy, in a glass case, of a county atlas of England by Christopher Saxton.  This was the first organised atlas of the English and Welsh counties and it was published in 1579. A similar copy was sold at auction a few years ago for around £35,000.  Buckinghamshire was one of the first counties to be published in an “atlas”, a term first used by Mercator in the 16th century to denote a book of maps. The term “Theatre” meaning a viewpoint or perspective for what we would call an atlas was still in use well into the 17th century.

Before Saxton, John Leland was commissioned by Henry VIII in 1533 to search for information on Henry’s realm in the libraries of monasteries and colleges and to reveal all “owte of deadely  darkness to lyvely lighte”. Leland’s final map, based on his research, never appeared as, sadly, he became insane, but during this time surveying was becoming more accurate and monsters and other decorative conceits to conceal ignorance were beginning to disappear.

Christopher Saxton was commissioned by Elizabeth I’s courtier Thomas Seckford in about 1573 to survey all the counties of England and Wales.  He used as his perspective points any tower or hill that would give him a view over the surrounding countryside.  Fortunately Seckford had given Saxton official passes so that land owners and civic dignitaries did not obstruct him as many thought any such survey work must inevitably lead to higher taxes!

Saxton’s map of ‘Bvckingham, Oxfordshire and Baerkshire’ appeared in 1574 with the county names scattered over the shires and the letters fitted in where there was space which is presumably why the suffix “shire” is missing from Buckingham.  Many place names were also abbreviated according to space and there was no standard spelling so that High Wycombe was Highe Wickhm.  Agmudesham is shown as a significant sized settlement on the banks of a substantial stream at the foot of a large “molehill”. The Chilterns are shown as a complex line of similar molehills.  We can recognise most of the settlements by name, however spelled; bridges over the main rivers and large estates, often bigger than the scale would suggest to flatter the landowners.  However, there are no roads shown.  Most journeys were described by word of mouth with reference to inns and landmarks.  Saxton’s atlas was the main reference for maps of England and Wales for the next 200 years and his copper plates were copied and adapted by most of the subsequent map makers.  Small changes enabled many to claim that their map was a “new edition”.

An unusual set of maps, based on Saxton, can be seen in Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.  These are the Sheldon tapestry maps woven around the time of the Armada.  They hang in the Hall and are huge, about 13 feet high by 18 feet wide. Bucks is part of the complex and Amersham can be found, but it takes time.

Jackie Kay has recently contacted the museum providing further information on the Sheldon Tapestry Maps. This can be found below

John Norden was the next major map maker but although he had great plans his sponsor lost his head and only six county maps were ever published and Bucks. was not amongst them although Coleshill appears on the Hertford map and Chalfont on the map of Middlesex.

Many people know and have a later print copy of the most popular of the county maps by John Speed, 1610. These were decorated by the coats of arms of the local noble families and enlarged maps of the main towns.  These additional sketches had roads and street names and indications of land use, for example ploughing and hunting.  Speed’s map of ‘Buckinghamshyre’ includes a detailed map of the county town of Buckingham and of Redding which he admits would not fit into his map of Berkshire!  Agmundersham is placed in the Hundred of Burnham, it still has its river but it has lost Saxton’s hill.  Coleshill is surrounded by a dotted line and listed as Part of Hardfordshire.  This oddity was to remain for another two hundred years until all such outliers were eliminated in the mid-nineteenth century.  Many counties had outliers and these most probably originated in a marriage settlement or will.  They could cause problems when a felon took shelter in one which would involve negotiations between county sheriffs for right of access and arrest.

Many “maps” were published in the 1600s which we would not consider to be very useful but some were definitely entertaining.  Michael Drayton, a poet, published one such showing the rivers Tame, Isis, Thames and Kennet and the Vale of Aylesbury. Its chief attraction is a coronation being celebrated by a group of nude water nymphs.

Throughout the 17th century maps of Bucks appeared which were still largely decorated with idyllic scenes and cartouches with shields and lists of towns and market days but still no roads.  Amersham appeared with various spellings, its river getting smaller and its hill declining, until John Ogilby published “Britannia:Volume The First”, in 1675. John Ogilby was a man of many parts.  He was at various times a bookseller, printer, dancing master and theatre manager.  His maps were carefully surveyed using a “waywiser” a graduated wheel that was pushed along the road. These can still be seen in use by utility company surveyors measuring cable and pipe routes.  Ogilby is credited with standardising the mile at 1760 yards.  His apparent scroll maps were detailed routes between major towns each one starting at the bottom left hand corner of a page and having differing orientations according to the route.  The “Road from London to Buckingham” goes from The Standard (presumably an inn) in Cornhill to Banbury.  The distance between each settlement is given in miles and furlongs.  Amersham is 29 miles and 4 furlongs from Cornhill.

The town is called Agmondesham vulga Amersham. It is possible to identify the mill at what is now “Ambers”, Stanley Hill, Whielden Street and Church Street, the church with the tower and the stylised linear plots on both sides of the High Street.  This style of route map continued for a long time and some people will remember that in the late 1940s and early 1950s it was possible to order, from the AA, a route for your holiday journey. This would be a number of small sheets, about A5, stapled together and it would give a detailed route, perhaps avoiding main towns if you wished, for your outward journey and on the reverse the return journey for those who found problems with reading maps upside down.

Maps of varying originality and accuracy appeared throughout the 18th century. John Rocque, a Huguenot refugee, was a skilled surveyor, mainly of large estates, but in 1750 he produced a beautiful map which included, in great detail, Amersham.  Most will know it from Julian Hunt’s book “A History of Amersham” as he uses part of it as the front end paper.  The beech hangers stand out on the valley sides and all the main roads and landmarks are clear.  If you cross reference the map of Shardeloes on Rocque’s map with the estate map (1738) in the Museum the main features are very clear.  One thing puzzles me though. In the north east section of the map is Finch Lane and just beyond what is now the Entertainer depot is a line of trees.  On the north side of the trees is the word “Ruins”.  What are they and do they still exist?

John Cary c1754 – 1835 followed Rocque and is thought to be one of the best cartographers of his time. Cary published many county maps and a complete atlas. In the atlas are 40 county maps of England and 12 of Wales and each has a commentary.  He notes that Bucks “Produces fine wool, beech wood, cattle, sheep, and is noted for its breed of rams, and woad for dying.  The air is generally good, and the soil is mostly chalk and marl.”  Amersham does not have a “Principal seat” but it does return two members to Parliament.  This is shown on the maps by two stars. For most people the clear indication of roads and distances and the clarity of the type face is a great advantage.  Cary’s map of Bucks. was used by William Smith as the base map for his geological map of the county.  This is a rare map, in any size, for collectors but the county museum has a large wall map version and in 1974 the Natural History Museum published a replica sheet.  Amersham, sitting in the misfit valley of the Misbourne is easy to find.  The exposed chalk is clear as is the clay covering of the nearby hills.  Simon Winchester’s book “The map that changed the world” is an excellent biography of William Smith, the first man to map the geology of any area.  The misfit nature of the River Misbourne becomes even clearer on Greenwood’s map of 1833 when hachuring, a type of hill shading, was used to good effect to indicate accurate relief for the first time.

In 1845 a small atlas suitable for schools was published by Reuben Rambles.  These highly decorated maps are popular with collectors and the one of Bucks is typical.  The central map has a scale, lots of names and a dotted line to show the route of the London & Birmingham Railway through the north east of the county.  It is surrounded by scenes of rural life in Bucks, very similar to the scenes in the recent television series on life on a Victorian Farm.

The 19th century saw the end of the individual and idiosyncratic cartographers and the Ordnance survey came into being.  It was created by the Ordnance Survey Act, 1841 although it had been in effective action through the military since 1791.  The maps were based on detailed surveys using triangulation and the base line was set out across an area of poor quality land in Hounslow, west of London.  Today that land is called Heathrow Airport.

Click to see a selection of old maps of Buckinghamshire.

Two other articles below by Geoff Sherlock were written for the Museum website

What’s in a map?

Quite a lot in reality; apart from odd place names and obscure signs there can be a great deal of history and almost a life story of the person, always a man in those times, who surveyed, engraved or published that map.

Part of Faden mapIn Amersham Museum there is a large framed map, of which only the title and a small part is shown here. It was created by W. Faden, Geogr. to His Majesty and to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales 1800. William Faden (1750 – 1836) took over the business of Thomas Jefferys in the late C18th, himself a noted engraver and map publisher, a man known for developing “hachuring”, a system of fine shading that indicated relief qualitatively not quantitatively. If you scan quickly over Faden’s map you can easily see the assorted lumps and bumps that indicate the hills all over this north western sector of the London region, most of them are part of our Chiltern Hills. Our map is only the north western sector of the whole map. The other three quarters cover the rest of the London region. According to the title in the cartouche in the corner the purpose of the map was to show, in orange, “The extent of the PENNY POST”. The years have faded the orange but from Greenford in the south to Totteridge and Southgate there is a faint dot dash line which shows that Penny Post only extended about eight miles from Westminster.

The cartouche also gives the scale “One inch to one mile” which will no doubt bring back memories for many people as it was the standard scale from the early C19th until the 1960s for all the popular Ordnance Survey maps. This is important information as William Faden engraved and published the first OS county map for Kent at that scale. Kent was chosen as the first map because the government thought that the French might invade at any moment. Faden was chosen because he had demonstrated with his 300 or more published maps and atlases that he was a highly skilled engraver. Not only did he use the picturesque hachuring but he could engrave names of places, geographical features and people in a vast variety of fonts and sizes. Locally we can find W. Drake Esq. of Shardeloes, Lord G.H. Cavendish at Latimer and Skottowe Esq. for Lowndes all in minute but clear letters. From there there are named heaths, rivers, canals, estates and towns all labelled in their distinctive clear and sharp fonts. But remember that there was no typesetting then. W. Faden Esq. was an engraver and each letter and feature was cut into a soft sheet of copper by a hand held scribing tool called a burin. This is certainly very skilled work but also remember the amazing complication that everything was engraved as a mirror image ready for the ink to be pressed into the grooves and then transferred to paper to make a map like this. Look at the map again and we realise why William Faden was and is regarded as one of the great craftsmen in the history of map making.

The Penny Post map is also an intriguing social document recording the beginning of the huge expansion of London. Those towns and villages that we use or pass through almost daily were then deep in the countryside:  Hampstead isolated on its hilltop, Edgware and Stanmore no more than villages on or near to the Great North Road, Watford a small town along both sides of a main road but no more than that.

This map is certainly worth more than a second look!

 The Ogilby map

ogilby map










John Ogilby was one of the leading map makers of his time, mid to late 1600s. Ogilby was a man of many parts – dancing master, actor, book seller, poet and a translator but his greatest achievement was to map 40,000 miles of roads in Britain.

His equipment was basic but variations can still be seen in use along our roads today by surveyors, especially those of the utility companies. His wheel on a stick, a “Way wiser”, measured the distance by using a known circumference and counting the number of revolutions.

His route maps, like the one above, were published in “Britannia” in 1675 and are favourites for collectors as they are so decorative. Their style and content were copied by many later map makers and many will remember the holiday routes that could be ordered from the AA in the late 40s and 50s which used the same principles.  Click here to see the London to Buckingham map via Agmondesham/Amersham.

Further information on the Sheldon Tapestry Maps from Jackie Kay

In Geoff Sherlock’s article, he mentions that Amersham appears on Saxton’s map of 1574 as Agmudesham – this is correct, and indeed it is still Agmudesham on later copies of Saxton’s maps too. It is as he describes “a significant sized settlement on the banks of a substantial stream at the foot of a large “molehill”.”

He also mentions an unusual set of maps, based on Saxton, which can be seen in Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk. These, he says, are the Sheldon tapestry maps woven around the time of the Armada [1588]. They hang in the Hall and are huge, about 13 feet high by 18 feet wide. Bucks is part of the complex and Amersham can be found.

This reference to Oxburgh Hall puzzled me as I have heard of only four Sheldon Tapestry maps of the 1590 date including The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Oxfordshire, a huge Elizabethan tapestry map of Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties. These are currently on display to the public at the Weston library (part of the Bodleian) in Oxford. Following up on the reference to Oxburgh Hall I have found some online publicity mentioning a Sheldon Tapestry there too showing Oxfordshire and Berkshire but with a later date of 1647 – and from what I can see in a very small image online it’s a different and possibly more complete map (i.e. less worn) than some of the tapestries on display at the Bodleian.

But setting the slight puzzle of the Oxburgh Hall reference aside as it’s a bit of a distraction, Amersham is very definitely on the map currently on display at the Weston Library in Oxford which is said to date from 1590, and it is clearly spelt as “Amersham” not Agmudesham. This significantly pre-dates the “1613” date in your “Amersham’s name since 1066”.

Plan Your Visit

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Wednesday to Sunday, and Bank Holiday Mondays, 12noon to 4:30pm

49 High Street
Old Amersham

01494 723700
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“Enjoyed our visit to this wonderful interactive museum where you are positively encouraged to touch things!”

“Visited Amersham museum yesterday – lovely place, provides many details on the history of the place. Plenty of cute cafes, pubs and shops around also… not difficult to find free parking nearby. ”

“A well-run, informative and interesting small museum on the main street. It’s mostly volunteer-run and they do a great job in keeping it and making you feel welcome…Check out the herb garden too.”

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