Monthly Archives: November 2011

Book Burner #3 – Panic on the Streets of London

I’ve spent the last three years writing essays as a university undergraduate. Every fortnight on this blog I’ll be burning off a little bit of that stock-pile, those bits and pieces that might interest the general or semi-academic reader, edited and formatted into short blog posts. Follow the ‘Book Burner’ posts for the full series.

Maps and fiction: the Olympic Park, Stratford

“Signs had lost their signifieds, the map symbols attached to nothing; building elevations were become empty fictions; London had to rebuild from the ground up – literally, visually, and conceptually.” – Cynthia Wall, writing about London after the Great Fire in her book The Literary and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London

In this blog post I want to sketch out the notes from a short presentation I made in the second year of my degree, which makes a pretty simple point, but one you might find interesting if you’re into your London history.

The map shown above is called A Plan of the City and Suburbs of London as fortified by Order of Parliament in the Years 1642 & 1643. It is typical of the cartography commissioned by the government in the period: each road has a consistent width, equal to roads of similar importance. Even the width of the Thames is consistent along the length of the river, a fiction if it were drawn now let alone in the mid-seventeenth century.

The government map values order, but that order is artificial. At least this is what Ogilby and Morgan thought. Ogilby and Morgan made a map called A Large and Accurate Map of the City of London: Ichnographically Describing all the Streets, Lanes, Alleys, Courts, Yards, Churches, Halls and Houses, &c. Actually Surveyed and Delineated. Quite a boast.

Here it is:

And here is a section of it:

It was publihsed in the 1670s and was one of the first popular maps after the Great Fire. Maps were fashionable items, used for novelty and recreation as much as navigation. It reacts against earlier maps (like the government one) in which, as Cynthia Wall describes, “the topographical spaces are cleared of visualized, imagined life”

The really remarkable thing about the map for me is that the nature of the new detail is, in its own way, pastoral. The flowing river. The inner city green spaces. And right there in the centre, the rows of trees.

This is interesting to a literature student for a number of reasons. One is that what is demonstrated in these maps is also demonstrated in literature. Many writers wrote literary “maps” or “tours” of London. In their work we sometimes see the city poet as pastoral muse or the city as a living organism. Here are two examples I think are pretty good:

“It is the Disaster of London, as to the Beauty of its Figure, that it is thus stretched out in Buildings, just as the Pleasure of every Builder, or Undertaker of Buildings, and as the Convenience of the People directs… this has spread the Face of it in a most straggling, confus’d Manner, out of all Shape, uncompact, and unequal; neither long or broad, round or square;” – Daniel Defoe, A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain

“Now the city being like a vast sea, full of gusts, fearful-dangerous shelves and rocks… as wanting her compass and her skilful pilot, myself, like another Columbus or Drake, acquainted with her rough entertainment and storms, have drawn you this chart or map for your guide” – Henry Peacham, The Art of Living in London

The cartography and the literature of the period have much in common – each of them maps the other.


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